Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The point of all this slang…apart from the pleasure of it.

(In the canting tongue to open the door is “to dup the gigger”. “To mill the ken” is to rob the house…I will find a way to use these phrases!)
I started out looking for the source of a phrase and was surprised to find that its origins were mid 20th American, not English as I thought.
There’s an undoubted attraction to language that is indigenous to place and time. Barry Lopez went so far as to suggest that genuine mental health is tied into the usage of a language that is organic to the place where it is being used. And certainly Seamus Heaney et al have made their localised dialect a cornerstone of their practice.
In England, language spoken under a cloth cap with ferrets down its trousers always seemed “authentic” in a way that FSE never did.
But when I came to write Lady G I thought about making it specifically west midlands and realised I couldn’t. It’s true that you can argue that the man from Stratford wrote the plays of Shakespeare because so many purely Warwickshire words and expression turn up in them.
But Coventry was a migrant’s city. In some ways it always had been.
According to the VCH, after the war the percentage of incomers to the city was disproportionately high. The people I went to (RC) school with had parents who were Irish, Polish, Yugoslavian, Lithuanian, and 'Slovakian. Neither of mine were born there. There must have been some English but the swirl of voices was anything but indigenous.
This was compounded by our English teachers who laboured under the now unfashionable idea that teaching the children of NESB migrants Formal Standard English was a door opening activity. (“Sir, may we use contractions in our stories?” ”Only in Dialogue, and only if it is essential!”)
So apart from the fact that the way I say Bus and Road betray my place of origin, I have no local dialect to fall back on, no “thole” to make a fuss about. Damn. But then it occurs to me the attraction of the local in a world of mass movements is a kind of romantic nostalgia. I'd love to know how many people live and die in the place they are born. I'm betting it's not the majority. How many of Heaney’s readers have stuck their hands up a cow’s arse?


Unknown said...

Ooh, contentious last line there :)

Liam Guilar said...

One of Heaney's books is probably my favourite individual collection of poems. And it's about time he was universally declared a linguistic monument and had verbs launched in his honour but I feel much more at home with the urban Carson or the urban domestic of Boland and Meehan?

Cows were things we saw through the window of the train on our way to another city. I just wonder about this fashion for the rural childhood memory amongst a largely urban readership? Its there in both English and Australian poetry too.

Anne Gilbert said...

I've never actually stuck my hand up a cow's, um, behind, but I was a guest on a dairy farm run by some friends of my family one summer, and I actually saw this done. So I guess you could say I've been around the block a few times.

Marcus said...

Isaac Asimov famously told story on himself as an urban boy. When his junior high class went on a field trip to a farm, he was told that several rows of delicate greenery were carrots. He scoffed that they didn't look like there were any carrots there. The guide reached down and pulled a carrot up out of the ground and presented it to Asimov. "Want a bite?" he asked. Asimov said he recoiled. The only carrots he'd ever seen had been in bags or cans. He reports he said "From the DIRT?"