Matched guise among the tombstones

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Lawrence Block's 1992 novel A Walk Among the Tombstones has been made into a recently-released movie. I haven't seen the movie, but in the book, the character TJ carries out what sociolinguists would call a "matched guise experiment".  This is a technique for measuring language attitudes by having the same speaker read a passage in two different ways, and asking hearers a series of questions about the speaker's intelligence, honesty, or whatever.

TJ is a sort of updated Big Apple version of Sherlock Holmes' "Baker Street irregulars":

TJ is a black teenager I met about a year and a half ago on Times Square. That’s his street name, and if he has another name he’s kept it to himself. I’d found him breezy and saucy and irreverent, a breath of fresh air in the fetid swamp of Forty-second Street, and the two of us had hit it off together. I let him do some minor legwork on a case a little later on with a Times Square handle to it, and since then he’d kept in infrequent contact.

Matt asks TJ to check out the pay phones that were used in making some ransom demands.

“I gather the phones had the numbers posted.”

“Oh, right! That’s what I left out. Second one, the one way to hell an’ gone out Veterans Avenue? Where everybody look at you real strange? That phone did have the number posted. The other one, Flatbush an’ Farragut, it didn’t.”

“Then how’d you get it?”

“Well, I resourceful. Told you that, didn’t I?”

“More than once.”

“What I did, I call the operator. Say, ‘Hey, girl, somebody screwed up, ain’t no number here on the phone, so how do I know where I callin’ from?’ An’ she say how she got no way to tell what the number is of the phone I’m at, so she can’t help me.”

“That seems unlikely.”

“Thought so myself. Thought they got all that equipment, you ask them a number at Information an’ they can say it about as fast as you can ask it, so how come they can’t give you the number of your own phone? An’ I thought, TJ, you fool, they took out the numbers to fuck up dope dealers, an’ here you go soundin’ just like one. So I dial 0 again, on account of you can call the operator all day long an’ never spend no quarter, it a free call. An’ you know you get somebody different every time you call. So I got some other chick, an’ this time I took all the street out of my voice, I said, ‘Perhaps you can help me, miss. I’m at a pay phone and I have to leave the number with my office for a call back, and someone defaced the phone with spray-painted graffiti in such a way that the number is impossible to make out. I wonder if you could possibly check the line and supply it for me.’ An’ I ain’t even through sayin’ it when she’s readin’ off the number for me.

Matt is impressed:

“I’m stunned,” I said. “I didn’t know you could talk like that.”

“What, you mean talk straight? ’Course I can. Just because I street don’t mean I be ignorant. They two different languages, man, and you talkin’ to a cat’s bilingual.”

These days, 20-odd years after the period where the novel is set, pay phones are sort of like square-rigged sailing ships. So I wouldn't be surprised if the movie replaced this aspect of the plot with something involving throw-away cell phones or texting via TorChat.

And street kids are more likely to be like Billy Baker than like TJ. But it's a nice story.




  1. Stan said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 7:19 am

    That line near the end, Just because I street don’t mean I be ignorant, shows a nice contrast between copula deletion and habitual be. I think bidialectal (or multidialectal) should have greater currency – it's a useful idea whose name seems virtually unknown among non-specialists. Ditto code-switching.

    Block is good with language. His Hit List has an unexpected defence of the much-maligned word proactive (which I wrote about here):

    “That’s a word you never used to hear,” Keller said, “and now you hear it all the time. I know what it means, but what’s the point of it? Why not just say active?"

    "It sounds better."

    “It does?”

    “Sure. Proactive, like you’re really getting off your ass and doing something, and being professional about it, too.

  2. BlueLoom said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 7:49 am

    In the late 1970s, I worked at a professional society on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. One of my colleagues was a Yale-educated Black man who grew up in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He spoke standard AmEng at work. One day, I asked him if he spoke the same way at home. His reply: "If I spoke to you the way I speak at home [in Tidewater], you wouldn't be able to understand me." Code-switching.

  3. Eric TF Bat said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    I remember the first time I heard Billy Connolly putting on a posh London "city gent" accent, and I realised "oh, so the Scottish accent isn't a speech impediment!" I still slap myself for the casual implied racism in that, even though I was probably all of twelve when it happened.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 10:39 am

    Stan: I don't believe the first-person singular present copula is deleted in AAVE. It should be "I'm resourceful" and "I'm street" (if anyone would say the latter).

  5. chh said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 11:54 am

    Jerry Friedman:

    I was about to say the same thing. I'm pretty sure that "I be ignorant" is pretty bad, too. Maybe because predicates with aspectual 'be' need to be stage-level.

    Maybe someone can confirm since I had trouble finding support one way or the other, but that passage sort of looks like 0/3 on an AAVE grammar quiz.

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

    I wondered about that – several of those copula deletions sound wrong.

    Also wasn't sure about you talkin' to a cat's bilingual. Is that a 'subject content clause' (a bare relative in subject position)? Or is it just the author's attempt to convey the contraction of cat that's in connected speech? Or something else?

  7. Suburbanbanshee said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:08 pm

    Scottish is a race?

    Who won?

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