Linguistic divergence and convergence

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In Elizabeth George's recent novel The Punishment She Deserves, there's a passage where someone uses a sociolinguistic choice to communicate her attitude towards an interaction. This reminded me of another fictional example of the same thing, and I'm sure that readers will come up with more.

A key theme of The Punishment She Deserves is the damage done by mothers' attempts to monitor and control their children. Yasmina Lomax, a pediatrician, is upset because her daughter Missa has dropped out of college and is planning to marry Justin, a friend since childhood who is now working as a blacksmith and trying to set up a business building small houses. After other interventions fail, Yasmina goes to visit Justin's mother.

It was minutes from the closing hour, and there were only three vehicles in the car park. Yasmina went inside and asked the ticket seller for Linda Goodayle, since Justin’s mum, as Yasmina well knew, was the director of the museum. She also knew that it was a source of pride to the Goodayle clan that Linda had begun as a ticket seller years earlier, when the museum was a mere shadow of the impressive educational facility it was today. She’d risen through the ranks exactly as her husband had done at Blists Hill Victorian Town. Despite their lack of university degrees or even any form of college, they were doers, movers, and shakers, the Goodayles.

After some interactions with receptionists and the like, she goes outside to wait, and Linda Goodayle comes out to speak with her.

“Dr. Lomax . . . ?”

Yasmina turned. She recognised Linda Goodayle, of course, as they’d known each other for years. She also recognised what it meant that Linda had not used her given name. She said, “Please. Yasmina. May I speak with you, Linda? It’s urgent.”

Linda observed her with an expression that seemed devoid of all sentiment. She said, “Yeah. I expect it is. Your lot don’t much like su’prises.”

Yasmina wasn’t fool enough to think there was nothing behind Linda’s choice of distinct accent. She was using it as an implication from which Yasmina was meant to infer, Our backgrounds are different and don’t I know how you feel about mine.

Yasmina felt her teeth dig into her lips. This wasn’t how they were meant to begin. Somehow, Linda Goodayle had quickly managed to get the upper hand.

“But there’s always su’prises in life, innit?” Linda dug round in her bag and brought out a packet of chewing gum. It was, Yasmina saw, a nicotine gum of the sort people used when they were trying to give up smoking. She realised that she hadn’t known Linda smoked in the first place, and she wondered if this lack of knowledge on her part marked her as a social snob.

“So this speaking you want to do, Yasmina. It’s ’bout my Justin, innit?” Linda popped a piece of the gum into her mouth and shoved its wrapper into the pocket of the hip-length cardigan she was wearing. “What I mean, ’course, is my Justin and your Missa. Tha’s why you’ve stopped to have a little word with me.”

Please oh please stop speaking like that, was what Yasmina wanted to say, because of the disadvantage Linda was causing her. But she knew that going in that direction would result in a conversation about class and any social differences that existed between their respective children and to whatever Linda believed that Yasmina thought about those differences.

This reminded me of the much more central role that English dialect differences play in Lady Chatterley's Lover, which despite its reputation has more in it about linguistic ideology than about sex.

When Connie (Lady Chatterly) is first introduced to Mellors (the gamekeeper who will become her lover),

He gave another slight bow, turned, put his hat on, and strode to take hold of the chair. His voice on the last words had fallen into the heavy broad drag of the dialect…perhaps also in mockery, because there had been no trace of dialect before. He might almost be a gentleman.

The vernacular appears again in their early interactions, perhaps hinting at intimacy rather than mockery:

'Good morning! it was kind of you to push the chair up that hill…I hope it wasn't heavy for you,' said Connie, looking back at the keeper outside the door.

His eyes came to hers in an instant, as if wakened up. He was aware of her.

'Oh no, not heavy!' he said quickly. Then his voice dropped again into the broad sound of the vernacular: 'Good mornin' to your Ladyship!'

We learn a bit more about Mellors' dialect choices in this passage, as Lord Clifford explains:

'You know he had a wife he didn't get on with, so he joined up in 1915 and was sent to India, I believe. Anyhow he was blacksmith to the cavalry in Egypt for a time; always was connected with horses, a clever fellow that way. Then some Indian colonel took a fancy to him, and he was made a lieutenant. Yes, they gave him a commission. I believe he went back to India with his colonel, and up to the north-west frontier. He was ill; he was a pension. He didn't come out of the army till last year, I believe, and then, naturally, it isn't easy for a man like that to get back to his own level. He's bound to flounder. But he does his duty all right, as far as I'm concerned. Only I'm not having any of the Lieutenant Mellors touch.'

'How could they make him an officer when he speaks broad Derbyshire?'

'He doesn't…except by fits and starts. He can speak perfectly well, for him. I suppose he has an idea if he's come down to the ranks again, he'd better speak as the ranks speak.'

And it's made clear that Mellors sometimes uses "good English" to distance himself:

'Are you sad today?' she asked him.

He turned his blue eyes quickly, and gazed direct on her.

'Sad! no, bored! I had to go getting summonses for two poachers I caught, and, oh well, I don't like people.'

He spoke cold, good English, and there was anger in his voice.

At first, Connie finds his dialect unpleasant and even disgusting:

She wept bitterly, sobbing. 'But I want to love you, and I can't. It only seems horrid.'

He laughed a little, half bitter, half amused.

'It isna horrid,' he said, 'even if tha thinks it is. An' tha canna ma'e it horrid. Dunna fret thysen about lovin' me. Tha'lt niver force thysen to 't. There's sure to be a bad nut in a basketful. Tha mun ta'e th' rough wi' th' smooth.'

He took his hand away from her breast, not touching her. And now she was untouched she took an almost perverse satisfaction in it. She hated the dialect: the thee and the tha and the thysen.

Until she doesn't:

When he came back she was still lying there, glowing like a gipsy. He sat on the stool by her.

'Tha mun come one naight ter th' cottage, afore tha goos; sholl ter?' he asked, lifting his eyebrows as he looked at her, his hands dangling between his knees.

'Sholl ter?' she echoed, teasing.

He smiled. 'Ay, sholl ter?' he repeated.

'Ay!' she said, imitating the dialect sound.

'Yi!' he said.

'Yi!' she repeated.

'An' slaip wi' me,' he said. 'It needs that. When sholt come?'

'When sholl I?' she said.

'Nay,' he said, 'tha canna do't. When sholt come then?'

"Appen Sunday,' she said.

"Appen a' Sunday! Ay!'

And the narrative description reflects the change in her attitudes:

He stroked her tail with his hand, long and subtly taking in the curves and the globe-fullness.

'Tha's got such a nice tail on thee,' he said, in the throaty caressive dialect. 'Tha's got the nicest arse of anybody. It's the nicest, nicest woman's arse as is! An' ivery bit of it is woman, woman sure as nuts. Tha'rt not one o' them button-arsed lasses as should be lads, are ter! Tha's got a real soft sloping bottom on thee, as a man loves in 'is guts. It's a bottom as could hold the world up, it is!'

Mellors can be seen as the original MPDB, the Derbyshire body to Connie's RP mind. Certainly that's the implication of Susan Sontag's complaint (in "Psychoanalysis and Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death", 1961) that

Lawrence’s ideas on sex are seriously marred by his class-romanticism, by his mystique of male separateness, by his puritanical insistence on genital sexuality.

But in any case, it's important to the plot that Mellors is bidialectal, and the book ends with a letter from him to Connie that's in "good English" but hardly cold:

Well, so many words, because I can't touch you. If I could sleep with my arms round you, the ink could stay in the bottle. We could be chaste together just as we can fuck together. But we have to be separate for a while, and I suppose it is really the wiser way. If only one were sure.

Never mind, never mind, we won't get worked up. We really trust in the little flame, and in the unnamed god that shields it from being blown out. There's so much of you here with me, really, that it's a pity you aren't all here.

Never mind about Sir Clifford. If you don't hear anything from him, never mind. He can't really do anything to you. Wait, he will want to get rid of you at last, to cast you out. And if he doesn't, we'll manage to keep clear of him. But he will. In the end he will want to spew you out as the abominable thing.

Now I can't even leave off writing to you.

But a great deal of us is together, and we can but abide by it, and steer our courses to meet soon. John Thomas says good-night to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.

Update — Roger Shuy, "Code-Switching in Lady Chatterly's Lover", York Papers in Linguistics 1980.



  1. David Marjanović said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 10:05 am

    Shalt thou, art thou – almost the whole 2sg is still there! ^_^

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 11:11 am

    Elizabeth George has used spurious dialect before. Anyway, what is "su'prises" supposed to represent in a non-rhotic environment?

    I am fascinated, though, by the sociolinguistics of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, with the characters' intricate code-switching between Neapolitan (dialetto) and Italian.

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 11:13 am

    Sorry, bad link. Here it is.

  4. koj said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

    I am also puzzled about what "su'prises" is intended to represent.

    [(myl) I also wondered about that, and concluded that perhaps it means deletion of the initial vowel — though why that would not be spelled "s'prises" is not clear.]

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    There's a lot of scope for getting plot mileage out of linguistic choices in languages with a polite/familiar distinction in 2nd person pronouns (i.e. not English, except in the context of real dialect like the Lady Chatterley passages above). There's an old Simenon novel in which Maigret gets an important clue to an unfolding investigation when somebody reports having been held up by a young man who demanded "Votre portefeuille" (Your [polite] wallet). Maigret immediately deduced that the robber was a frightened amateur, because any experienced robber would use the familiar form to address their victim.

  6. Alyssa said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

    I had initially assumed the novel was set in the US (likely thanks to all the talk about "college") and was very confused by what accent was being implied until I hit "innit?".

    [(myl) "College" in this context refers to a more limited post-secondary institution, as discussed here, and as suggested by this bit of dialog from the book in question: "Because all you said was that it was too soon, I needed to go back, I had to at least finish college even if uni wasn’t for me."]

  7. Marisa Brook said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 4:06 pm

    "Su'prises" is the sort of thing that makes me think 'eye-dialect'.

  8. Robert said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 4:39 pm

    Surprise is one of a few words where the (first) r can be silent even for rhotic speakers, especially Americans. I gather that this is known as "r dissimilation".

  9. Bloix said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

    Coby Dubliner – this was discussed in a Language Hat thread, and a commenter said that Ferrante didn't write in dialetto – she simply had her narrator tell the reader that the characters were using it. Do you read Italian? Was the commenter incorrect?
    And as I understand it, Neapolitan is different enough from Italian that it's not merely code switching – people are genuinely bilingual – but that's not a particularly well-informed understanding.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 6:21 pm

    There is a Patricia Cornwell novel in which the killer breaks in, rapes, tortures, and murders women. The medical examiner, Dr Kay Scarpetta, is having trouble profiling the murderer because his victims don't belong to any specific category and includes both white and black women. She eventually contacts a relative of the black victim and is surprised to find that she speaks good standard English. That gives her the clue she needs: the murderer was choosing his victims on the sound of their voice. (Some clues had emerged before this but the phone call was decisive). That allowed her to narrow the murderer down to a worker at a call centre.

    I thought this was an interesting use of sociolinguistics in crime fiction.

  11. AntC said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

    central role that English dialect differences play in …

    Now that I live in New Zealand, I find it really hard to convey just how much information is represented through English pronunciation in Britain. Not just regional (as you might expect from "dialect"), but also class distinctions. Everybody can 'put on' a "lah-de-dah" accent and vocabulary choice even if that's not what they regularly use.

    So the kind of 'code-switching' (if I can call it that) in Lady Chatterley is ubiquitous anyway. Lawrence's innovation was to represent it explicitly as a plot device, rather than as a quaint piece of character-building.

    Now that doesn't apply in New Zealand, even though there are a few regional and class-based 'dialects'. It applies a little in Australia — where for example the xenophobe politician Pauline Hanson, previously owner of a fish and chip shop, is characterised as having a strong Queensland accent. (And she famously doesn't know the word "xenophobe".) How does it go in the U.S.?

    [(myl) George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that "[i]t is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."

    I don't know how to calibrate the U.K. vs. U.S. probability distribution over pair-wise linguistic animosity levels, then or now, but there's no question that regional, class, ethnic, age, and gender variation is something that American English speakers are acutely aware of — often to the point of hallucinatory exaggeration. A few documented examples: "Annals of linguistic prejudice"; "Lazy mouths vs. lazy minds"; "Those sleepy slurry southerners"; "Rachel Jeantel's language in the Zimmerman trial"; "A new record for within-U.S. linguistic prejudice?"; "The affect: Sociolinguistic speculation at the NYO"; "Further thoughts on 'The Affect'"; "Sexy baby vocal virus"; "Uptalk anxiety"; …]

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 11:41 pm

    @AntC: I made the same transition as you apparently did but in the opposite direction – from another part of the English-speaking world to the UK – and I completely agree with you that the extent of the social significance of accent and dialect in the UK is hard to convey to people who haven't experienced it.

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 8, 2018 @ 9:33 am

    Bloix: That's correct, Ferrante doesn't actually write any of her dialogue in Neapolitan except for a few expressions like 'nu strunz for uno stronzo ('a jerk'), but she indicates whether a character speaks in dialetto (which seems to be the default) or in italiano, or in a mixture of the two.
    I don't know why the term 'code-switching' wouldn't apply in these situations.

  14. John Walden said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 1:45 am

    "I'm sure that readers will come up with more".

    Here's an easy one: Hardy's Tess Durbeyfield goes in and out of dialect depending on who she speaks to, her mood, and other factors. This is set out early on in the novel:

    'Mrs Durbeyfield habitually spoke the dialect; her
    daughter, who had passed the Sixth Standard in the National
    School under a London-trained mistress, spoke two
    languages: the dialect at home, more or less; ordinary English
    abroad and to persons of quality'

    [(myl) But are there points in the novel where she uses this choice not just for accommodation to her interlocutor, but for some other interactional purpose?]

  15. KeithB said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 9:03 am

    And don't the Hobbits speak this way in the Lord of the Rings? The "peers" – Frodo, Merry and Pippin, speak one way, but Sam speaks in a lower class vernacular.

  16. DWalker07 said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

    She is "planning to marry a Justin"? Any Justin, or a specific Justin? I didn't know that "Justin" was a type of person!

    [(myl) Thanks for the proofreading.]

  17. Christian Weisgerber said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 2:56 pm

    Maybe a "Justin" is like a "Kevin"—a name that now carries substantial associations of lower class in France, Germany, and probably other European countries.

  18. KeithB said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    So that is why people keep calling me Kevin!

    (And explains Kevin's name in 321 Penguins.)

  19. Chris C. said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

    @KeithB — re Hobbits: They do, but it's just a character trait and is never made into a plot element. More significant is Aragorn's situational code-switching, but even then it doesn't rise quite to this level.

  20. Bathrobe said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 5:49 pm

    She is "planning to marry a Justin"? Any Justin, or a specific Justin?

    I think it means "a person called Justin". Perhaps it does suggest a generally disapproving view of people called "Justin" — just as marrying "a John Smith" might indicate disapproval of a person who bears such a nondescript name. But the mere use of "a" here suggests a jaundiced view of this particular "Justin", whether or not Justin is actually a stigmatised name.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 6:18 pm

    Chris C.: Actually, I think one could see Aragorn's and some other characters' code-switching as using "a sociolinguistic choice to communicate [their] attitude towards an interaction." In moments of strong emotion, they switch to "a more antique language, more formal and more terse," sometimes even with "thou". Is that caused by their emotion, or do they switch to that language to indicate their attitude—the subject demands it?

    (And how would they talk about "a situation where they thought they were in serious danger of being killed"?)

  22. Chris C. said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 10:28 pm

    @Jerry Friedman — Without actually looking up examples, I never saw it as a matter of strong emotion, at least not with Aragorn. It was only Eowyn, when talking to Aragorn before the Paths of the Dead, who shifted to archaic pronouns. Certainly that had to do with her strong emotion and unrequited admiration for him, and perhaps the point there was the use of intimate pronouns, not the archaism per se.

    With Aragorn it seems to be more about the mode in which he's operating. In a demotic setting — say, talking to the Hobbits in private — he speaks one way. When challenged by the door-wardens of Meduseld or when devising strategy with the lords of Gondor and Rohan, he speaks another. His speech is elevated yet again when issuing proclamations as king.

  23. John Walden said,

    April 10, 2018 @ 2:13 am

    To answer the question "But are there points in the novel where she uses this choice not just for accommodation to her interlocutor, but for some other interactional purpose?

    I would say that when Tess is talking to the same person, Alec D'Urberville and going in and out of dialect, sometimes from sentence to sentence, it is supposed to show her being calm and rational when she uses more standard English but more upset and emotional, perhaps more sincere, in dialect. I suppose that strictly Hardy isn't having her do this as 'a choice' that she consciously makes.

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