The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 12, 1937
This Is How We Talk:
Babel In The South
--By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: For further confirmation of this peculiar deflating style of talk about The Charlotte News, (and in many other places-private in the South to this day), to which Cash refers in this article, see The History of the Charlotte News: "We Were Giants In Those Days", by Cameron Shipp - December 11, 1948, at this site.
The puncturing "editors note" originally appearing after the article was presumably written by Shipp, the editor of the book-page.
I PICKED up the notion from Dr. Cameron Shipp, the Old Man of the Woods. But the idea that intrigues me today, and which I propose to hold forth on for the delight and enlightenment of my little readers is this: that we have many languages.
That's probably particularly true of the South, though it is more or less true anywhere. I'm not talking, of course, of linguists properly speaking. As linguists, indeed Southerners are probably the most illiterate people on earth. Out of many dozens of presumably educated people whom I know in the land, not more than two or three can so much as read French and German without stuttering, and I think I have seen but one native Southerner who could actually speak a foreign language so that waiters could understand him with ease. But that's only incidental. What I have in mind is the fact that--
Talk by The City Editor of The News
Well, I think I cannot make my point any clearer than by falling on Mr. John Dixon, our City Editor here at The News, to illustrate it. Mr. John is a whimsical gentleman, who in his private capacity dotes on puncturing stuffed shirts, indeed pretentious persons and pretensions of any sort. And in that mood, Mr. John likes to use a form of speech which can best be described as "cornfield nigger." It lends itself admirably to his purposes, too, for it enables him to hide gentle insinuations--Mr. John's puncturing is always gentle--under the forms of a most deceptive simplicity. Sometimes I am quite sure Mr. John is laughing at me, without ever being able to seize on anything which would enable me concretely to tax him with it.
But sometimes Mr. John, in his role as City Editor, has to meet people in strictly business vein. And then he sits up very straight in his chair, puts his hat on the back of his head, and talks that language that is quite another thing. A language completely devoid of his native pungency, flat, correct, level, and grave.
Or again, Mr. John sometimes sits down in a parlor, though that, I think, he does not care for very much. And there he talks a language somewhere between the two I have already recorded. Something racier and more vivid than his business language but less so than his really private style, which, to say the truth, sometimes borders a little on the Rabelaisian. Mr. John is past forty, and being past forty he takes little stock in the idea that it is all right to talk the Freudian stuff of modernity in mixed company.
The Library and Parlor Style
And then, once more, Mr. John sits down now and then to use literary language. He cares for that, I'm afraid, almost as little as he cares for parlors. Which is rather a pity. For he has in fact as excellent a literary style as anybody I know of. It has the same deceptive quality of simplicity--this literary language of his--as his private language. And like the latter it is extraordinary, racy and pungent and withal good-humored. Yet it is very decidedly not the same thing. There is a tradition of form in that written language, and one can feel its influence at every step.
Finally, he sometimes writes, too, a newspaper story, and his newspaper language is yet another thing from any of these languages I have mentioned.
Mr. John is only a very good example of what I am talking about. All of us are more or less like that. There was that uproar about the President's use of "like" for "as," for instance. It was less than worthy of him that he chose to deny it. That, I fear, was the Harvard influence. Old Henry Mencken pointed out long ago in "The American Language," that ninety-nine out of every hundred American men and women of education habitually employ "like" for "as" in their spoken language, though they'd recoil from it in their written language with horror. The President should merely have cracked after all he was a good American and let it go at that.
One curious and ironic thing about that "like" I still have to record. Many of our British writing cousins have lately taken to using it, and not merely in their spoken language but in their writings as well!
(Editors Note: Mr. Cash himself is a linguist. He speaks French with a Wake Forest accent, German as if it were American Mercury slang, and English with the magnificent periods of a boy who was raised under the influence of Cleveland County oratory and George Jean Nathan.)
Links-Date -- Links-Subj.