Monday, July 21, 2008

Dialects in the 1920s

I have read an unusual number of '20s novels during the past year, and it seems that all of them are OBSESSED with dialect. Every character in these books -- the Swedish immigrants in Martha Ostenso's "Wild Geese," the Chicago gangsters in MacKinley Kantor's "Diversey," and now the uncouth westerners in Thames Williamson's "The Stride of Man" -- has their own distinct way of talking, and in case you need some help their dialog is spelled out phoenetically, to varying degrees of success.

I've been thinking recently that North Americans must have been particularly interested in dialect during the late '20s...then what should I read this morning but a fun New Yorker piece called "Mammy!"

In the piece, Robert M. Coates is planning to visit the south, so he takes "Southern accent lessons." When he arrives he tries out his accent on a black man.
"Hiyah, yo bleck reskil," I hailed him, pitching my voice to a mellow, throaty drawl. "Whah yall gwine gwine?"

"I beg your pardon?" he replied.

"Ah sade," I repeated, "de mos thing Ah is wantin' is tuh diskiver whah-all de Mainshun House Hotail is a-locatid et, an' ef yall is a-gwine in that dee-reskshun, Ah'd be raight smaht obleeged ef yall ud..." I paused, for an expression of bewilderment had crossed his otherwise placid features.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but I haven't the slightest idea what you mean."
After similar problems communicating with a waitress, Coates decides that the problem is one of education: the southerners were never taught to understand their own language.
If these people don't know the right way to talk, the only thing is to teach them. It might come hard at first, but we could soon have them saying "Suh" and "Ah raikin" almost as well as our own character actors do.
Beautiful sting at the end, and it makes me wonder if the dialect prevalence in books -- assuming it existed and isn't just due to the books I'm sampling -- was due to the character actors and songwriters of the time.

(The New Yorker, February 6, 1929, page 59)

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