Monday, April 27, 2009

On "Correct English"

I may as well say here that my father did not speak dialect but the standard English of the eighteenth century. In pronunciation the criterion was the oral tradition, not the way the word looked in print to an uneducated school-teacher. For example, although he wrote ate, he pronounced it et, as if it were the old past tense, eat. He used the double negative in conversation, as well as ain’t, and he spoke the language with great ease at four levels: first, the level just described, conversation among family and friends; second, the speech of the “plain people” abounding in many archaisms; third, the speech of the negroes, which was merely late seventeenth or early eighteenth century English ossified; and, fourth, the Johnsonian diction appropriate to formal occasions, a style that he could wield in perfect sentences four hundred words long. He would not have understood our conception of “correct English.” Speech was like manners, an expression of sensibility and taste.
(From Alan Tate’s novel, The Fathers, p. 17)

The main character of The Fathers is an elderly man in the early 1900s recalling something that had happened when he was a child in northern Virginia in the 1850s. I like that last sentence: Speech was like manners, an expression of sensibility and taste.

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