May 04, 2004

When's the Last Time You Heard an Old Person Say "Dadburn It"?

An old Bugs Bunny cartoon of 1944, THE OLD GREY HARE, depicts Bugs and Elmer Fudd as old men going through their usual antics with canes, gray beards, spectacles and the shakes. But these aren't the only traits indicating their having reached their twilight years. Bugs, as an oldster, talks in a hillbilly accent.

But Bugs Bunny as a young "man" spoke in a Brooklyn/Bronx patois. Why would he have shifted into an alien moonshine dialect as he got older?

This was no random occurrence chez the Looney Tunes crew. One sees this kind of thing again and again in pop culture of that era. Old people are very often depicted as talking like the Beverly Hillbillies even when the people around them use mainstream standard American.

In a 1932 musical film STRIKE ME PINK with Eddie Cantor and Ethel Merman, in one song near the end they are transformed into oldster versions of themselves (never mind why), and suddenly they are cackling along in "Consarn it!" accents that neither of the urban characters they were playing in the film used.

In the old radio hit FIBBER MCGEE AND MOLLY, a cherished character in the late thirties and early forties was "The Old Timer," who would always pop by telling tall tales ushered in by his catchphrase "That ain't the way I heerd it!" The Old Timer sounded like an old-time gold prospector -- but everyone else on the show, which took place in generic Wistful Vista, Illinois, spoke generic Midwestern Whatever.

The 1949 Looney Tune THE WINDBLOWN HARE is a parody of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. Bugs talks like Bugs, the Wolf talks like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons, but Granny talks, once again, like she grew up in the fastnesses of West Virginia. The Wolf is so focused on catching Bugs that he barely has time to acknowledge Granny as per the progression of the story that he has already read in a book. As he hastily shoves her out of the house, Granny exclaims "Land sakes, aintcha gonna eat me?" As the Wolf pushes her out the door she continues "Can't a body get her shawl tied?"

And the Looney Tunes squad had pulled the same thing in an earlier Red Riding Hood parody in 1937, LITTLE RED WALKING HOOD. This time Red talked like Katherine Hepburn, but Granny again had an Ozark accent, as well as a stereotypical fondness for her nip, furtively ordering gin over the phone.

This kind of thing was so common in American pop culture before 1950 that I would venture that I got a sense of the contours of hillbilly dialect (in caricatured form, to be sure) from these depictions of old people in the cartoons and old movies that were still staples on UHF as a grew up. I recall an afternoon in high school in 1980 when, joking with some friends, I passingly slid into such an accent depicting a person in their old age -- you know, "Sonny" and such. One guy joshingly objected "How come when he got old he would start talking in a Southern accent?" It struck me. He was right -- what kind of sense did this make?

But I wasn't alone. A few years later, a girlfriend of mine was given to road-rage moments when stuck behing a slow-driving old person where she would grouse "You can turn now, GRANDPAW!" But why the Li'l Abner appellation? Whence her natural sense that an oldster in 1985 was GRANDPAW rather than GRANDPA? I highly suspect she picked it up from reruns on the tube like I did.

It occurs to me that this way of depicting seniors' speech in the old days may have reflected a demographic reality.

1930's was the first census that revealed more Americans living in cities than in the country. Until then, for Americans, rural life was default. The City was the challenging, debauched setting depicted in tragic novels by Theodore Dreiser. The Country was the real America, such that Sinclair Lewis could write MAIN STREET about Carol Kennicott suffering the boredom of little Gopher Prairie, Minnesota and be feted as capturing "America" itself. If Sherwood Anderson wrote about the underbelly of small town America in WINESBURG, OHIO, this was news.

In 2004, things are quite different. The notion of the city as unhealthy for one's morals is antique. We pity urban residents dealt a bad hand, but hardly suppose that they would be best off relocating to Gopher Prairie -- we assume that The City should be made a better place for them. And every second short story in THE ATLANTIC shows us small-town folk underemployed, understimulated and on the brink of divorce. To us, "America" writ large is a list of the big cities, with the other places "in between," just as Germany is Berlin, Munich, and Cologne, not Regensburg, Wiesbaden and Siegen.

But for Americans in the thirties and forties, America's transition from being a rural nation to an urban one was as recent a phenomenon as the internet is to us. Presumably, it was quite common that old people had grown up in the country, but had moved to cities to raise their kids. Surely speech patterns reflected this. As such, it would have struck an intuitive chord to American audiences for age to be indexed with a backwoods accent, shorthand-style, in pop culture depictions.

Today this would make no sense. We do not spontaneously sense a person past sixty living in Philadelphia, Chicago or San Francisco as talking like Dolly Parton or Jeff Foxworthy. But the demographic tipping point in 1930 helps make sense of a tendency in the entertainment of the era that, otherwise, is intriguingly mystifying. Diane Keaton will be sixty in a couple of years -- and yet I doubt that in SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE, PART TWO she will be saying things like "Aintcha gonna eat me?"

Posted by John McWhorter at May 4, 2004 01:04 AM