November 09, 2004

The Curious Grammar of Ohio: The Local Color Illusion

Writers are often told to Show, Not Tell, and while this is not universally the best of advice -- it can lead to a piling up of flat details that the reader has to struggle to interpret individually and as an ensemble -- sometimes you just want to send a writer a plaque with this message engraved on it. This was my reaction to David Blaustein's review of Keith Banner's The Smallest People Alive, in the Lambda Book Report, August/September 2004, p. 25:

Another unifying idea is simply the context of the book: The stories are all set in Ohio, where Banner lives. Banner uses the curious grammar of the region to great effect throughout his book, employing a series of voices that may not come in for much attention by the publishing centers of this country, making a lie of that often repeated idea that regional differences are being subsumed into a standard (and presumably bland) way of life in this country. Whether Banner is comfortable being labeled as a regional writer or not, he has produced a work that is wholly of a specific place and time.

What counts as "curious" grammar, exquisitely of Ohio, for Blaustein? He gives not one example. (Meanwhile, other reviews, in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, don't even mention language.) Show us something, Blaustein!

Now that I've read the book, I can report that there are vanishingly few regional features in it; counting fairly generously, I found four tokens in the book's 260 pages. (Yes, tokens.) What there is instead is a pile of features from colloquial and/or working-class and/or innovative speech, features that are found all over the United States. Blaustein is suffering from what I'll call the Local Color Illusion, the impression that non-standard features, largely to be heard in the vernacular of the working class, in some area are what make the language of that area special, and colorful -- this despite the fact that the non-standard features that are most likely to be noticed are those that are not particularly regional.

When I brought the Blaustein review to the attention of the American Dialect Dialect Society mailing list, on October 27, I speculated that the part of Ohio in question is the east and south, where most of the stories are set, and ADS posters quickly nominated two South Midlands features that regularly strike outsiders as odd as the probable source of Blaustein's perception of wonderful local color: want/need + past participle (Your shirt needs washed) and positive anymore (Gas is really expensive anymore). A fair amount is known about both of these features. They are spread across a geographical area considerably larger than the east and south of Ohio, but they are certainly used there, and they can easily be found in writing as well as speech and from people of a wide range of social statuses.

Score: 1 token of the first ("The main reason Irene wanted divorced...") and 0 of the second.

Ok, let's try some notably Appalachian features: double modals (I might could do that) and a-prefixation (I was a-talkin' about that last night). Score: 0 and 0. Again, both of these features are spread across a geographical area considerably larger than the Appalachian portions of the state, but they're certainly found there.

Stretching things quite a bit, by interpreting "grammar" in its person-in-the-street sense (to include morphological forms, lexical choices, and pronunciations as well as syntactic constructions) and by interpreting "regional" very generously, I get only three more tokens: one pronunciation, dern for darn (the Dictionary of American Regional English identifies this one, in its entry for durn, as chiefly Southern and South Midlands); one non-reflexive ethical dative, in "I need me a gun" (I don't really know the geographical distribution of this one, but I can vouch for its use in the South and South Midlands); and, dubiously, one occurrence of sack 'bag' (here, DARE has the item all over the U.S., though less in the Northeast; but in Ohio, people tend to view sack as a southern Ohio thing and bag as the more general variant, so I'm counting it anyway).

So, what was Blaustein noticing? Well, one hell of a lot of general colloquial features: prospective gonna, obligative gotta; subject omission, of the Saw him yesterday sort; initially reduced questions, of the She okay? and When you gonna go? sorts; expletives like the fuck and other taboo vocabulary (oddly, Banner doesn't use taboo vocabulary for 'penis', instead uniformly employing thing, as in his thing and my thing); and the tag and shit. Now, these are found all over the U.S. in informal speech (I use most of them myself) and are not even slightly characteristic of one region as opposed to another.

(Another oddity: Banner is incredibly sparing of -in' for present participles, though surely his characters would have this variant frequently, and indicates Auxiliary Reduction much less than his characters would use these variants. Maybe he's just opposed to apostrophes.)

And the book is full of general working-class vernacular features, not particularly regionally restricted. Most of these features were already noted by H. L. Mencken in The American Language (1919-48), and a fair number of them appear in many parts of the English-speaking world. Here are some that occur again and again in Smallest People: ain't; anyways; past tense done; accusative coordinate subject pronouns (Him and me had movies); multiple negation; determiner them (them guys); past form for past participle (have ran); and invariant singular in existentials (There was a lot of people there). Not every common working-class vernacular feature appears in Smallest People; I didn't catch any occurrences of hisself or theirselves, for instance. And not every one of Banner's characters uses these features a lot; the narrator of the title story has very few of them. But most of his characters are working class and talk like it.

Oh, and throw in some innovative non-standard usages that aren't particularly working class, like of used with exceptional degree modifiers (too Adj of a N); independent reflexive myself, as in Edgar and myself go way back; and transparent type of (these type of things).

What all these features (colloquial, working class, or innovative) have in common is that they're officially non-standard: schoolteachers and advice books on language tell you not to use them, at least in formal writing (though the prohibition often extends to any use at all, even in informal speech). Readers are sensitive to these features, having been taught that those who use them are sloppy, lazy, ignorant, uneducated, illogical, or just erroneous. The sort of people who live in trailer parks in hardscrabble areas and are just barely getting along (as, indeed, many of Banner's characters do). But these features also signal "jes' folks", a kind of down-homey earthiness and toughness (which can be admirable or scary, depending on the circumstances). Real People.

But what gives rise to the Local Color Illusion? Why should officially non-standard features be interpreted as characteristic of some region? Especially when most of these features are found all over the place (in the speech of rural Maine, Northern cities factory districts, and California's Central Valley, as well as the South and South Midlands) and in all sorts of social groups (the Pennsylvania Dutch, African Americans, Polish Americans, and Chicanos, as well as the descendants of the Scots-Irish).

I think that the crucial link is based in fact, but fact twisted by a heavy infusion of language ideology. The fact is that the official standard -- established formal standard written English -- is pretty much the same from place to place; there's a good bit of variability, but for the most part it's not regional. Now for the ideology, which comes in two parts: the belief that the official standard is the same everywhere, for all people, in all contexts (denying the variability I just mentioned); and the companion belief that language that is not officially standard is a deviation from this standard, and so can be expected to differ from it in any number of ways, different ways in different places, for different groups of people. The picture is of a uniform official standard with a welter of "dialects", each with its own characteristic features -- quaint, colorful, grating, charming, or alarming, as the case may be. (Such pictures can occasionally be found in textbooks.) Variability in the official standard is underestimated, and diversity in the "dialects" seriously overestimated. As a result, divergences from the official standard "sound local".

The Local Color Illusion can be very strong. I've had people I grew up with in Pennsylvania Dutch country describe the local English for me (after all, I'm a Linguist), beginning with a few well-known localisms like doppich 'clumsy' and strivvely '[of hair] unruly' and quickly turning to a list of pan-U.S. non-standard features, like ain't, multiple negation, determiner them, and their sisters and their cousins and their aunts. Now, these people are aware that any particular feature might be used outside Pennsylvania Dutch country -- that multiple negation, say, is used by blacks and Southerners and lots of other people-- but they treat each item separately, so it's remarkable to them that all these features come together locally. Officially standard features hang together in a package, which is taught to you in school, but all the rest crop up one by one, on the street, so to speak, and no one expects them to make a package. But, actually, some of them do.

And so we see Blaustein, confronted with features that, with a tiny number of exceptions, could be found anywhere from rural Maine to California's Central Valley, hearing them as wonderfully evocative of Ohio, the place where Banner's stories happen to be set (reasonably enough, since this is the area Banner is most familiar with).

One more piece of ideology (already alluded to above): ordinary people tend to believe not only that the official standard is uniform, but that this uniformity is created and maintained by schooling; without this institutional support, the language would dissolve into the chaos of the "dialects". But in fact features spread in pretty much the same way in all social groups, working largely outside the strictures of the schoolroom and producing a certain degree of conformity within social classes, ethnic groups, regions, and so on. I picked up my variety of English on the street, too, by association with, and identification with, other people. So it's no great surprise that my English is a lot like that of academic colleagues who grew up in Los Angeles or Chicago or Dallas. No more surprise than that Banner's Ohio characters sound a lot like working-class people in Los Angeles or Chicago or Dallas.

zwicky at-sign csli dot stanford dot edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 9, 2004 12:55 PM