Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Language Changed

By Keith N Fisher

I received the gift of a DVD for father’s day. I had not sought to see the movie. After all, it is a remake of a classic John Wayne western, and I thought it had been done well enough the first time. Did you notice the lack of contractions in those sentences?

The movie I’m speaking about is True Grit with Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. My gift intrigued me though, because I liked John Wayne’s version, but Jeff Bridges has also been a favorite actor of mine. I wanted to see the new version.

Jeff did a great, although different, job. One example, (spooler alert here), when the character falls down from exhaustion, just short of his goal, after trying to save Matte’s life, he laments his getting old. I’ve never been in that situation but I understand the lamentation. Jeff did a wonderful job of portraying those feelings and many other truisms the character faces.

I liked the movie. It made me cry. The feelings of compassion and camaraderie expressed are marvelous and it made me want to read the book. I never had that desire before.

I think one of the reasons for that, however, is the lack of contractions. While watching the film, it doesn’t take long to realize the dialog is all in proper, or formal, English with a few nineteenth century words thrown in. The language seemed strange at first. Kind of like all the Thine’s & Thee’s in a movie about Quakers. After a while, I accepted the lack of contractions as the way they talked during the time period. I’m given to understand the book was written that way, so I plan to read it.

The experience left me wondering about the evolution of the English language. An old adage I grew up with, came to mind, “Ain’t, ain’t a word and you ain’t supposed to say it.” Now, many of us use it all the time in our speech. I use it in my writing.

Also, members in my critique group are constantly correcting, and updating my words. They find language in my manuscript that just isn’t used anymore. It’s my nineteen sixties childhood showing again.

In my curiosity about nineteenth century speech patterns, I found a list of common words used back then that you might find interesting. Click here. The list illustrates my point. To explain further, I’ve read that the New York Times used to ban all contractions from the publication. In my manuscript, I constantly put them in at the request of my critique group.

It’s true. Language patterns change over time. Therefore, the words we use can resonate differently, depending on who reads them.

In the case of True Grit, I have to say it was refreshing to see the slime ball criminal using respectful language, but there is a problem. Every character needs to be an individual. It’s not advisable to give them all the same traits, because the reader won’t be able to distinguish between them. They can’t all use the same speech patterns because not everyone gets the same education or upbringing.

Also, there were many slime balls back then, who spoke from the gutter. Nevertheless, there were ways of talking trash while still using the speech patterns of the time. Case in point: Rooster Cogburn.

There is much written on the subject of dialect in writing. Everyone suggests using it sparingly. It can confuse the reader and bog the story down. If that’s true, I wonder about using time period language as well.

In writing, we research facts, making sure of accuracy. Should we use correct speech patterns, too? One of the reasons I don’t like gothic novels is because of the language, but should my research include speech? Can I tell a nineteenth century old west, story using modern, English dialog and remain true to the research?

A while back, I was encouraged to take the nineteen seventies language out of a book set in the time period. Since I lived then, I remember the language, but like the problem with dialects, readers might stumble over it. I took it out. I keep putting contractions in for the same reason.

In the case of the Movie, the director claims, “It’s the way people spoke in those days.” There are, however, others who claim they’re wrong. Click here. Also, some critics point out the book was written from the point of view of a middle aged woman who spoke that way. I would suggest they look at the Rooster Cogburn character. He spoke without contractions but still managed to use colorful speech.

I’m interested to hear what you think. Good luck in your writing—see you next week.


Steve Westover said...

Interesting post. I naturally write without contractions but I don't speak that way so I have to watch myself.

Personally, I find it VERY distracting if an old western or midevil era work uses modern language. Drives me crazy. 1970's language in a 1970's era story makes perfect sense to me and I think it can be done without being a distraction.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I agree with Steve. And, dang it, the 1970s wasn't all that long ago. To those of us who lived through that decade.

I didn't have a problem with the language in the new "True Grit" except for Matt Damon, which surprised me. He came across very stilted, which I didn't get from the others (including the little actress who played Mattie--wonderful job). I know Damon can do dialect, because he did a great job with the South African accent in "Invictus".

I'm of two minds about using dialect writing for dialogue. I love it in the books done by my favorite British authors (like J.K. Rowling). I don't stumble.

I also can't write it myself, not being familiar enough with it. I will have to settle for telling people someone speaks with an accent and let them figure it out. There's skill involved in doing it well.

Brent Wescott said...

I didn't know there was a controversy around the no-contraction dialogue in this movie. I just chalked it up to the Coen Brothers' eccentricity. I'm interested in that article you referenced at the end. I'll have to go check that out.

It Just Got Interesting

pamod negi said...

find it VERY distracting if an old western or midevil era work uses modern language. Drives me crazy. 1970's language in a 1970's era story makes perfect sense to me and I think it can be done without being a distraction.
Flights to Nanjing