Saturday, September 1, 2012


     The Chinese restaurant has two side-by-side glass doors.  Last week the manager taped a sign to one of them, hand-written in red, "USE ANOTHER DOOR," with an arrow pointing toward the center, between the two doors.
     Merely by reading the sign, I would know that the proprietors have not spoken English all their lives.  They almost get it right, but not quite.  A native speaker would write, "USE OTHER DOOR," which implies the other door, the one right here, beside the door where the sign is posted.  AN other door suggests that customers should use some unspecified other door, maybe the one here but maybe one down the block, where the arrow points.  The difference between a definite article, the, and an indefinite article, a or an, is hard to explain to an immigrant, although five-year-old native speakers use the words correctly without conscious thought.
      Subtle errors in usage sometimes show up in the speech of fluent English speakers who grew up in a different language, or they may use foreign phrases  occasionally in their conversation. ("Gott in Himmel," my great-grandmother used to say when she was running out of rope.)  Heavy-handed writers overdo dialects of region or class, however, relying on clumsy phonetic spelling and piled-up errors in grammar.  In the comic books of my childhood, Indian chiefs always displayed headdresses of eagle feathers and opened every conversation with "How!"
      Here's a passage from one of my favorite stories in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby:
`Tu'n me loose, fo' I kick de natal stuffin' outen you,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nuthin'. She des hilt on, en de Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low.  Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don't tu'n 'im loose he butt 'er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa'ntered fort', lookin' dez ez innercent ez wunner yo' mammy's mockin'-birds. 
      Harris published his first Uncle Remus stories in 1870.  Remus the storyteller is either a slave in the American South or a freed slave.  Although the quoted passage may be a phonetically accurate expression of Southern slave dialect, it is practically unreadable, especially by young readers, native born or not.  Moreover, the attitude implied by the differences between Uncle Remus's speech and that of the white characters, is condescending at least.  Here's the plantation owner's son:
 'Uncle Remus,' said the little boy one evening, when he had found the old man with little or nothing to do, 'did the fox kill and eat the rabbit when he caught him with the Tar-Baby?'
The implication that privileged Southern European Americans of the time spoke standard English, while Southern African Americans spoke a rough dialect, is one reason that librarians, reacting to patrons' complaints of racial bias, put Harris's trickster stories under the counter or in the back stacks during the 'seventies.  (The people who complained ignored the fact that the Br'er Rabbit is the brilliant trickster who outwits his tormentors, the manipulative Br'er Fox and the stupid Br'er Bear.)
     Virginia Hamilton (The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales), Julius Lester (The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Br'er Rabbit), our own Hamline student, storyteller Alicia Williams, and other writers set things right with stories told in a language untainted by bias, and more subtle and easily read and understood than rough dialect is.
     (Incidentally, the Cherokee and other Indians also told trickster tales with a brilliant rabbit as the leading character.)
     Whether we write stories about contemporary Americans or our own immigrant ancestors, we ought to use a light touch.  The language, like everything else, ought to serve the story without calling attention to itself.  Reversion to a former accent or usage can dramatize a character's anxiety.  My great-grandmother's resort to her native German audibly demonstrated that she was about to explode.  As we write our characters' ordinary conversation,  we can take a lesson from the sign on the restaurant door.  Subtle details of usage here and there may be enough to show the reader how long a newcomer has lived in the neighborhood, where he came from, or how she wants to be seen. 

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