23 July 2020

Dorothy Sayers as linguist (3)

Here is another, rather jolly, example of the still very live conviction among the illiterate that it is more 'genteel' to use the nominative cases of pronouns when the grammar of a sentence does not permit it. It comes from Have His Carcase (1932):

"Miss Garland's carefully modulated tones escaped from control and became shrill. 'And I said  ... so now you know where you get off. That's what I said, and it's a good thing there's a law in this country to protect girls like I'

"'Ain't she the snail's ankles?' asked Mr da Soto admiringly.".

There is so much of linguistic interest in Sayers. There is the movement of Wimsey's own speech from huntin'-an'-shootin' English in the earlier novels to the 'Oxford Academical' diction in Gaudy Night. There is a considerable difference between the Jeevesish speech of Bunter when  he is speaking to the Quality, and the way he talks when he has been sent off to extract information below stairs.

And there are the  regional dialects. Quite a bit of 'West Country' in Have His Carcase, the Fens get into the Nine Tailors, but there is page after page of Lowland Scots in Five Red Herrings. A lot of this evidence is now getting on for a century old. Doubtless, the regional dialects have changed in that time (for example, it seems to me that the glottal stop has become all-conquering). But I wonder if there are evidential controls enabling some sort of judgement to be made about whether, in their time, Sayers' accounts were accurate. Or perhaps she is herself the best evidence we have for how provincials really did speak between the Two Wars.

But I think she did have a very special interest in the speech habits and patterns of those whose social situations were ambiguous (such as the individuals named in the Pauline Epistles and analysed in 1983 by Wayne Meeks [The First Urban Christians, 1983], using the sociological tool of "Status Inconsistency").

Professor Higgins could have told us whether 'dagoes' really did use phrases like "Ain't she the snail's ankles". Or did Sayers invent it off, so to speak, her own bat?

I think it is perfectly brilliant and I shall incorporate it into my own private dialect.


10 comments:

Scribe said...

Another Wimseyism (I think it was him/he): 'Ain't he the lobster's waistcoat!' I have heard Miss Sayers described as a snob, which I thought was a wonderful compliment.

GOR said...

Uh-oh, I had to look up the ‘glottal stop’, though I have had occasion to use it unawaringly in the past. And who knew snails had ankles?

One learns something new every day!

vetusta ecclesia said...



One increasingly hears ‘yous’ in the demotic of today

frjustin said...

The glottal stop has even stooped to conquer a few areas of America, such as parts of Massachusetts and elsewhere. In these areas, the t in "settle" completely disappears. It is neither the British t nor the usual American reduction of medial t to d, but the glottal stop: SEH-'l.

PM said...

If you take the 85 bus from Putney Bridge to Kingston, you will find that the automated female voice announcing the destination and stops turns the t in Putney onto a glottal stop. Not a hint of a plosive to be heard.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Father. This post is smashing and ABS has continued to use some the expressions he was learnt (Such as that) from his betters in the hills of Vermont.

There is one ABS loves to use and not only because he was an object of the observation; - He is as shallow as p*** on a platter

Keeping alive the dialect, expressions, observations and idioms of one's native land is its own reward. At one time in America, one could hear local broadcasters speak with adjectives, quips, and expressions redolent of place and patois but, sadly, a movement to destroy such local beauty and replace with a universal voice untethered from time and place was a destructive deluge that was successful owing to Mr. Bernays.

If we won't do it, who will?

Grant Milburn said...

In English, every individual is now addressed with the second person plural pronoun as an automatic courtesy, and only God and Our Lady are still accorded an affectionate "thou" by some trad. Catholics telling their beads. Hence we need a new second person plural form. Current candidates include youse, y'all, and yupela. Maybe in another hundred years one of these will be standard English.

And medial T is endangered. The process that turned Latin Pater, Mater, Frater into French Père, Mère, Frère strikes again.

William said...

PM: A glottal stop is a plosive. The term “glottal stop” is commonly misapplied to a wide variety of sounds, most of which are not in fact glottal. If in the case you describe there is no sound at all, then the stop is unreleased, though I suspect it is more likely to be nasally released by assimilation to the following “n”. This is perfectly normal and within the range of sounds associated with the phoneme /t/. However, I would probably have to take a trip on the Number 85 bus to be sure!

PM said...

I stand corrected! The announcement on the 85 is more like no sound at all than a consonant; there is just the faintest hint of a gurgle which may be released nasally with the 'n'. But there is not the slightest suggestion of release as the tongue leave the roof of the mouth.

Grant Milburn said...

While we're relating human behaviour to animal anatomy or animal's clothing: where I lived it was always "the cat's pyjamas" or "the bee's knees", but my mother had a variation: "he thinks he's the elephants easies but he's only the butterfly's brassiere ".