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The Dead Speak A Dead Language

Joseph Luzzi reflects beautifully on what was lost when his immigrant father died, taking with him the dialect of his native Calabria. [1]Excerpt:

After his death, I would hear my father’s voice but didn’t know how to respond. When I imagined myself speaking to him in English, it sounded pedantic and prissy. Answering in Italian was no less stilted, either when I tried to revive my Calabrian or when I used the textbook grammar that was unnatural to both of us. I had so much to tell him but no way to say it, a reflection of our relationship during his lifetime. Without his words, I was losing a way to describe the world. Memories suddenly mattered more than ever before, and I didn’t know if I could find the language to keep them alive.

Dante wrote in his treatise on language that though men and women must communicate with words, angels can talk to one another in silence. Speaking with someone who has died is similar. You learn early on that it is best to concentrate on the person you’ve lost with as little verbal clutter as possible. Perhaps this Calabrian I now speak with my father is the truly dead dialect, the language that neither changes nor translates.

This brought to mind a theme of the TV series Treme. The character Delmond Lambreaux is a young blak jazz trumpeter from New Orleans. He lives in New York, and has made his name playing modern jazz. Hurricane Katrina has made him think back to his New Orleans roots. Del’s father, Albert, is a carpenter and the Big Chief of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians [2]. Del has put all that behind him, and thinks of it as a relic of a lost past. In New York, his girlfriend and social set — all bourgeois African-Americans — look down on New Orleans tradition as backwards and quaint, an opinion Del shares … but he’s changing. He feels the distance between himself and his father, and tries to build a bridge.

I suppose the main difference between Del’s situation and the one Luzzi finds himself in is that New Orleans’s traditions are still living. The Calabrian dialect of Italian can’t really exist outside of Calabria, absent a large expatriate community that makes it a language of everyday life. Still, watching Del struggle with this on Treme, and comparing the way the working-class black folks and musicians in New Orleans speak, versus the clean, precise, deracinated way Del’s black friends in New York City speak, I can’t help thinking about what was lost when my grandfather’s generation of people in my parish passed, and what will be lost when my dad’s generation goes.

I suppose you could say that country people around here, both black and white, speak a kind of dialect. It is non-standard English; the black version deviates more from standard English than the white version, but both are measurably distant from the kind of English educated people on TV speak. I’m not talking about accents alone, but also grammar and idiom. I don’t even notice when I code-switch into it. It comforts me and orients me to hear the black dialects and the white dialects associated with home.

Language is a living thing, and living things change. Sometimes living things die. My grandfather’s dialect, if you can call it that, was formed in a world in which he had virtually no contact with people outside our small patch of the Deep South. My dad’s language was affected by his having heard radio as a child, and having gone into the Coast Guard as a young man, and then to college. My language was affected by television, and exposure to a much wider range of people. When my grandfather was alive, it would have been interesting as a linguistics project to get us all three together and map out the similarities and differences between our ways of speaking. There’s a cultural history there.

There’s this line from one episode of Treme that stayed with me long after I watched it. As he’s rediscovering his musical history, Del listens to an ancient blues recording from the Mississippi Delta [3], and says, “I’m hearing something. It’s old … it’s mean … it got mud all over it.”

Listen to that cut on the link, and you will agree: It got mud all over it.

That’s how these dialects are: they got mud all over them. Roots always do. But roots die when they are removed from the soil. No getting around it.

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13 Comments To "The Dead Speak A Dead Language"

#1 Comment By stillaninterestedobserver On June 26, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

I’ve pondered my own accent-as-such ever since a fellow I know who made a specialty of linguistic dialects in America concluded I had ‘Midwestern sportscaster no-accent.’ Which intrigues me since I’ve never lived in the Midwest etc. etc. And while I have some definite Californiaisms in my speech (probably including that one), I don’t know if I have any conscious sense of how my family speaks — we just always were. I don’t see it as a loss per se in that there was arguably little to lose (my memories of my grandparents don’t include anything distinctly different in terms of speech and dialect). It’s neither a complaint nor a matter of pride, more a sort of a ‘hmm, odd.’ I just describe myself as a Eurodude from California in all ways and that about sums it up, very flatly; combined with my own ‘rootless’ upbringing thanks to my dad being in the military, though mostly in Southern California, it underscores for me that home is where you are rather than necessarily where you come from — an experience, obviously, far from universal. But present.

#2 Comment By NS On June 26, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

Beautiful post. “It got mud all over it.” What a resonant phrase, full of emotion and quiet but sure knowledge, dripping with the past.

On the other end of the spectrum I suppose, from the rural South, my great-grandfather spoke with the Brahmin accent of Boston. It’s been lost for some time now (a few speakers must remain in the creaky, unvisited corners of the Boston Athenaeum); however, tinges of it remain in the speech of my grandfather, especially on certain worlds with a long “A”. Whenever I hear it my mind drifts to the world of my great-grandfather, a world of smoking clubs and the Ivy League, of learned book discussions and rampant bigotry (both anti-Southerner and anti-black) a world as limited as your grandfather’s, I would assume which isn’t a coincidence. The smaller the communities, the more of them will be and greater too will be our linguistic riches.

In Boston, the roots weren’t removed from the soil as much as the composition of the soil changed.

#3 Comment By Liam On June 26, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

Here’s a good example example of an accent with salt water all over it, without playing one bit to more common caricatures of it:

#4 Comment By WorldWideProfessor On June 26, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

When my grandfather was alive, it would have been interesting as a linguistics project to get us all three together and map out the similarities and differences between our ways of speaking. There’s a cultural history there.

As it happens, such projects have been done and are still being done. Historical linguistics is a very active field, both in the U.S. and abroad. (It’s a particularly well-developed tradition in Germany, where its important early figures included the Brothers Grimm.) For what it’s worth, the languages and dialects and pidgins and creoles and “codes” and “speech communities” of the world mostly are not vanishing completely anymore but getting uploaded into databases. Support the humanities!

#5 Comment By Liam On June 26, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

There are no unvisited corners of the Boston Athenaeum, I might add. It’s a wonderful place, and an annual membership is a worthy expense (proprietorships, however, are largely inherited generation upon generation). Brahmin accents do remain, but usually not as obviously as caricatured. Boston actually has a variety of accents, though nothing quite as splendid as New Orleans, which traditionally has the most variety among English vernacular accents in the USA, IIRC.

#6 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On June 26, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

Don’t underestimate the role of media in standardizing speech and dialect. I read a fascinating article by someone who started learing Arabic post-9-11.

Arabic is divided into many different dialects, to the extent of really being different languages. He said the official “standard” Arabic these days is sort of like Latin in a Romance speaking country in the Middle Ages — it is used in formal settings (in this case, official government pronouncements and news broadcasts), and can be understood, but no one speaks it colloquially. To the extent that any colloquial dialect is becoming standard, it is Egyptian Arabic, because Egypt makes more movies than any other Arabic-speaking country.

In English, too, I certainly think movies, TV, news broadcasts, etc. are going a long way towards standardizing the language, i.e., killing off regional dialects.

#7 Comment By ratnerstar On June 26, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

Rod, if you ever have a chance, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Treme. Is it worth watching? I think The Wire is incredible, but there seem to be a lot of conflicting opinions about Treme.

[NFR: I really like Treme. It’s very, very authentic. It took me a while to get into it, because I absolutely cannot stand Steve Zahn’s character. — RD]

#8 Comment By George Waite On June 27, 2014 @ 12:36 am

People don’t want to be associated with failed cultures/societies; Calabria is poor and corrupt. People don’t want to associate with dysfunctional places or people who come from them. This is normal.

#9 Comment By Andrea On June 27, 2014 @ 7:27 am

There are ongoing efforts to resurrect Native American languages that have essentially died out because everyone speaks English now. All of the reservations in the area have nursery school and elementary classes where kids are taught the languages. I wonder how successful efforts like those will be when the kids don’t naturally speak those languages. They do speak the distinctive reservation English dialect naturally because they grow up hearing it. It’s not just accent but word choice and word order. I can pick it out within just a few seconds when I talk with someone on a phone and place the person as a resident of such and such town.

I suppose I have a distinctive North Central North American accent as well, but it’s more accent than dialect.

#10 Comment By Bart W On June 27, 2014 @ 10:08 am

I wish I could hear any of my grandparents voices again. My grandfather to a yankee was unintelligible. His first language was a German dialect, but he claims it was not always understood when he was in Germany and Austria in WWII. He grew up in outside of Selma Alabama though so he also had a very prominent twinge deep south in it.

#11 Comment By CatherineNY On June 27, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

Luzzi’s article hit home with me on several levels. One, my parents are both gone, and I frequently find myself wishing I could hear their voices. Two, I grew up with a Polish grandmother in the house, and realized only later in life that what Polish I learned in childhood is now regarded as archaic. My grandmother was born in the 19th century, and left Poland in the early 20th century, so that’s not surprising. She also invented her own English words, as did Luzzi’s parents. I remember “svedra” (sweater) and “dressa” (dress) in particular. Although my husband never met my grandmother, who died in 1965, even he uses some of our family lingo derived from her “Polglish”. We say “moje” and “twoje” for “mine” and “yours” in front of English words. We say “have you good time” when we want to tell someone to enjoy themselves. I also picked up a fair amount of archaic Calabrian Italian from relatives, and still use some now-meaningless American expressions that came down from grandparents (“He’s doing a Land Office business” is a particular favorite.) Funny to think that my children, born in Asia in the 21st century, will use at least a few expressions inherited from a great-grandmother born in Poland in the 19th century.

#12 Comment By Console On June 27, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

@ ratnerstar

I don’t recommend Treme for everyone, but its a show that can grow on you. Definitely don’t go into it expecting it to be anything like The Wire. And try not to treat it as a normal TV show either. It’s more a sensory experience than anything else. It’s more like an Anthony Bourdain show. You’re watching your favorite people eat good food and listen to good music while dealing the trials and tribulations of the day. The cons are that the show is often slow and meandering.

If you can stick with it, season 3 is the best season.

[NFR: That’s what I’ve come to like about it: the city of New Orleans is a character. And it’s got a great soundtrack. — RD]

#13 Comment By cka2nd On June 27, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

“…the kind of English educated people on TV speak.”

You mean the kind in which adjectives have displaced adverbs when modifying a verb (e.g., X moved “quick”, not “quickly”)?

Or where people no longer distinguish between the singular and the plural (e.g., “There was a lot of renovations needed,” not “were a lot of renovations…”)?

Or, in the text one sees on TV, in the press or on the internet, the use of all caps or no caps instead of a mixture (e.g., DIRECTOR or director but not Director, or JIM DEMINT but not Jim DeMint)?