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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. 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. 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, 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.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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