In the April 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly , critic B.R. Myers, in his review, “Keeping a Civil Tongue,” of Ian Robinson’s book on the English language, Untied Kingdom, wrote “People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.”
My first thought was “all right! Finally someone writing about this, and especially how text messages, e-mails and disinterest have shredded a valuable reflection of our culture and made perfectly intelligent people appear stupid.”
My second thought was “oh, interesting way to look at a character, someone who may be extremely well educated but speaks like someone who isn’t. That’s valuable in espionage, as is a talent for accents. But what kind of a person doesn’t care about language? It’s how people communicate. Wouldn’t a person want to be understood? Or maybe not….”
Not exactly what Myers had in mind, my responses. Ian Robinson is a critic of language and Myers was reviewing Robinson’s book, so he ranged over cultural influences such as advertising, morality, style and usage, and how language reflects (or not) a society’s belief system and/or tolerance for others, specifically regarding religion because Robinson approaches the subject from a conservative Christian point of view. To read the entire review, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200804/myers-robinson. Myers has a slight curmudgeonly tone and a sharp eye for the ridiculous or brilliant. I enjoy reading his reviews.
Back to language. Writers need to concern themselves with language on two levels. First, the way they use it to write and tell their stories, their style and sensibility, their voice, and clarity. Second, how they use it to reveal character, create suspense, execute transitions, etc. I tend to think more about the second than the first until I begin the revising process. And when I think of character, I think of how a character speaks — vocabulary, rhythm, accent — and thinks. Creating a character with a unique voice is one of the hardest things to do in writing fiction.
A multitude of voices surround us on a daily basis. Most people tend to tune them out (I think, but do they?), but I am a shameless eavesdropper. Not for the content of what is said so much as for the speech patterns and use of words. I listen everywhere. This is research of a different kind that requires me to go out in the world among people. On any given day downtown, I can hear Chinese or Spanish or some other foreign language (recently an African language that wasn’t Swahili but I don’t know what it was, and the rhythm of it reminded me of Bartok’s music), English spoken in a variety of ways depending on the ethnicity of the speaker or education level or region of origin or age, and highly creative expressions and uses of words. This research informs my writing and my character creation.
Coupled with speech is the behavior that accompanies it. Also the behavior that accompanies silence. Body language can say one thing while the words spoken communicate something else. So, for me, language also includes behavior to a certain extent, especially in terms of its consistency with what is said, or its inconsistency.
The example that pops into my head is Marlon Brando’s brilliant evocation of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. (I gain much inspiration and learn from really good actors.) Don Vito was an older man in this movie, powerful, and protective. How he spoke reflected his origins as well as his age and his education. He is not a man of sudden moves either, so his speech is neither fast nor loud. The viewer sees immediately in how he moves, his gestures, that he’s powerful but older and his speech is consistent with that. Contrast Don Vito with Michael and Sonny. Sonny’s recklessness, especially, is reflected in his quick and facile physical movements and speech patterns.
So, reading B. R. Myers’ review triggered thoughts on language in a different direction for me than the review took. I also thought about how much profanity is used everywhere now, and how that can reflect on the speaker’s concern for clear, communicative language vs. bursts of emotional rant. Another kind of character….