A Dog Snapping at a Gnat.

My wife and I have moved on to Oberland, the next in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series (see this post); our heroine Miriam has gotten away from her somewhat claustrophobic London life and is spending a couple of weeks in the Bernese Oberland. There are a number of other English tourists in the hotel where she’s staying, and this is her reaction to listening to them at the dinner table:

The clipped, slurred words had no longer the charm of a foreign tongue. Though still they rang upon the air the preoccupations of the man at the wheel: the sound of ‘The Services,’ adapted. But clustered in this small space they seemed to be bringing with them another account of their origin, to be showing how they might come about of themselves and vary from group to group, from person to person—with one aim: to avoid disturbing the repose of the features. Expression might be animated or inanimate, but features must remain undisturbed.

Then there is no place for clearly enunciated speech, apart from oratory; platform and pulpit. Anywhere else it is bad form. Bad fawm.

She felt she knew now why perfect speech, delightful in itself, always seemed insincere. Why women with clear musical voices, undulating, and clean enunciation, are always cats; and the corresponding men, ingratiating and charming at first, turn out sooner or later to be charlatans.

The nicest people have bad handwriting and bad delivery.

But all this applied only to English, to Germanics; that was a queer exciting thing, that only these languages had the quality of aggressive disturbance of the speaking face: chin-jerking vowels and aspirates, throat-swelling gutturals … force and strength and richness, qualities innumerable and more various than in any other language.

Quelling an impulse to gaze at the speakers lit by discovery, she gazed instead at imagined faces, representative Englishmen, with eyes and brows serene above rapid slipshod speech.

Here, too, of course, was the explanation of the other spontaneous forms of garbling, the extraordinary pulpit speech of self-conscious and incompletely believing parsons, and the mincing speech of the genteel. It explained ‘nace.’ Nice, correctly spoken, is a convulsion of the lower face—like a dog snapping at a gnat.

It’s not a linguistically sophisticated description, but it’s vivid and evocative. (Compare the “London Essex” described here.)

Comments

  1. Not linguistically sophisticated, perhaps, but is formal linguistics capable of capturing what the author has captured? The facial expressions, the delivery, the sheer physicality of what is conveyed by voices and tones, the social conventions of how you speak (distinctly, indistinctly, vigorously, expressively, or in a reserved manner, haughtily, unctuously, humbly, quietly, confidently, diffidently), the things that linguistics, in its rigour, its desire to extract only the linguistically salient, tends to abstract out of the very act of speaking. Speaking with people is a social act. Where the linguist hears the phonological distinctions and nuances or the features of an idealised underlying syntax, the ordinary, unsophisticated non-linguist will see and hear a world of suggestive detail, including an insight into the personality, mentality, sincerity (or lack thereof) and social background of the speaker.

  2. Not linguistically sophisticated, perhaps, but is formal linguistics capable of capturing what the author has captured?

    No, which is why I posted it. I trust you didn’t take my “not a linguistically sophisticated description” as a putdown. Nobody would expect Dorothy Richardson to be an academic linguist.

  3. I’m no expert in the history of linguistics c. 1915, but I think Richardson might have held her own with academic practitioners of phonetics as well as owning her own field of sociophonetics.

  4. Nice, correctly spoken, is a convulsion of the lower face—like a dog snapping at a gnat.

    This is perfect, she knows both dogs and phonetics. I can see her practising while she was writing it. I did too when I’d read it and though it’s true for an exaggerated version, I wouldn’t normally move my lips that much.

  5. “English is the language in which you mumble when you speak.” —Marianne Cowan, native germanophone and strong L2 anglophone

  6. Borzois don’t mumble in English, borzois HOWL, but terriers do.

  7. I wouldn’t normally move my lips that much.

    Well, of course you wouldn’t, you’re too posh, Crown.

  8. Yeah, takes one to kno one, mate.

  9. Well, I’m not a Crown, am I? Just an ’umble ’at.

  10. Remember I’m only Arfur Crown.

  11. I’m only Arfur Crown

    That still makes me laugh after all these years.

  12. “English is the language in which you mumble when you speak.” —Marianne Cowan, native germanophone and strong L2 anglophone”

    Nonchalance is a mark of high status. Cultured Japanese sounds wonderfully off-hand and economical to me – and almost slurred; I imagine English can sound the same way to others. Effort and precision are for those who serve.

    When I hear Navajo, with its seven-course silver chest of consonants, it sounds like round rocks tumbling down a mountain side – soft and smooth and not quite distinct.

  13. I grew up in a house where mumbling connoted lack of respect and consideration for my father, who was profoundly deaf in one ear and extremely hard of hearing in the other (though he did wear a hearing aid in it). All of us had to learn to e-nun-ci-ate. My wife has had about 17% cumulative hearing loss, so I’ve re-learned to PROJECT, although it’s physically harder for me to be ultra-fortis than it was fifty years ago.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Well, of course you wouldn’t, you’re too posh, Crown.

    So the people who move their jaws when they speak are upper middle class? Tony mblAAA comes to mind, or John Bercow (though his underbite is surely part of the reason), or a few colleagues at Oxford.

  15. John,

    “I grew up in a house where mumbling connoted lack of respect and consideration for my father”

    In general it does connote a lack of respect. It’s a prerogative of higher status so of course if a child does it to an adult, that’s disrespectful. And of course in the case you describe it’s really inconsiderate.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    “English is the language in which you mumble when you speak.” —Marianne Cowan, native germanophone and strong L2 anglophone

    Maybe that refers to not releasing final plosives? They’re all released in German.

  17. I’m almost certain she was talking about vowel reduction. The German she spoke, at least, only reduced unstressed e and er.

  18. January First-of-May says:

    “It is perhaps through sheer taciturnity that the English swallow half of every word and then the second half they somehow squash; so it is difficult to understand them. I used to travel every day to Ladbroke Grove; the conductor would come and I would say: ‘Ledbruk Grrov.’ ‘…?? Eh?’ ‘Ledbhuk Ghov!’ ‘….??? Eh?’ ‘Hevhuv Hev!’ ‘Aa, Hevhuv Hov!’ The conductor would rejoice and give me a ticket to Ladbroke Grove. I shall never learn this as long as I live.”

    (from Karel Čapek’s Letters from England, as translated by Paul Selver)

    For what it’s worth, Wikipedia says “Ladbroke” is pronounced /ˈlædbrʊk/, so Čapek’s phonetic approximation as “Ledbruk” (actually “Ledbrruk” in the original Czech) is closer than it might look like from the spelling. But I’m guessing that the conductor (in 1920s London) would have expected Cockney.

  19. @January First-of-May: The choice of taciturnity there struck me as odd, since taciturnity suggests to me a disinclination to speak, or to speak prolixly—but not so much a tendency to cut individual words short. The OED* gives as the first definition: “Habitual silence or disinclination to conversation; reservedness in speech; a taciturn character or state,” which might go either way. For most of the citations, it is difficult to discern precisely what kinds concision in speech the authors intend.

    The ambiguous usages include a cite from William Caxton: “In the sayde monasterie was so grete tacyturnytee and scylence,” which I find interesting, because there has been real theological debate over precisely how the Rule of Saint Benedict should be interpreted on this point. It is unambiguous that monks should refrain from unnecessary speech and keep their utterances short unless there is specific need. However, there has been disagreement whether that means monks should make their individual words as short as possible, “swallowing half of every word,” perhaps; the other school of the though was that statements should be enunciated as clearly as possible, so that they will not be misheard, avoiding the need for unseemly repetition.

    Moreover, the OED also lists another sense of taciturnity, which was unfamiliar to me—which is unsurprising, since it is labeled as Scots Law: “The silence of the creditor occasioning the extinction of an obligation in a shorter period than forty years’ prescription: it being presumed that the creditor would not have been so long silent if the debt had not been paid or the obligation implemented.”

    The root word, taciturn, is for me deeply associated with this passage from John Christopher’s The Sword of the Spirits, which may have been were I first encountered it:

    Later that day I saw the new Seer, the one who had been sent to replace Ezzard. His name was Grimm, but it belied him. He was a large and portly man, amply filling his Seer’s black coat. He was taciturn in public, as a Seer must be; when he spoke his voice was not harsh like Ezzard’s but calm and easy.

    I did not see him at the Seer’s House but at the palace. By having Ezzard executed I had freed myself of suspicion of complicity in his crime, and the High Seers had confirmed this when they condemned him as one driven mad by false Spirits. But they had agreed that it would be wise for me to seem to stay aloof from the new Seer, at least for the time being. He might come to the palace but I would not go to him, except to a Seance in the way of duty and observance.

    *I may be, actually, the most frequent user of the University of South Carolina’s online OED access. Our institutional access broke yesterday, and I was apparently the only person who noticed the problem and reported it.

  20. January First-of-May says:

    The choice of taciturnity there struck me as odd, since taciturnity suggests to me a disinclination to speak, or to speak prolixly—but not so much a tendency to cut individual words short.

    I actually had no idea what the word meant (it’s not familiar to me), but I think that was Čapek’s point – he noticed the general disinclination to speak (there’s more on it in the previous paragraph, which I didn’t quote), and wondered whether the tendency to cut individual words short had the same origin.

    For what it’s worth, the word is молчаливости in the Russian translation, and zamlklosti in the original Czech.

  21. Language as mouth-feel
    May 8 2016

    The English, deferential, do not spit.
    Germans, precise, are more articulate.
    The subtle French pit reason against sense.
    Italians sing or argue with immense
    Enthusiasm.   Polynesians croon;
    Danes mumble ;  Spaniards lisp.  The human tune,
    Though it can be transposed, does not translate.
    The feel in the mouth carries more weight

    Than does the meaning in the mind.   I speak,
    Thereby I am, set firmly on my feet.
    Larynx and lips extrude their simple noise.
    God, Stephen said, is that shout in the street.
    Nations and schools impose constraints on boys,
    Barbarians who babble to the Greek.

    —Oct. 19, 2001: for Ray Oliver and his concept of language as mouth-feel

  22. Is this your own composition? It’s really excellent.

  23. Charles Shere says:

    Yes, John; thank you.

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