Chandler’s Slang.

Fredric Jameson, in his little Verso book Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality, has an interesting passage on the English-born Chandler’s use of language (he was educated in England):

But seen another way the very superficiality of these meetings with the characters is artistically motivated: for the characters themselves are pretexts for their speech, and the specialized nature of this speech is that it is somehow external, indicative of types, formulaic remarks bounced across to strangers […]

In the art of the twenties and thirties, however, such dialogue had the value of social schematism. A set of fixed social types and categories underlay it, and the dialogue was itself a way of demonstrating the coherence and peculiar organization the society possessed, of apprehending it in miniature. Anyone who has watched New York movies of the thirties is aware of how linguistic characterization feeds into a picture of the city as a whole: the stock ethnic and professional types, the cabbie, the reporter, the flatfoot, the high society playboy, the flapper, and so forth. Needless to say, the decay of this kind of movie results from the disintegra­tion of such a picture of the city, such an organization of reality. But already the Los Angeles of Chandler was an unstructured city, and the social types are here nowhere near as pronounced. By the chance of a historical accident, Chandler was able to benefit from the survival of a purely linguistic, typological way of creating his characters after the system of types that had supported it was already disappearing. A last hold, before the dissolving contours of the society made these linguistic markers disappear also, leaving the novelist faced with the problem of the absence of any standard by which dialogue can be judged realistic or lifelike.

In Chandler the presentation of social reality is thus immedi­ately and directly problematized by language itself. There can be no doubt that he invented a distinctive style, with its own humor and imagery, its own special movement. But the most striking feature of that language [is] its use of slang, and here Chandler’s own remarks are instructive:

I had to learn American just like a foreign language. To use it I had to study it and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself. Everything else is apt to be passe before it gets into print….

Sorry about the “problematized,” but theorists gotta do theory. Anyway, the final Chandler quote is great.

Comments

  1. According to Wikipedia, Chandler was born in Chicago and moved to England when he was 12:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Chandler

  2. Woops, thanks! Sloppy of me; fixed now.

  3. Is the decay of linguistic types a social reality or a change in the way people viewed reality. Put it another way: Did people actually talk according to these stereotypes or was it part “artistic convention”? Is the change a result of demoticisation, or does it reflect a desire to represent “demotic realism”, making it seem corny to differentiate people so crudely? We seem to have only the writer’s word for the breakdown of old social categories due to “social change”.

    Yours as ever, Bathrobe

  4. (he was educated in England)

    At the same school, and almost at the same time, as PG Wodehouse!

    They overlapped by a year if I remember. Unlikely that they knew each other, but I like to think that the same English teacher was responsible for germinating “a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window” (Farewell My Lovely) and “a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge” (Carry On, Jeeves).

  5. This is really good; Chandler talking to Ian Fleming shortly before Chandler died. He had a slight American accent:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=Zj6cc0T1z7I

  6. Dorothy Sayers of the same generation may be put forward as using stereotypical class voices for characters like Mrs. Ruddle, Puffet, Rev. Goodacre, etc, all drawn from Busman’s Honeymoon, but I am utterly unable to hear Mrs. Ruddle as a ‘class,’ she’s made more unique by her use of language, not less. The fault may lay in my literary education, which makes me a sucker for Sayers’ seductive tricks.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    How about Dickens?

    Since when does the dialogue in good (or great) novels have to be realistic, anyway?

    “The truest poetry is the most feigning.” (To cite another author given to wildly unrealistic dialogue. I draw the line at his stereotypical Welshmen though.)

  8. … such dialogue had the value of social schematism. A set of fixed social types and categories underlay it, and the dialogue was itself a way of demonstrating the coherence and peculiar organization the society possessed, of apprehending it in miniature.

    Are you or Jameson implying that Chandler learned this in his British education? Because I just recently noticed Susan Cooper doing the same in The Dark Is Rising (1973), set in Buckinghamshire. There are quite a few minor characters and walk-ons who are immediately characterized by speech variety. Here’s a bus driver from the West Indies: “One more winter like this, and I going back to Port of Spain.” A cleaning woman from London’s East End: “Wouldn’t be Christmas without sixpences. I laid a good stock in before we got landed with all them decimals, so I did.” The owner of the manor house: “How’s y’mother? And y’father? Havin’ a good Christmas?” A toothless old man: “Rain’ll melt thic snow! Melt ‘n in no time at all!” And so on. I wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t be a British novel without speech differences defining everyone’s social position. Significantly, the book’s villain has a “curious” and unidentifiable accent, though his words are formal standard English.

  9. @ktschwarz: I was young and completely unaware of the complexities of British accent differences when I read those books. Perhaps I should go through them quickly again, to see what nuances I missed. What kind of dialect does Merlin use, for example?

  10. Are you or Jameson implying that Chandler learned this in his British education?

    That’s Jameson, not me, and I have no idea if he’s implying that.

  11. I wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t be a British novel without speech differences defining everyone’s social position.

    I’ve heard Americans semi-seriously express the need for subtitles on British TV shows; not because they can’t understand the dialogue, but because they can’t catch the nuances of social position and background that the accents and word choices are trying to convey.

  12. That would be an excellent idea.

  13. @Brett, yup, it went over my head at that age too. Merlin’s speech isn’t marked in any way that I can tell (although Will’s father somehow recognizes him as “not English”, which I guess is meant to suggest that he’s older than England). You’ll also find Cornish English and Welsh English in the other books of the series, but they don’t use such a variety of walk-on characters to, as Jameson puts it, demonstrate the organization of society in miniature. And these different speech varieties are all shown in conversation with more standard Englishes: people are different but nobody is isolated, they’re all participating in the community.

  14. I find subtitles helpful especially when the speaker is out of the shot, has a markedly non-RP accent, or is mumbling, all of which are common. In particular, the style in which the camera focuses on the face of the person hearing each line of dialogue, so that every speaker is out of the shot all the time, makes understanding very hard.

  15. A cleaning woman from London’s East End: “Wouldn’t be Christmas without sixpences. I laid a good stock in before we got landed with all them decimals, so I did.”

    Cor blimey mate, absolutely pitiful. Nobody still talked like that in 1970, if they ever had, not even Dick van Dyke.

    Sixpences, by the way, were used by cooks at Christmas as surprises for children, to be found (the sixpences) in Christmas pudding.

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