DERELICTION OF DIALECT.

I’ve started reading a James Buchan novel called The Persian Bride, a tale of derring-do set in ’70s Iran. Now, Mr. Buchan (no, not that Buchan) is a Brit (according to the jacket flap he lives with his wife and three children on a farm in Norfolk, England) with a good sense of language for a newspaperman. But that is not to the point. The point is that he can’t pull off American dialogue. He creates an Iranian military man who is introduced thus:

“You think I give a damn, boy?” He spoke easy Texan English. “I’ve got an air force to run. It’s Judge goddam Bordbar. Christ, I hate civilians.”

So far, so good. But a couple of pages later this Tex-Iranian says “It’s sorted out,” meaning taken care of, dealt with. This idiom is not American, and it immediately dispels the illusion so carefully conjured up by the author. This is not an isolated case—I have never read an author from across the Atlantic who could write consistent American dialogue. It’s easy to put in words and phrases you know are American; it’s impossible to recognize all those that aren’t. I’m sure the same is true in reverse, with American authors painstakingly putting in lorries and boots and lifts and then giving the game away with some locution no Englishman would utter. So why don’t publishers have manuscripts vetted by readers familiar with the relevant dialect? (And then there are foreign names, which are even more of a problem, with English-speaking authors creating Russians named Esmeralda Hofstein Ivanovna or Arabs named Abdul Ibn-Istanbul or something. Why go to all the trouble of researching the tiniest practical details of some foreign location and blow it by mangling names? It drives me mad, mad I tell you. But we won’t go into that. Sufficit diei malitia sua)

Comments

  1. The song “One Night in Bangkok” by Murry Head (I think) has always bothered me. It comes from the play Chess and the character who sings it is supposed to be American (the character who sings it is in fact often simply called “The American.”)

    Take this line as an example:

    This grips me more than would a / muddy old river or a reclining Buddha.

    I can’t imagine any American using that syntax, and very very few of us pronounce Buddha with a lax u vowel (yes, that is supposed to rhyme with “would a”). Unfortunately there really isn’t any easy emandation that would fix this problem.

    JDM

  2. Case in point.

    (it’s a recent journal entry in Russian which cites an American story with a Russian girl named “Alzbeta” in it — which, of course, is not and could not be a Russian name).

  3. “easy Texan English” is neither “easy” nor “English”; discuss.

    just kidding… but that description did tickle me. I never heard so much about the “englishes” until I left the US, but now comments like “in British English, a rubber is an eraser” roll trippingly off my tongue (the phrase, not the rubber). In the US, however, we would simply say the the man spoke with a Texas accent. (Imagine, for example, someone speaking “Floridian English”!)

    Btw, I myself can speak Southern real good, when I choose to, but my normal accent convinces people from the South that I am northern, and people from the North that I am southern. Which English am I?

  4. Can’t speak for Texas, but “sorted out” in the sense you cite is idiomatic North Carolinian.

  5. John Cowan says:

    Yes, if I saw “it’s sorted” simpliciter, I’d say “not AmE” without hesitation. But “sorted out”? Here are some examples from COCA dated 2017-14:

    There’s mortgage deduction, state and local taxes that still have to be sorted out.

    Eventually this will all get sorted out, but it’s likely to take a few years.

    We’re going to see it sorted out over the next very few weeks and months.

    It was morning by the time it all got sorted out. No charges had been pressed, although the girl had a long day […]

    But eventually, the senior surgeon did turn up and everything was sorted out, thank goodness.

    It would, he promised Bernard, be sorted out by tomorrow.

    After the billing errors were sorted out, Austin Energy restarted debt collections in January 2013.

    The past was always there, wasn’t it? Waiting to be sorted out and connected to the present.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Never all that impressed by Colin Dexter, and especially not by claims to his supposed erudition, I was confirmed in my aversion by the fact that one story of his has a Japanese person, not of mixed heritage, who is nevertheless named Yukio Lee. Either Dexter didn’t do even minimal research, or he just didn’t think it mattered. Either way, Jolly bad show! (as they say in Texas.)

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