IT’S WHAT A PERSON SAY.

A while back I got a package in the mail that turned out to be a gift from my pal pf (long-time readers may remember his adventures in Siberia): a copy of the NYRB reprint of G. B. Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. Edwards was born on Guernsey in 1899 and lived there until 1917, when he joined the army; he lived in England from the 1920s on and never returned to Guernsey, but in his mind he never left, and in his last years he was working on this amazing novel. It has no real plot, it’s just an old man rambling on about his life in an English strongly influenced by the Guernésiais (Guernsey Norman French, or “patois”) he grew up speaking, but the writing is so effective I find myself reading half the sentences aloud, and the stories he tells about his relatives and neighbors add up to a complex and often moving chronicle of island life in the days before modernization (which the narrator, and presumably the author, dislikes intensely). It actually reminds me quite a bit of Proust, except with fewer aristocrats and more farm animals (and if anybody’s wondering, in our bedtime reading—as mentioned in the thread that would not die—my wife and I have gotten to the last volume, and we’ll be looking for new reading material next month). It’s taken me longer to get around to it than it would have because my wife picked it up, started reading it, and refused to give it up. At first she said it was the strangest book she’d ever read, and then she said she didn’t want to finish reading it. But finally she did, and I got my chance at it.
The reason I’m impelled to write about it today is that I just hit a passage that I’m going to incorporate into my anthology of Good Attitudes to Language:

There was one thing [Raymond] was ashamed of his mother for, and that was the way she spoke English. He was everlastingly teasing her for saying ‘tree’ for ‘three’ and ‘true’ for ‘through’ and for not sounding her aitches and all the rest of it. I didn’t like him for that. It was partly Hetty’s own fault, because she had never let him speak in patois, from the days he went to the Misses Cohu’s School. She wanted him to grow up to speak English like the gentry. Well, he did speak good English; but he had a gift for words and I think would have spoken well in any language he set his mind to learn. I didn’t mind him being particular about the words he used himself, but he was fussy about the way other people spoke. I said, ‘It’s what a person say that matter. It isn’t how he say it.’

Of course, it is how he say it as well, but being well said isn’t the same thing as being said “correctly.”

Comments

  1. Le gasp!
    A book I’ve read before our esteemed host!
    I picked it up at a charity shop in Bath during one of my stays there. I’m not sure what drew me to it, but it looked nice.
    I then proceeded to not read it for a long time (I picked up an awful lot of books at that shop). When I finally did though, I managed to forget it upon disembarking a plane (I forget where) when I was about halfway through. Luckily I visited Bath again not long after and managed to get a new copy at the same place. (No such luck with Moby Dick which I either left in Oxford because I overslept on the day I was to leave. Or in the laundrette at my old college. I was two thirds through that one …).
    Anyway. A most excellent book. And one of the most touching things I’ve read, I think.
    Ooooh – there it is! How nice to have finally put up my books in a more orderly fashion. 80p I paid – one of the ‘expensive’ ones then. For those curious the poor man is sandwiched between Middlemarch and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

  2. I read it too, was given it by my mother of all people. It is one of the strangest books I’ve read, outside genre almost. Have fun with it! I

  3. I too have read the NYRB reprint. As a linguist I found it fascinating and as a reader I really got to like the old author/narrator person. I quite miss him now that I have finished the book.

  4. My contribution to your Good Attitudes to Language anthology would be from C. E. Montague’s “A Writer’s Notes on His Trade”:
    In youth you easily fall in love with words, written and spoken. You come, like other lovers, to feel an unreasoned sensuous thrill of joy at a word because it is just what it is – the sound of it and the look of it on a page – as a child’s mind thrills at the touch of fur because it is sleek and at that of a file because it is not. Apart from the interest of their use in any particular place, such words as ‘burnish’, ‘crozier’, lustre’, ‘beatitude’, ‘dawn’ become enamoring objects, with glowing hearts of their own, like red wine or rubies.

  5. This must be very similar to the Irish-language autobiographies I have read: Peig, An tOileánach, and the whole lot of them.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    ‘It’s what a person say that matter. It isn’t how he say it.’

    Is that the subjunctive? In other words, hypercorrect?

  7. No, it’s Guernsey English; apparently they often drop the -s off the third person singular, as well as appending the subject to the end of the sentence (“I’m fine, me”)—the latter a clear borrowing from French (or rather Guernésiais).

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