Signing and sociolinguistics in Ed McBain’s ‘Axe’

December 9, 2014

I went on a binge of Ed McBain’s crime fiction recently, enjoying his keen ear for language and tight storytelling style. Below are three language-themed excerpts from Axe, written in 1964, which features detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes investigating a grisly murder.

First, to continue the theme of whom usage, is a doorstep encounter the detectives have with an old woman of unsound mind:

‘We’re detectives,’ Carella said. He showed her his shield and his identification card. He paused a moment, and then said, ‘May I ask who I’m talking to, ma’am?’

‘Whom, and you may not,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Whom,’ she said.

‘Ma’am, I . . .’

‘Your grammar is bad, and your granpa is worse,’ the woman said, and began laughing.

The ellipsis in Carella’s last line, which shows he’s being interrupted, is a stylistic device known technically as aposiopesis. An em dash is also commonly used in this context.

Carella later meets his wife, Teddy:

Teddy Carella watched his lips as he spoke because she was deaf and could hear only by watching a person’s lips or hands. Then, because she was mute as well, she raised her right hand and quickly told him in the universal language of deaf mutes that the twins had already been fed and that Fanny, their housekeeper, was at this moment putting them to bed. Carella watched her moving hand, missing a word every now and then, but understanding the sense and meaning, and then smiled as she went on to outline her plans for the evening, as if her plans needed outlining after the kiss she had given him at the front door.

‘You can get arrested for using that kind of language,’ Carella said, grinning. ‘It’s a good thing everybody can’t read it.’

ed mcbain axe - pan books cover 1964Leaving aside the naive reference to the “universal language of deaf mutes” (signing, far from being singular, comprises many languages and dialects), it struck me as a laudable description, presenting signing as a normal activity and showing its potential for humour and seduction. I don’t read enough such accounts in fiction.

The final excerpt has Detective Hawes visiting an accountancy firm where he talks to Mr Cavanaugh, a portly businessman “born in Philadelphia and raised on that city’s brotherly South Side”, about someone previously employed by the firm:

‘We’re investigating a murder,’ Hawes said flatly.

‘You think Siggie killed somebody?’

‘No, that’s not what we think. But certain aspects of our information don’t seem to jibe, Mr Cavanaugh. We have reason to believe Mr Reuhr is lying to us, which is why we felt we should look into his background somewhat more extensively.’

‘You talk nice,’ Cavanaugh said appreciatively.

Hawes, embarrassed, said, ‘Thank you.’

‘No, I mean it. Where I was raised, if you talked that way you got your head busted. So I talk this way. I got one of the biggest accounting firms in this city, and I sound like a bum, don’t I?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then what do I sound like?’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

‘A bum, right?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Okay, we won’t argue. Anyway, you talk nice.’

I liked this exchange a lot too. That McBain, he writes nice.


Andy Warhol and language

October 30, 2014

“Words troubled and failed Andy Warhol,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his biography of the artist (Penguin Books, 2001), even though Warhol wrote many books, “with ghostly assistance”, and had a distinctive speaking style.

Wayne Koestenbaum - Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives biography book coverKoestenbaum returns several times to Warhol’s relationship with language and with time, noting how Warhol’s love of repetition manifested in verbal expression, and remarking on how he “distrusted language” and didn’t understand “how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion”.

I want to quote one passage in particular, from later in the book (which is more psychological portrait than straight biography). Warhol’s magazine Interview, first titled inter/VIEW and then Andy Warhol’s Interview, featured stars interviewing other stars with the results transcribed generously and precisely, without the editing that conventionally turns spontaneous speech into readable prose:

Interview magazine was Andy’s most sustained attempt, after a [a novel], to cross the border between tape-recorded speech and the written word: his experiments in bridging this divide involve a serious philosophical quest to figure out where and how verbal meaning breaks down, and to track the imprecise, shiftless way the words occupy the time it takes to utter and understand them. Andy’s intensest experiences were visual, not verbal, yet he remained fascinated by his own difficult, hampered process of verbalization. Interview, an ideal vehicle, allowed him to indulge his interest in dialogue, as well as his desire to bodysnatch reality and to seal it in falsely labeled canisters. Via the technological mediation of tape recorder, Andy hoodwinked time and talk, and canned it as a product bearing his own name.

I don’t know how serious a philosophical quest it was, but I can relate to the interest in unedited dialogue. Anyone who has transcribed recorded speech will have noticed how halting and erratic is its syntax, compared to the deliberate (if not always elegant) order of writing.

Speech, particularly in conversation, is characterised by false starts, broken phrasing, and disorganised ideas; full, coherent sentences are the exception. Little wonder our memory of syntax and vocabulary is so poor.

Warhol’s unashamedly commercial attitude can belie the fact that he was a deeply sensual artist, and for all his awkwardness with language I think he must have savoured this slippery, intimate side of it – especially when it manifested in so messy and profligate a fashion.


Lip-sync surrealism in Soupy Norman and Couched

January 29, 2014

Few people outside Ireland are likely to have seen Soupy Norman, a cult comedy that aired in 2007 on our national station RTÉ. Essentially, Soupy uses footage from a Polish soap opera and turns it into an Irish family drama by redubbing the audio track with a surreal Hiberno-English script.

The fun lies in the lip-synching and voiceover, which are done partly to match speakers’ mouths, partly to fit the characters’ actions and interactions, and partly to serve the imaginary and often ridiculous plot. Non sequiturs pile up in disjointed rhythms to wonderfully silly effect.

Below is the first of eight episodes (9½ min. long), from where you can follow links to the rest, including a Christmas special. Your mileage may vary, but if it appeals to your sense of humour, watch the lot; every episode has its own inspired lunacies and running jokes (and, for the dialectally minded, Irish accents, expressions, and slang).

NB: Occasional strong language.

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A funny kind’ve spelling

January 21, 2013

Earlier this month I wrote about the military acronym strac, which I came across in Robert Crais’s novel L. A. Requiem (1999). Something else I noticed in that book was this curious spelling:

“That was kind’ve goofy, wasn’t it […]?”

Obviously a nonstandard rendition of kind of; I made a note of it and kept reading. Being on a winter binge of detective fiction, I read Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote (1995) soon after that and saw the same strange form, this time repeatedly:

“I’m kind’ve freelancing on an old case, Leroy.”

“We just kind’ve sparred around for a few minutes but then I left him something.”

“It’s kind’ve like the more they push one way, the more I push the other.”

“Kind’ve an undercover thing.”

“Well, it was kind’ve like one of those Catch-22 situations.”

So we see its use isn’t limited syntactically: it can modify adjectives, verbs, nouns, etc. – but always in dialogue, at least from the two authors I’ve seen use it so far.

Kind’ve for kind of presumably arises because of the phonetic equivalence of unstressed of and ’ve in speech – the /əv/ sound is misanalysed when put on the page, perhaps deliberately to convey a character’s earthiness or unsophistication. It’s a sort of inverse of the would havewould of variation I wrote about last year (and have since updated with additional literary examples).*

A quick online search shows that kind’ve is not uncommon in informal language. A couple of people at Yahoo! Answers call it an acceptable colloquialism, but the majority don’t. (Another option, kinda, drops the v sound, so it wouldn’t necessarily be an accurate transcription.)

Kind’ve and company are an understandable development, but an unsound one in my view – despite appearing in edited books by well-known writers. My advice is to avoid kind’ve: there are other ways to convey informality, and it’s more likely readers will be confused, annoyed, or distracted by this kind of orthographic meddling.

What do you think?

*

* Speaking of which, an Urban Dictionary definition says sort’ve is “the new would of!” and notes sarcastically that it “serves to demonstrate that “have” and “of” are now completely interchangeable”.


Would of, could of, might of, must of

October 23, 2012

When we say would have, could have, should have, must have, might have, may have and ought to have, we often put some stress on the modal auxiliary and none on the have. We may show this in writing by abbreviating to could’ve, must’ve, etc. (Would can contract further by merging with the subject: We would have → We’d’ve.)

Unstressed ’ve is phonetically identical (/əv/) to unstressed of: hence the widespread misspellings would of, could of, should of, must of, might of, may of, and ought to of. Negative forms also appear: shouldn’t of, mightn’t of, etc. This explanation – that misanalysis of the notorious schwa lies behind the error – has general support among linguists.

The mistake dates to at least 1837, according to the OED, so it has probably been infuriating pedants for almost 200 years. Common words spelt incorrectly provoke particular ire, sometimes accompanied by aspersions cast on the writer’s intelligence, fitness for society, degree of evolution, and so on. But there’s no need for any of that.

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