Tuesday, 12 June 2012

On language in Dickens 2: characters

The second theme of my talk at this year’s Hay Festival was the way Dickens often uses linguistic features as a means of character description, or refers to language in the narrative. The examples below are in some cases adapted from the novels, to suit the dialogue style used in the talk (there were two of us on stage: myself and Hilary Crystal).

Dickens paints amazing visual portraits; but I’ve been struck by how often he refers to the voice, as in these instances:

In Our Mutual Friend, Bradley Headstone:

Grinding his words slowly out, as though they came from a rusty mill.

In Nicholas Nickleby, Ralph Nickleby:

If an iron door could be supposed to quarrel with its hinges, and to
 make a firm resolution to open with slow obstinacy, and grind them
 to powder in the process, it would emit a pleasanter sound in so
 doing, than did these words in the rough and bitter voice in which 
they were uttered by Ralph.

In Bleak House, Sir Leicester Dedlock:

His voice was rich and mellow; and he had so long been thoroughly persuaded of the weight and import to mankind of any word he said, that his words really had come to sound as if there were something in them.

This sounds like Conversation Kenge in Bleak House. Esther is the narrator:

He appeared to enjoy beyond everything the sound of his own voice. I couldn’t wonder at that, for it was mellow and full and gave great importance to every word he uttered. He listened to himself with obvious satisfaction, and sometimes gently beat time to his own music with his head, or rounded a sentence with his hand.

I especially admire Dickens’s linguistic metaphors. Mrs Pardiggle in Bleak House:

She was a formidable style of lady, with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room. Always speaking in the same demonstrative, loud, hard tone, so that her voice impressed my fancy as if it had a set of spectacles on too.

The land agent Mr Scadder in Martin Chuzzlewit:

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.

Technical linguistic topics are often used. Grammar defines Mrs Merdle in Little Dorrit, who has told her husband by letter that sonething needed to be done:

In the grammar of Mrs Merdle's 
verbs on this momentous subject, there was only one mood, the 
Imperative; and that Mood had only one Tense, the Present. Mrs 
Merdle's verbs were so pressingly presented to Mr Merdle to 
conjugate, that his sluggish blood and his long coat-cuffs became 
quite agitated.

Dickens seems to have hated grammar classes, judging by the way he regularly satirizes it. Mr Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit:

Mr Pecksniff’s manner was so bland, and he nodded his head so soothingly, and showed in everything such an affable sense of his own excellence, that anybody would have been … comforted by the mere voice and presence of such a man; and though he had merely said ‘a verb must agree with its nominative case in number and person, my good friend’ … must have felt deeply grateful to him for his humanity and wisdom.

Mr Squeers makes a complete hash of grammar in Nicholas Nickleby:

Peg: Is that you?
Squeers: Ah, it’s me, and me’s the first person singular, nominative case, agreeing with the verb it’s, and governed by Squeers understood, as a acorn, a hour; but when the h is sounded, the a only is to be used, as a and, a art, a ighway. At least, if it isn't, you don't know any better. And if it is, I’ve done it accidentally.

Dictionaries, and the words they contain, receive attention too:

Squeers, describing the death of one of the boys: A candle in his bed-room on the very night he died – the best dictionary sent up for him to lay his head upon!

Squeers has a very practical view of language:

We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of the book, he goes and does it.

The locus classicus for words is in Little Dorrit: the Circumlocution Office, which Dickens describes as ‘the most important Department under Government’. Mr Clennam visits Mr Tite Barncacle:

Clennam: The name of Mr Tite Barnacle has been mentioned to me
 as representing some highly influential interest among his 
creditors. Am I correctly informed?
Narrator: It being one of the principles of the Circumlocution Office never, 
on any account whatever, to give a straightforward answer, Mr
 Barnacle said, ‘Possibly’.

Dickens didn't like politicians much. He says in an essay:

Our honourable friend is triumphantly returned to serve in the next Parliament. He is the honourable member for Verbosity – the best represented place in England.

Pronunciation too is a character feature. Mrs General, on having heard Amy address Mr Dorrit as ‘Father’:

Papa is a preferable mode of address. Father is rather vulgar, my dear. The word Papa, besides, gives a pretty form to the lips. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism are all very good words for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it serviceable, in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to yourself in company – on entering a room, for instance – Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, prunes and prism.

His characters have views about languages too. In Little Dorrit, Mr Meagles:

Narrator: never by any accident acquired any knowledge whatever of the language of any country in which he travelled.
Meagles: Anything short of speaking the language I shall be delighted to undertake.
Narrator: With an unspoken confidence that the English tongue was somehow the mother tongue of the whole world, only the people were too stupid to know it, Mr Meagles harangued innkeepers in the most voluble manner, entered into loud explanations of the most complicated sort, and utterly renounced replies in the native language of the respondents, on the ground that they were
Meagles: all bosh.

Then there’s Mr Lillyvick the tax collector in Nicholas Nickleby, having a conversation with Nicholas:

Lillyvick: What sort of language do you consider French, sir?

Nicholas: How do you mean?
Lillyvick: Do you consider it a good language, sir? A pretty language, a sensible language?
Nicholas: A pretty language, certainly; and as it has a name for everything, and admits of elegant conversation about everything, I presume it to be a sensible one.
Lillyvick [doubtfully]: I don't know. Do you call it a cheerful language, now?
Nicholas: Yes. I should say it was, certainly.
Lillyvick: It’s very much changed since my time, then. Very much. … What’s the water in French, sir?
Nicholas: L’eau.
Lillyvick (mournfully): Ah! I thought as much. Lo, eh? I don’t think anything of that language - nothing at all.

These are some of my favourites. There are of course lots of other examples, many of which are contained in the anthology Words on Words: Quotations about Language and Languages which Hilary and I compiled in 2000 (Penguin/Chicago) – and which I hope to make available online in due course (as it’s out of print). In the meantime, if readers of this blog have their own favourites, I’ll be happy to report them in the Comments section.


Anonymous said...

After reading this blog entry, I was wondering what your views were on the relationship between studing language/linguistics and literature? Do you think that studying language change has any impact on appreciating literature? Or do you feel the two are separate studies?

DC said...

For me, lang and lit are two sides of one coin. I develop the point at length in various places, such as The Cambridge encyclopaedia of the English Language, in the later chapters, or in some of the papers you can find online, notable 'Language blank literature', available on my website (see the Stylistics section).