A Father's English

Published:February 6, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

When I sat down to write this post on Allen Tate’s novel The Fathers (1938), I didn’t intend to write about the book and what it means. (I don’t know what it means.) I only intended to reproduce one of my favorite passages. So I’ll do that here, instead. It’s a footnote, the book’s only one, I think, and it comes on page 17, where the narrator, the elderly Lacy Buchan, is telling his readers all about his family.

I may as well say here that my father did not speak dialect but the standard English of the eighteenth century. In pronunciation the criterion was the oral tradition, not the way the word looked in print to an uneducated school-teacher. For example, although he wrote ate, he pronounced it et, as if it were the old past tense, eat. He used the double negative in conversation, as well as ain’t, and he spoke the language with great ease at four levels: first, the level just described, conversation among family and friends; second, the speech of the “plain people” abounding in many archaisms; third, the speech of the negroes, which was merely late seventeenth or early eighteenth century English ossified; and, fourth, the Johnsonian diction appropriate to formal occasions, a style that he would wield in perfect sentences four hundred words long. He would not have understood our conception of “correct English.” Speech was like manners, an expression of sensibility and taste.

So there’s my quotation, but now it occurs to me that the English in this post serves the same purpose as the clay in the last—a repository for history and a disappeared way of life.