Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Living Language

"The living language is like a cow-path: it is the creation of the cows themselves who, having created it, follow it or depart from it according to their whims or needs. From daily use, the path undergoes change. A cow is under no obligation to stay."

E.B White

I love White's image. As a writer, I find that I need to travel many paths in order to tell the story as it should be told. The main path -- that well-traveled one labeled Correct English Usage -- is the one I try to stick to for the narrative portions of my writing.

I may unintentionally stray now and then, as I slip into the comfortable Southern idiom of my upbringing, but generally I aim for the English teacher's ideal -- grammatical, with word usage and punctuation as close to standard as I can make them.

Occasionally I rebel. For example, my spell-checker, my dictionary, and my copy-editor all tell me that Realtor must always be capitalized. I disagree, feeling that it gives the word too much importance in a sentence (sorry, Sallie Kate) and continue to make it lower-case.

When I'm writing dialogue, those alternative paths of slang and dialect are crucial to making characters, with all their differences of age, education, and upbringing, come alive. I dearly enjoy exploring those side paths of language. Here again, I test my copy-editor's patience with my use of the North Carolina mountain talk as I've heard it.

The dialect is not one-size-fits-all -- some older characters may use atter and hit, their children will say after and it, and both generations will say you uns. Or perhaps y'uns -- it seems to differ from family to family. Elizabeth, from the South, though not the mountains, says you all (which my poor long-suffering copy editor wants to hyphenate or change to y'all.

I just change it back, being, as White says, under no obligation to stay.

This is a repost from 1/08.


Ms. A said...

Vicki, this must be the post that came up "not found" on my dashboard. Sorry I missed it. I only found it tonight, when I was showing hubby some of your photos.

Vicki Lane said...

I don't know what happened that this post didn't show up as it should have. Ah well.