The Cosmopolitan Vernacular

February 6, 2014

Not an oxymoron, but a genetic condition, as Sheldon Pollock argues, a local tongue globalized in its emergence and globalized again in its circulation.

Is that why so many African-American authors began with dialect poetry? Not only Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countee Cullen but also Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, and, more recently, Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat.   Peripheral tongues, the languages of those not quite roped in by Standard English, getting out from under it by being at once beneath and beyond.

And not only these. I also love the black dialect in the Pisan Cantos, so unexpected, but that’s the way “Mr. Edwards” talks, the African-American soldier who made a table so that Erza Pound could keep on writing his poetry even under the custody of the American Disciplinary Center.

And this week: a comic struggle with the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean, as reported by Amitav Ghosh in The Sea of Poppies, the language of the Lascar sailors spilling over into an unwitting common tongue.  I wonder how many of us actually bother to memorize the full page of vocabulary Ghosh offers at the beginning of the novel, and how many bother to consult the appended glossary at the end? Or does Ghosh want us to feel helpless, staring at lines such as this, spoken by Mrs. Benjamin Burnham (otherwise known as Burra BeeBee): “It would never do to be warming the coorsy when there’s kubber like this to be heard”?   Uh?

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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