John Lazersfeld. Linguistic Environments in Literary Cities

John Lazarsfeld

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

Literary Cities Seminar

24 April 2014

Linguistic Environments in Literary Cities


Language style is a key characteristic in many novels. From the appearance of verbal tics, the use of different dialects between characters, and differences between narration and dialogue, an author’s linguistic decisions are purposeful and hold much significance. In three novels—Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan, and Native Son by Richard Wright—the significance in the varying use of language largely reflects the social context and setting of each book. Furthermore, by making these factors more visible, the use of language in the three novels ultimately shows how landscape and setting play the leading role in shaping a book’s development and outcome.

Call it Sleep

Call it Sleep introduces an environment of maximum diversity with a correspondingly diverse linguistic setting. Roth showcases the different conflicts and gaps in language use between immigrants when multiple ethnic groups (in Call It Sleep Austrian, German, Polish, Hungarian, Armenian, African-American, Italian, and Chinese are mentioned) converge in a dense geographic space such as New York. These individual groups have a heavy tendency to maintain a strong sense of their own culture and create a space of high ethnic diversity.

The novel opens with a ubiquitous 1900s immigrant scene: a boat filled with newly approved citizens making the final passage between Ellis Island and the “Golden Land” of Manhattan. Here, in the book’s prologue, Roth characterizes new immigrants soon to set foot in New York:  “the full-bearded Russian, the scraggly-whiskered Jew, and among them Slovack peasants with docile faces, smooth-cheeked and swarthy Armenians, pimply Greeks, Danes with wrinkled eyelids” (9).

Within this opening scene, Roth displays the linguistic diversity that pervades the story line through the initial interactions of the Schearl family: Genya, her husband Albert, and son David who are all reunited in this new country. Genya tries to make initial conversation with Albert in Yiddish: “[she] tried to smile, and touching her husband’s arm said timidly, ‘And this is the GoldenLand.’ She spoke in Yiddish” (11). Then, a little later, Genya asks Albert, “Gehen vir voinen du? In Nev York?” to which Albert responds in Yiddish, “Nein. Bronzeville. Ich hud dir schoin geschriben” (16).

In these initial instances, Roth comments on the ethnic make-up of his main characters: Austrian-originated Jews who speak a heavy dialect of German-influenced Yiddish. However, as with the first example and what mostly continues throughout the novel, Roth uses a Yiddish-to-English translation for much of the dialogue and narrative that exists between two Yiddish-speaking characters. In this sense, Roth writes a novel in Yiddish that is presented to the reader as English. This literary technique shows Roth’s desire to display the pace of assimilation of the Schearl family. The family embarks on life in a new country, yet their primary mode of communication between themselves and other “countrymen” is their native language. Roth can thus transform their Yiddish conversations into more poetic phrases in the reader’s eyes, and he also makes a clear distinction of when characters like David are actually speaking in English by writing in a broken dialect. An early example of this occurs when David goes outside to play with his new neighbor, Yussie, both of whom are speaking in Roth’s depiction of broken English:

Kentcha see? Id’s coz id’s a machine . . . Oh!. . . It wakes up mine fodder in de  mawning . . . It wakes up mine fodder too . . . It tells yuh w’en yuh sh’d eat an’  w’en yuh have tuh go tuh sleep. It shows yuh w’en, but I tooked it off . . . I god a calenduh opstai’ s. . .Puh! Who ain’ god a calenduh? (21)

Roth’s manipulation of language here gives us a clear lens as to how a child like David or Yussie—old enough to have a strong foundation in a first language of Yiddish, yet young enough to be able to develop English—exists in a liminal space between two cultural territories.  Because of this, not growing up in one cultural environment, David finds himself more prone to be troubled by simple details, such as correctly relaying the name of his street to adults when he becomes lost.  David is unable to communicate clearly because he is engulfed in his family’s multiple language barriers.

“I’m losted,” David sobbed. . . Oh! [the man] chuckled sympathetically. Losted, eh? And where do you live? . . . On a hunnder ‘n’ twenny six Boddeh Stritt. . .Where? What Street? . . . On Boddeh Stritt  . . . Oh! Heh! HEh! You mean Potter Street . . .Boddeh Stritt . . .Puh. Puh. Poddeh? Buh. Buh. Boddeh?” (98)

The language barrier that Roth portrays in scenes like this—where broken-English becomes problematic—shows the level of assimilation that different groups of immigrants had taken at the time. In contrast, when David eventually is directed to the police station during his quest to find his way back to his street, we hear the Irish-accented English of the officers: “You were just kiddin’ us weren’t ye? . . . Step up close an do yer dooty, sonny me boy” (101). It is likely not a coincidence that the police officers, while also immigrants themselves, obtained their civil positions in part because of their English-speaking origins. In contrast, for immigrants like Albert, his lack of a strong English-language base limited his opportunities for work, further exacerbated by his unfiltered rage.

In the case of the Schearls—and particularly David—an unclear sense of self emerges. The ethnic contrasts displayed through language provide many difficulties for David’s development, in addition to normal childhood issues experienced by all children. He encounters his first experiences with sexuality and is enraptured by his religious studies, but also finds a lack of strong support from his family [REPEATED BELOW]—a result of their unsettled roots and problems from recent immigration. Witnessing firsthand his father’s brutality as a milk-deliverer and learning of his mother’s past relationships contribute to David’s state of agitation where Roth frames his stream-of-thought language as incomprehensible:

—Take longer if I had a potsee. Longer, lots longer. And kick it here, so it goes there. And there, and there, and kick it there, so it goes here. And here and follow it. And follow it where it went. And if it went away, go away. Go with it. And if it comes back, come back. Ow! Mama! Mama! Tired all out! Ow! Mama! Should have gone away. Anyway. Away . . . (378)

Roth illustrates David in this quotation as a naïve child burdened with exhaustion, but more than that, David’s agitated, incomprehensible state can be seen as a result of his environment. His parents’ first-generation status as newcomers, combined with the religious questioning he recently came about give David no true compass in his development. Roth portrays all of these aspects as the result of living in an extremely diverse, concentrated, largely unassimilated landscape that he is able to describe through the use of particular dialects and language choices. All told, a social setting is created where an immigrant family like David’s struggles to remain unified in a new country.


The Kitchen God’s Wife

In The Kitchen God’s Wife, author Amy Tan, like Roth, uses different guises of English to comment on the relationships among members of a Chinese-American family in the San Francisco area. Different levels of assimilation between two generations of Chinese-American immigrants play out in a bilingual environment with many variations in linguistic usage. Tan, from the novel’s opening lines, begins characterizing the linguistic tendencies of the two generations through narrative and dialogue by Pearl, a second-generation Chinese American:

Whenever my mother talks to me, she begins the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument . . .  ‘Pearl-ah, have to go, no choice,’ my mother said when she phoned last week. (11)

Pearl, a married adult with children, speaks fluent English like any other American. In contrast, Pearl’s mother Winnie, originally named Wei Li, has a more fragmented English that stands out as a sign of her limited assimilation.  Winnie was born in China and came to America when she married an American man in her late twenties. Her early life in China had been steered by the old-fashioned practice of a male-dominated arranged marriage, ultimately leading her to an unfortunate period of domestic abuse. After living in America, however, Tan shows that Winnie’s more traditional Chinese values and idiosyncrasies prevent her from further assimilating in her new country, and this is manifested in her broken English.

When Pearl visits her mother’s flower shop in Chinatown, Tan shows how Winnie’s language reflects her generations’ halfway-assimilation between Chinese and American cultures. Winne’s flower shop includes many plants and bushes draped with red-bannered messages for customers sending messages to friends or businesses for different occasions.  The red banners have congratulatory phrases written by Winnie herself. As Pearl observes:

[My mother] doesn’t write the typical congratulatory sayings, like “Good  Luck” or “Prosperity and Long Life.” All the sayings, written in gold Chinese characters, are of her own inspiration, her thoughts about life and death, luck and hope: “First-Class Life for Your First Baby,” “Double-Happiness Wedding Triples Family Fortunes,” “Money Smells Good in Your New Restaurant Business,” “Health Returns Fast, Always Hoping.” (23)

Tan uses this example to show that Winnie still writes with Chinese characters in the banners but also purposefully translates these good-luck messages into direct (and awkward) Chinese-English phrases. The fact that Winnie has a flower shop in Chinatown and still uses traditional Chinese characters in her business reflects how she has still maintained a commitment to her native language. Her business caters primarily to a group of customers who have similarly held on to their Chinese culture after immigrating to the United States as Pearl states, “My mother claims these banners are the reasons why the Ding Ho Flower Shop has had success flowing through its doors all these years. By success, I suppose she means that the same people over the last twenty-five years keep coming back” (23).

The assimilation gap between the older and younger generations is also accentuated by Tan’s inclusion of Chinese words in pinyin (romanized Chinese). For example, Pearl explains both her and her mother’s understanding of the Chinese phrase ying-gai. “Ai! Ying-gai find him another job,” says Winnie in a conversation with Pearl, who then goes on to explain these words for herself:

Ying-gai was what my mother always said when she meant, I should have. Ying-gai meant she should have altered the direction of fate, she should have prevented disaster. To me, ying-gai meant my mother lived a life of regrets that never faded with time . . . One time she cited her own version of environmental causes—that the electrician had been sick at the time he rewired our kitchen. “He built that sickness right into our house . . . Ying-gai pick somebody else.” (29)

The language and tone of Pearl’s musings articulates the degree to which Pearl and Winnie have respectively transitioned into a more Western way of living. Winnie, while now having lived in America longer than she did in China, has still greatly held on to her foreign customs and values: using Chinese in her speech, maintaining a strong belief in fate and luck, and sticking with her stubborn practices and habits over things like cooking and finances. Pearl has reached a much different level of cultural understanding than her mother. Pearl looks at her mother’s ways and train of thought as impractical, stubborn, and old-fashioned. However, her more modern, Westernized demeanor comes at the price of a diminished understanding of her mother’s cultural knowledge. While she recognizes some of Winnie’s habits as outdated and inflexible, at the same time, Pearl may never be able to appreciate the poetic value of some of her mother’s Chinese phrases. The way Tan renders the messages of the Chinese banners into awkward English phrases shows how the more assimilated generation may never comprehend and appreciate the culture behind the superficial translations of the less assimilated newcomers. This can also work both ways in that someone like Winnie may not appreciate the nuances of Pearl’s American speech.

The assimilation gap that is bred from generational differences is ultimately what creates an environment in which members of both groups find the need to hold deep-rooted secrets from each other. For a less-assimilated character like Winnie, keeping the secrets of her horrid past was fueled by the fear of facing an unforgiving daughter. For a more-assimilated character like Pearl, choosing not to tell her mother of her serious medical issues was fueled by the fear of facing a non-understanding, critical mother. The assimilation gap between the two generations of characters created, at least initially, a situation where each group misperceived the other’s intentions, exacerbated by the tendency to live without bothering to bridge the shortcomings or divisions in the relationship. Tan’s use of language between the two generations of characters illustrates this. She also shows how eventually, when preexisting perceptions are shed, communication can occur that improves the bond between the two generational groups. For Winnie and Pearl, this means the two can finally appreciate together their shared (or at least partially shared) common culture.

Native Son

In Native Son, unlike the previous two novels, a seemingly monolingual environment surrounds the characters. Set in Chicago during the 1940s, English is the sole language spoken. Throughout the first book of the novel, however, it becomes apparent that not all characters are speaking the same type of English. Instead, Wright acutely differentiates between the contrasting dialects and speech-patterns of English being used. These differences, as Wright points out, largely stem from the racial and socioeconomic divides that are described. From the beginning, the style of speech that Bigger, the African-American protagonist, and his family speak is different:

“Boy, sometimes I wonder what makes you act like you do . . . “What I do now?. . . Sometimes you act the biggest fool I ever saw . . . What you talking about? . . . You scared your sister with that rat and she fainted! Ain’t you got no sense at all?” (7)

This discourse between Bigger and his mother typify the African-American vernacular that is prevalent in mid-twentieth-century Chicago. Wright’s novel accurately depicts a landscape of great segregation where white neighborhoods dominate one part of the city and black neighborhoods dominate a different part. Therefore, the dialogue that occurs between Bigger and his mother represents the language and tone used among black characters in this setting. Later, when Bigger meets the wealthy Daltons for his first day of work, a much different style of conversation occurs. When Mr. Dalton and Bigger sit down to discuss Bigger’s new arrangement, other factors like race, class, and power dynamics become visible:

“Now Bigger, tell me, how old are you? . . .I’m twenty, suh . . .Married? . . .Nawsuh. . . Sit down. You needn’t stand. And I won’t be long. . . Yessuh. . .Now, you have a mother, a brother, and a sister? . . .Yessuh . . .There are four of you?. . . “Yessuh, there’s four of us,” he stammered, trying to show that he was not as stupid as he might appear. He felt a need to speak more, for he felt that maybe Mr. Dalton expected it. And he suddenly remembered the many times his mother had told him not to look at the floor when talking with white folks or asking for a job. He lifted his eyes and saw Mr. Dalton watching him closely. He dropped his eyes again. (49)


In this passage, Bigger changes, or rather, updates his speech patterns in the presence of a white person. He adapts the verbal-tic of “yessuh” or “nawsuh” when responding to Mr. Dalton’s questions (and later “yessum” and “no’m” when speaking with characters like Mrs. Dalton and Peggy). The verbal-tic that Wright picks up on both continues to capture the African-American vernacular of Bigger and also begins to portray the relationship between white and black characters. As the dialogues continues and captures Bigger’s thoughts, it becomes clear that Bigger feels timid in Mr. Dalton’s presence and feels that he must act in a certain way. Bigger’s new verbal-tic is Wright’s method of highlighting the code-switching that occurs in the novel: alternating between different varieties of language in conversation. Bigger instinctively changes the way he speaks because of the preconceived notions of what it means to be black (inferior) and what it means to be white (superior) that dominate the novel’s setting. Blacks live in one area and have certain types of jobs; whites live in another area and have other types of jobs. Ironically, this train of thought that Bigger instinctively falls into is what reinforces and perpetuates the current status of blacks and whites.

Wright continues to give examples of the racial divide in Chicago through Bigger’s initial interaction with Jan and Mary. While both Jan and Mary are, at least in their own consciences, well-intentioned beings, their discourse with Bigger furthers shows how deep-seeded the disconnect is between whites and blacks. As Bigger drives his passengers, Mary says, “You know, Bigger, I’ve long wanted to go into these houses, and just see how your people live. You know what I mean? We know so little about each other. I just want to see. I want to know these people . . .they must live like we live. They’re human . . .”(70). Here, Mary’s use of the pronouns “these” and “they” objectify black people, reflecting the lack of interracial knowledge that permeates the city in that time frame.

While Mary may have the benign intention of trying to bridge the gap between whites and blacks, Wright shows that her first mistake is in grouping all black people together and thinking they are all alike. Similarly, Bigger himself perpetuates this same gap when he laments his fear of seeing his friends when he is with Jan and Mary at a Southside Chicago restaurant: “The people in Ernie’s Kitchen Shack knew him and he did not want them to see him with these white people. He knew that if he went in they would ask one another: “Who’re them white folks Bigger’s hanging around with? “(71). Here, in a similar fashion to Mary and Jan, Bigger is taking all white people at face value, generalizing them to a single identity that he’s learned about all his life. He is afraid of seeing his black friends at this moment because of their similar generalized views of white people, and this causes Bigger to hold these perceptions even more firmly without question.

Ultimately, Wright’s use of language depicts the deeply rooted culture of racial (and socioeconomic) segregation that shapes a black-and-white, two-sided landscape. Wright shows how code-switching and generalizing create an environment where misperceptions are never restructured, the power-dynamic is rarely challenged, and the racial divide has the potential to grow wider. At the root of Bigger’s crime was his fear of getting caught in an unspeakable situation—a black male in the bedroom of a white female.  Once this crime was committed, it became the fear of facing the inevitable punishment—tied to the racial context of the crime—that caused Bigger to partake in his extensive cover-up. Finally, as Mr. Max argued in court, it was an accumulation of the total circumstances Bigger lived in that gave him his outcome. The social climate, Wright argues, of unquestioned stereotypes and unaltered socioeconomic segregation is what led to an otherwise innocent woman’s death and Bigger’s irreconcilable fate.

Different uses of language in the three novels reflect the varying social contexts of each book and ultimately show how setting and landscape greatly influences a novel’s development and outcome. For David in Call It Sleep, growing up in an immigrant society surrounded by a constant mix of cultures and languages—as Roth describes—causes him to struggle searching for his own identity, distinguishing right from wrong, and forming his own values. His family, like other immigrant families, thus finds it difficult to remain unified when living in new country. In The Kitchen God’s Wife, the generational and assimilation gap in a Chinese-American extended family—echoed through Tan’s different shades of English—is what contributes to the extensive deception and secrecy for Pearl and her mother Winnie. These differences in language show how the divide between old and young can be so great that it prevents both from living in the same reality. Finally, in Native Son, while seemingly a monolingual setting, is a climate burdened with immobility and racial divide in Chicago. Wright portrays this landscape through dialectic English and code-switching, and ultimately shows how this environment leads to bitter deaths and tragic outcomes.






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