Each of us overuses certain words in our speech or writing. We have traits we learned as a tyke or adopted later in life that help define who we are. They are as much a part of us as our hair style. In other words, we can change these word patterns if we choose, but it takes effort.
When I listen to people converse, I react to incorrect usage such as “Me and him went to the mall and…” the same way other people respond to chalk squeaks: it hurts so much I cringe. Of course it seems like only yesterday that I remember my grandparents yelling at the TV, “Winston tastes good AS a cigarette should.”
Language changes, but we tend to stick with those verbal mannerisms we learned growing up. To the careful listener these verbal tics come through regardless of later veneers. I don’t mean to say we don’t add new flourishes or that our vocabulary is frozen. (Although I’d be willing to bet it doesn’t grow much after schooling stops.)
I once sat on a barstool next to an expert in speech patterns. After talking with me for a while, he announced I had grown up in Upstate New York, lived a short time in the northern South (Virginia or North Carolina, say) and currently lived in the northeast New Jersey. Good thing I didn’t bet him. I grew up in the Rochester, NY area, spent second and third grades in Blacksburg, Virginia and was then living in Bergen County, New Jersey—it’s most northeastern county.
When I go back to Rochester, they talk with an accent highlighted by nasal a’s. My father has a tape of me drawling the Cub Scout pledge in third grade. In Bergen County, they do funny things with their r’s. I don’t know how this guy could be so accurate because I don’t sound like any of those places—but I guess to a trained ear, I do.
What is the value of listening for these telltale words, phrases or accents? Skillful writers drop them as verbal clues to characterization. I love it when an author grounds me with these little details.
Laura Lippman sets her novels in Baltimore (which native speakers pronounce as though there were no second syllable ) and has her characters say things like, “Joe was police before he passed the bar exam.” Not “Joe worked for the police,” or “Joe was a policeman.” In that region, Joe was police.
If I wanted to show a stuffy, erudite pundit, I’d have him sound like the late William F. Buckley, Jr. (although I’d need a thesaurus to do it). Low education: small vocabulary and improper grammar (no thesaurus necessary, but my teeth may ache). In one of my novels I have a minor character who never swears or uses contractions. No sh—I mean, no kidding.
How about you? Any examples from books you’ve read recently or works you’ve written?
WWK Blogger Paula Gail Benson has two short stories running in Kings River Life Magazine this weekend, "Pelican Spring" and "The Mama Factor." Both are Mother's Day short stories. You can read them by going to: http://kingsriverlife.com/category/kings-river-reviewers/terrific-tales/
Linda Rodriguez is a finalist in two categories for the International Latino Book Awards (given out at BEA the end of May)--one for Every Last Secret and one for editing Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriquena Poets Look at Their American Lives (with Gloria Vando, Anika Paris, and Anita Velez-Mitchell). Congratulations, Linda!
The second SinC Guppy anthology, Fish Nets, has been released by Wildside Press. WWK authors, Gloria Alden, Warren Bull, Kara Cerise and E. B. Davis have short stories in this volume, which can be bought at Wildside Press, the usual retailers and will be available at the Malice Domestic Conference. Look for "the story behind the stories" on May 1 here!
Upcoming Salad Bowl Saturdays include authors Sasscer Hill on 5/18 and Carolyn Mulford on 5/25. If you are interested in being a guest blogger, send a message to Jim Jackson at email@example.com.