Sunday, October 2, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 4 - Dialogue and the Dorset Tongue

The Dorset accent has been featured in prominent roles
 in recent fantasy classics like Hagrid from the Harry Potter films. 
In Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy employs a very different set of strategies to capture the language of Dorset than his literary ancestor, the poet William Barnes. Barnes, as demonstrated in part 3 of this series, wrote his verse in the Dorset dialect, painting the sounds of the region in purposeful phonetic spellings that deviate from modern English. Hardy retains his regular voice in describing the setting and action but hints at the peculiarities of Dorset speech in the dialogue. As the story features characters at different points on a continuum of class, caste and education levels, those devices ring with a particular clarity in scenes where socially disparate characters interact.

Dialogue dominates Under the Greenwood Tree. Conversations fill entire chapters and sometimes spill over into the next. Hardy paints his characters mainly through almost obsessive tics in their speech patterns. Reuben Dewy, the male romantic lead's father, is the most instantly recognizable with his habit of throwing in a "my sonnies"  as a prelude to filling half a page while talking to no one in particular.

"Hullo, my sonnies, here you be then!" said Reuben Dewy at length, standing up and blowing forth a vehement gust of breath. "How the blood do puff up in anybody's head, to be sure, a-stooping like that! I was just going out to gate to hark for ye." He then carefully began to wind a strip of brown paper round a brass tap he held in his hand. "This in the cask here is a drop o' the right sort" (tapping the cask); "'tis a real drop o' cordial from the best picked apples --Sansoms, Stubbards, Five-corners, and such-like--you d'mind the sort, Michael?" (Michael nodded.) "And there's a sprinkling of they that grown down by the orchard-rails--streaked ones--rail apples we d'call 'em, as 'tis by the rails they grow, and not knowing the right name. The water-cider from 'em is as good as most people's best cider is."

(For readers not familiar with the Dorset accent, this video suggests reading it in Robbie Coltrane's delivery as Hagrid from the Harry Potter films.)

Drawing from this example (which is descriptive of the way Hardy's captures the Dorset speech from this particular social set), we can make a few broad generalizations about his strategy. First, there is the use of archaic pronouns like "ye" and "thee" and "thou," which show up with some regularity. Secondly, we see a lot of non-standard contractions like "'tis" and "d'mind" and "d'call."
One of the more interesting of these contractions that shows up regularly is a terminal 'n after a verb, (such as "that ever I should call'n such") as a substitution for the word 'him." This is also represented as an uncontracted "en" where we might expect to see a "him."

There is also an attention to cadence that shouldn't be overlooked. Hardy regularly employs the passive voice in his dialogue construction, which contributes to the feeling that it takes his characters a long time to say the simplest things. Consider how it affects the cadences of this passage, delivered by Mr. Penny, a member of the Mellstock Quire: "If so be I hadn't been as scatter-brained and thritingill [wrong-headed] as a chiel, I should have called at the schoolhouse wi' a boot and I cam up along. What is coming to me I really can't estimate at all!"

There are a few moments where the differences between common Dorset speakers and their more refined neighbors are contrasted directly, giving an even clearer sense of the devices Hardy is using to reinforce the dialect in the text. In a pivotal scene in the book, the Quire travels to the home of Parson Maybold in order to lobby against the installation of an organ in the church to replace them. Maybold, like Fancy Day, is representative of someone with roots in the area who has been elevated in status through education and his language and demeanor reflects it.

"What I have been thinking" --the tranter implied by this use of the past tense that he was hardly so discourteous as to be positively thinking it then--"is that the quire out to be gie'd a little time, and not done away wi' till Christmas, as a fair thing between man and man. And, Mr. Mayble, I hope you'll excuse my common way?"

"I will, I will. Till Christmas," the vicar murmured, stretching the two words to a great length, as if the distance to Christmas might be measured that way. "Well, I want you all to understand that I have no personal fault to find, and that I don't wish to change the church music by forcible means, or in a way which should hurt the feelings of any parishioners. Why I have at least spoken definitely on the subject is that a player has been brought under--I may say pressed upon-my notice several times by one of the churchwardens. And as the organ I brought with me is here waiting" (pointing to a cabinet-organ standing in the study), "there is no reason for longer delay."

Fancy's dialogue reads largely like Parson Maybold's but Hardy accentuates her attention to language in a passage connected to the after-wedding party that notes that [emphasis mine]: The propriety of every one was intense by reason of the influence of Fancy, who, as an added precaution in this direction, had strictly charged her father and the tranter to carefully avoid saying 'thee' and 'thou' in their conversation, on the plea that those ancient words sounded so very humiliating to persons of newer taste."

There is one last tidbit about language as it relates to class hidden in Geoffrey Day's introduction, although it probably reflects more on class than language. As the game-keeper for one of Lord Wessex's estates, Day develops two different protocols for talking with others; one for those considerably above him in status (his employer) and those considerably below him (as typified in this passage by his helper Enoch but just as easily applied to any member of the Dewy family).

Although not an extraordinarily taciturn man among friends slightly richer than himself, he never wasted words upon outsiders, and to his trapper Enoch his ideas were seldom conveyed by any other means than nods and shakes of the head. Their long acquaintance with each other's ways, and the nature of their labours, rendered words between them almost superfluous as vehicles of thought, while the coincidence of their horizons, and the astonishing equality of their social views, by startling the keeper from time to time as very damaging to the theory of master and man, strictly forbade any indulgence in words such as courtesies.

In the next installment of JLS, we'll look at more of these social conventions and how the define the relationships and expectations between different members of the cast.

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