Mikhail Bakhtin and the Social Poetics of Dialect

By Wesling, Donald | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Mikhail Bakhtin and the Social Poetics of Dialect


Wesling, Donald, Papers on Language & Literature


I. SOCIAL INTENTIONALITY OF DIALECT POETRY

What would happen if we brought dialect writing out of relegation? If we wanted to think past dialect as archaic or local in the sense of pious nostalgia? My account of the way language helps to form cultural identify in Glasgow-Scots and London-Caribbean dialect, in their relation to the majority language of standard English, contributes to the creation of a scholarship of interculture for our moment, a scholarship derived from studies of postcolonial writing sites, transgressive border and diaspora cultures, foreign natives. To declare my argument and method right away: against the likely false consciousness in overstrong forms of nationalist ideology, as expressed in the English Only constitutional amendment proposed in the United States and in the political use of received standard pronunciation in the United Kingdom, I will connect Mikhail Bakhtin's philosophy of social heteroglossia to the centrifugal, entropic energies of dialect writing. The idea is to make a small, stubborn, non-nostalgic reference to the local and the plural.

As the need at the moment in a social study of the languages of English is not for survey but for theoretical advance, my textual base is small, but I shall work it hard and shall privilege it by full quotation. The first of my two study-texts is "Unrelated Incident (3)" by Tom Leonard of Glasgow:(1)

this is thi six a clock news thi man said n thi reason a talk wia BBC accent is coz yi widna wahnt mi ti talk aboot thi trooth wia voice lik wanna yoo scruff.if a toktaboot thi trooth lik wanna yoo scruff yi widny thingk it wuz troo. jist wanna yoo scruff tokn. thirza right way ti spell ana right way ti tok it.this is me tokn yir right way a spellin.this is ma trooth. yooz doant no thi trooth yirsellz cawz yi canny talk right.this is the six a clock nyooz.belt up.

The second poem is "It dread inna Inglan" by Linton Kwesi Johnson of London; as I present it in printed form, it is necessary to say that the poem is most fully encountered in its recorded version, spoken by the poet to a reggae beat:

dem frame-up George Lindo up in Bradford Toun but di Bradford Blacks dem a rally roun mi seh dem frame-up George Lindo up in Bradford Toun but di Bradford Blacks dem a rally roun....

Maggi Tatcha on di go wid a racist show but a she haffi go kaw, rite now, African Asian West Indian an 'Black British stan firm inna Inglan inna disya time yah far noh mattah wat dey say, come wat may, we are here to stay inna Inglan, inna disya time yah....

George Lindo him is a working man George Lindo him is a family man George Lindo him nevah do no wrong George Lindo di innocent one George Lindo him noh carry no daggah George Lindo him is nat no rabbah George Lindo dem haffi let him go George Lindo dem bettah free him now! I set these out early, so that their full strangeness-in-familiarity of sound and rhythm may modify my context-building, and stand as evidence for the analytical grapple.

The theory of dialect is a theory of glossaries, which need not by their presence reinforce the ideal of local writing as alien or defective. From the writer's point of view, dialect is always, as orthography, a notation: usually it means the writer's invention of the image of the speech of Another. The theory of dialect is also a theory of glossolalia, at least in the sense that the partial bafflement of the standard speaker-reader is intended. The uncanniness of the sounds and syntax will violate and restructure the table of values, coming as these effects do from another site within the same language. Dialect writers are scholars of sounds, rhythms. Chirographic and conventional their scripts may be, but the marks of the image of the oral on this writing are shocking to the standard reader, so different is this printed voice, so unassimilable and yet still English. It is a case where the least difference has more significance than there would be if another language entirely were used.

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