Re: RARA-AVIS: Slang

From: Etienne Borgers (
Date: 20 Jun 2003

At 13:13 20-06-03 +0000, :
>Miker wrote:
><<Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and thinking surely the
>whole narrative isn't slang, so I checked it out. It is.>>
>Then Mario wrote:
>"That's not slang, son. It's Southern. None of the
>characters is trying to cut clever, either. They speak
>authentically. Twain knew how bad the phonetic humorists
>sounded (they were his competitors, after all), so he was
>very careful about using folksy renderings of speech. I
>think Huck works much better in Southern, but it would
>remain a great book in Yank."
>What is Southern if not slang? What is slang if not a dialectic veering away
>from standard english, such as Southern? Are you saying Southern is an
>exception to the "abuse of slang" rule? And if I put across a speech (in a
>character) in regional slang is the character necessarily cutting clever?
>Can he not be authentic?
>Charlie Williams

SLANG I totally support Mario's point of view. Southern is a dialect, not slang, as any regional variation of a language is. Otherwise, with the opposite approach, the Queen's English is what… American slang?

I'm not a specialist for the American language and its variations, far from it, but from the books I red I never found HB/Noir written in the USA using
*exclusively* slang. The closest I found are in the "Black American" popular lit, but even there it's applied mostly to dialog and to the use of some specific terms inside the narration which remains in colloquial or even plain American English. The same for "junkies" novels of the 60-70s, and for some fiction or realistic books by, or describing, jazzmen and their sphere. Even "Really the Blues" (1946) memoirs by Mezz Mezzrow, if I remember correctly, does not use exclusively slang for the narration.

On the contrary of some tradition in Europe, especially in France, where slang was used as the full language for poetry, novels…etc. as there was a very old tradition of describing the underworld and the anti-establishment social groups from within and in literary treatments. The oldest example I remember is Fran篩s Villon, poet, troublemaker, thief, several time incarcerated (around 1455 to1463- end of the Middle Ages) sentenced to be hanged… and we can find existentialist and even Noir approaches in some of his best-known sets of poems. He was partly living with the Paris underworld and therefore used "jargon"- the French slang of these social groups in Paris, amongst these also the Jobelin slang- to write some maybe less-known poems. Even if you understand 15th century French, you will not get a single correct meaning of what you will read in that "jargon" set (tittled:"Ballades en Jargon"- Ballads in Jargon). Anyway the language specialists did not come with a coherent
"translation" of these poems in modern French before 1885 due to the cryptic complications of the texts. This tradition staid in French literature, and even during the 19th and early 20th century some reputed authors wrote in slang: poems, songs or even novels (see Francis Carco for instance, or even parts of the memoirs written by Vidocq).

I think that in the English lit (from England) similar approach must exist along its history, but not persistently to the 20th century… but here I do not have sufficient knowledge.

In modern French HB/Noir of the 40-50s, there were many writers writing their novels in slang or at least in heavily distant colloquial French. Often mediocre novels… But one of the founders of French Noir, Albert Simonin, wrote his 7 novels about French underworld and outlaws in Parisian *slang*, a cryptic language used by these groups and in some parts of populist Paris. The whole text was with that form, not only the dialog. His most famous novel was "Touchez pas au grisbi"-1953 (Don't touch the Bread) novel that was adapted for a top film by Jacques Becker, who started with it a real rejuvenating of the mystery French film, this film being one of the direct roots of French Noir on screen.

Another one was Andr頌e Breton starting with his famous "Du rififi chez les hommes"-1953 (slang for : 'Clash amongst the Though Guys'), and followed by many more. But his Parisian slang was mixed with the slang of French prisoners and real thugs. The film adaptation of "Rififi" (1954) shadowed the realistic side of the language… but it was still a very good film by Jules Dassin.

Some parts of the novels in slang were even very difficult to understand for the general public, and often a short glossary of the most obscure words was added to the novel. This trend of using slang to write complete novels disappeared around the end of the 60s and does not exist anymore in contemporary French HB/Noir.

Definitely, slang is not colloquial or dialect, it's always a kind of cryptic language used by small social groups, during a typical period.

E.Borgers Hard-Boiled Mysteries

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