"What's the Good Word" Radio Program
DATE: 6 May 1958
OCCASION: What's the Good Word Radio Program, Cabell Hall
Play the full recording:
Engineer: You can hear the opening for the program [being] [...].
Announcer: "What's the good word?" [theme music]
Engineer: It's going on our master tape now. [...]
Announcer: Welcome now to What's the Good Word, a weekly presentation of the University of Virginia designed to inform and entertain the people of Virginia about our English language and literature. How much do you know about the language you speak? Our host for the program is Mr. Edward Stevenson of the Department English Language and Literature of the University in Charlottesville. [theme music] Now here's Mr. Stevenson.
Edward Stevenson: Today we are very fortunate to have as our special guest Mr. William
Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi, the celebrated—justly celebrated
southern writer of fiction and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
Our panel is somewhat larger than usual today, as several of the students from
my English 32 class have joined us. In addition to Mr. Robert Kellogg of the
Department of English, one of our regular panel members, we have with us
also today Mr. Houk, Mrs. Massey, Miss Winslow, Miss Taylor, Miss Marston, Mr.
Bagley, Mr. Nesbit, Mr. Miller, Mr. Carlson and Miss Frame of
the class in the history of the English language who are here to ask Mr.
Faulkner some questions about his use of dialect and other questions concerning
language in his fiction writing. And I suppose without further ado we might as
well start on the questions.
Mr. Houk, will you lead off with the first question, please?
Houk: Yes. Mr. Faulkner, your character Doom has the—a curious history for his name. His Indian name Ikkemotubbe was translated into L'homme or De l'homme in French, then was translated by him back to Doom in English. I understand that's correct.
William Faulkner: That's correct. It was translated back to Doom not by him but by his associates trying to pronounce his French name, given to him by the French adventurer who called himself the Chevalier Soeur-Blonde de Vitry, that he met in New Orleans. That was simply an anglicization of the French De l'homme.
Houk: And that—that Anglicization would be your imagination—from your imagination rather than from facts. In other words, you do not know a parallel such as this one in Indian lore.
William Faulkner: No, I would certainly like to think I'd invented that.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I'd like to ask you about your use of "aint" in the dialogue of your characters. In particular, in As I Lay Dying. When Anse Bundren is talking to Vernon Tull he says, "I aint asking it of you, he says, I can always do it for me and mine. I aint asking you to risk your mule. It aint your dead; I am not blaming you." Now why do you have the switch between—from "aint" to "am not"?
William Faulkner: "Am not" is more positive.
Unidentified participant: So you use the "am not" when you are definite [...]—
William Faulkner: Yes, to be very positive, yes. Otherwise they would have said "aint."
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in The Portable Faulkner the editor says, "Incidentally the title of the novel has nothing to do with August sunlight; it refers to Lena Grove and her baby. In the Mississippi backwoods, it is sometimes said of a pregnant woman, but more often of a mare or cow, that she will be light in August or September." Is this how you meant it to be—the title?
William Faulkner: No, I never heard of that. It refers to a texture of the light in August in my country, in a spell of two or three cool days we call "blackberry winter." It's the light. I had never heard that business of after the cow drops the calf she's light in August.
Edward Stevenson: And that—you don't know that expression at all.
William Faulkner: No.
Edward Stevenson: I haven't heard it in Georgia either.
Unidentified participant: I suppose people have spoken to you of it since then?
William Faulkner: Yes.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in connection with this class in particular, we've been very interested in reading about names in America, about personal and geographical names. I wonder to what extent the names that you use parallel those that have actually occurred in your lifetime, or in any history that you may have learned.
William Faulkner: I think any writer is very careful always not to use actual names if he can help it because a great deal of his time would be taken up explaining to the actual owner of that name that he didn't refer to him, was not impugning his character nor his past nor his parentage.
Edward Stevenson: Originally in "The Spotted Horses" story, weren't you going to call the sewing machine salesman Suratt, and then you met somebody by that name so you changed the name to Ratliff, [didn't you]?
William Faulkner: Yes, that's right.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, does the speech of Sartoris in the story "Ad Astra" have any special dialect qualities? Is it a southern speech, or is it just the speech of an average educated American?
William Faulkner: It would be the speech of a limited young man, who had no particular education. It was a speech he had heard from his associates back on his Mississippi plantation, colored just a little by what he had listened to serving with English troops probably.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, Ek Snopes uses the archaic word "[lief]" in "I'd just as lief let them stay out there." Is this word still common in Mississippi?
William Faulkner: Oh yes, there are any number of words derived from lowland Scottish in Mississippi country people's talk. They say "to ret up a room."
Edward Stevenson: That "leif"—it may be just my own inexperience, but I haven't come across that in Georgia. I wonder—it may be a difference between the speech of Georgia—popular speech, folk speech in Georgia and in Mississippi. I remember being struck by that too, because I wasn't familiar with it in Georgia speech.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, to what degree do you consider dialect in speech important in characterization?
William Faulkner: I think you can't draw a character simply by putting dialect into his mouth. It is important as a part of the picture of the man, an indigenous picture of the individual. In that sense it's important, that is a man will speak according to his nature, his degree and his geography.
Edward Stevenson: Here's an example, Mr. Faulkner, that might have a bearing on that. In the story "Barn Burning," the little boy, Sarty Snopes, uses the forms, the grammatical forms, "ourn" and "hisn." What do these tell the reader about the speaker, would you say?
William Faulkner: That he came from an uneducated class of white people.
Edward Stevenson: Those terms are in use in the southern mountains more than in the lowlands, I think, in the South, more than in the coastal plains of the South. Is there any implication that these people are from mountain extraction or anything of that sort?
William Faulkner: Yes, they're people whose dialect has not been colored at all by the talk of—of Negroes. They are mountain people, where there are not many Negroes. Their speech is harsher. The "r" is more definite than the "r" in the white child that has lived with Negroes.
Edward Stevenson: Yes. Of course that's an old controversy, whether the Negroes learned their speech from the white people, or whether the white people were influenced by the Negroes. I guess we'd better not get into that—it's too complicated a question.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, again from Sartoris: Old Man Falls is a strong dialect characterization. How did you arrive at his speech, and what level of society is he intended to represent?
William Faulkner: He represents the—the older class of Southerner. He was not quite illiterate in his time as the—as a Snopes would be in his. He had a close association with people that—that were literate. But he too belongs to the—the class whose ancestors owned no slaves.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I was wondering, from your short story "That Evening Sun"—there's a section when Jason talks with Nancy, he says, I'm quoting now, "'I didn't have fun,' Jason said. 'You hurt me. You put smoke in my eyes. Y'awl made me come.'" And I wonder, are you using "y'awl" there as a—directed at Nancy? In other words, is he—is that singular?
William Faulkner: No, no, never.
Unidentified participant: You've never used "y'awl" in the singular?
William Faulkner: Never singular.
Unidentified participant: Have you ever heard it used in the singular?
William Faulkner: No.
Edward Stevenson: I never have either. I'll bear you out on that.
William Faulkner: Not by a southerner. I've heard northerners use it in the singular. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, there's a traditional character in literature, Sophonisba, who was the daughter of Hasdrubal, and the subject of many tragedies. She is not known too much today, I don't think, but your character from the short story "Was," from Go Down, Moses I believe, Miss Sophonsiba I believe is the way you pronounce her name, is that—is the change of that "s" from Sophonisba to Sophonsiba, a change just of the "s" not of the accent, is that your—is that intentional?
William Faulkner: Intentional in this sense: to imply that the people of—of her—her class and her time were—were involved with—with books, with culture, but they were careless with it too, and they would mispronounce the names, they would take classical names and give to the Negro slaves and would probably mispronounce them, so that after the—the Negro had passed it on to his children it became something else, but at one time it came out of the classics, that someone who had read the Latin or the Greek had seen it.
Unidentified participant: We've sort of talked around this. I was wondering, do you have any key by which you go to make a distinction between the dialogue of your various—the various levels of your characters, such as between the Compsons, the Snopes, the Negroes, and the Indians and so forth? Is there anything that you use as a distinction between these two, between all of these?
William Faulkner: No, of course not deliberately. It's a—a—a concept that the Compson would speak a little differently from a Snopes, or from an intermediate between Compson and Snopes. That's a matter of the ear, that these people—when a writer gets the character properly on his feet, the character takes charge of things. The character says, "This is what I'm going to say, you put it down."
Edward Stevenson: Thank you very much, Mr. Faulkner. Our time will not permit further questioning at this session, but be with us again next week, when again our Writer in Residence, Mr. William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi, will be with the members of the English 32 class in order to answer questions concerning his use of dialect and of language in general in his fiction. With us on the panel today have been Mr. Robert Kellogg of the Department of English, and various and sundry members of the English 32 class whose names I haven't time to mention at this time. This is Edward Stevenson with the Department of English, asking you to be again with us at the same time next week for another session on this same subject.
Announcer: Our host for the pr— [gap in tape] Stevenson of the Department English Language and Literature of the University in Charlottesville. [theme music] Now here's Mr. Stevenson.
Edward Stevenson: We're very happy to bring you again today our Writer in Residence at the
University, Mr. William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi, who has consented to
speak to the members of the English 32 class in the history of the English
language concerning matters involving his use of dialect or any feature of his
use of language in his fiction. Our panel is therefore somewhat larger than
usual. Besides myself and Mr. Kellogg of the Department of English, we have Mr.
Houk, Mrs. Massey, Miss Winslow, Miss Taylor, Miss Marston, Mr. Bagley, Mr.
Nesbit, Mr. Miller, Mr. Carlson and Miss Frame of the English
And now without further ado, Miss Winslow, will you please lead off with the first question?
Winslow: Mr. Faulkner, I've noticed a lot of your short stories have very short titles. Do you think that's more effective than a long title?
William Faulkner: I doubt if there can be any rule about that. I think that anything, the shorter it's said the better. I think that—that stories title themselves quite often. Yes, in that anything, the shorter it's said the better it is.
Edward Stevenson: "Long" is a [...] good long title, or "Wash."
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, this might sound like a typical question from a proud Virginian, but how did you arrive at—at—arrive at the name Jefferson for the town?
William Faulkner: I told that in a book called Requiem for a Nun. It was the mail carrier, in 1811 or '12 it was, who brought the mail into what was then an Indian trading post had—had been a tenant on Mr. Jefferson's place, one of Mr. Jefferson's places here in Albemarle County. It's an involved, long story, but it explains how they named the town Jefferson.
Edward Stevenson: Well that's interesting. I never knew that it really was connected with Thomas Jefferson. Very good.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in your writing of dialogues, do you present the words of your characters as they would have spoken them? Or do you just use a touch of dialect to color the character?
William Faulkner: I think best to use as little dialect as possible because it confuses people who are not familiar with it. That nobody should let the character speak completely in his own vernacular. It's best indicated by a few simple, sparse but recognizable touches.
Robert Kellogg: Mr. Faulkner, I'd like to ask you a question if it's not too involved along those lines. Last week we were talking about the use of dialect to differentiate the classes that people originated in, the social classes, the geographical location. I was wondering perhaps about the use of language of a child narrator. I've noticed in, say for example "That Evening Sun," lots of Quentin's sentences seem short and perhaps the way a child might speak them and yet it's pretty grown-up for a nine-year-old to report all of the things he does. I wonder whether you'd comment on his rather accurate reporting.
William Faulkner: One has to take liberties to that extent. I think that some of the things that Huck Finn recorded he couldn't have done at his age. That's the liberties which the writer must take in order to make his story clear and interesting.
Robert Kellogg: And yet we—we assume his point of view throughout the story, is that not so?
William Faulkner: Yes, that his point of view is still that of his age, even though his diction may not be.
Robert Kellogg: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: Sir, would you make any distinction between what, say, a southern mountain character would say in 1920 and what he would say in 1950, or is it just all what you heard when you were in [...]?
William Faulkner: I think that his—his vernacular, his dialect wouldn't alter so much as his vocabulary might increase a little because of radio and—and books and newspapers which he can get or he can't escape from getting in 1950 which he couldn't get in 1910 or '20.
Edward Stevenson: Let me put in a sort of a variation on that question. Do you try to make any distinction between what you conceive today to be the speech, say, of the 1880s and maybe the 1920s?
William Faulkner: No more than we just stated, the vocabulary might change but the—the diction wouldn't.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in listening to several of your talks I find it sort of curious and rather remarkable that often you use what is generally considered to be bad grammar, for instance "he dont," "aint." Do you have a conscious intent in talking in this manner?
William Faulkner: No.
Unidentified participant: Is it a—certainly I have no question that you know what good grammar is [...]. Is it just a recollection in your mind of the speech in Mississippi at the [...]?
William Faulkner: Probably old muscular habits in speech, if you will agree that—that speech can have old muscular habits, just like the arm or the hand can. To me that's not really too important, that a little bad grammar don't hurt anything.
Edward Stevenson: That's really more old fashioned, I think, than anything else.
William Faulkner: Probably, yes.
Edward Stevenson: You find—you find for instance things like "he don't" in the letters of Lord Byron, I've noticed.
Unidentified participant: Sir, do you think that the dialect or speech of the southern Negro is a deterrent to his progress [...]?
William Faulkner: No, I shouldn't think that—that anyone's speech should be a deterrent to his progress if he just don't use too much of it. I think a lot of— [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Well put.
William Faulkner: I think a lot of people talk too much.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, the wife in "The Fire and the Hearth," [...] an educated Negro woman, seems in direct contrast to Old Man Falls in Sartoris. This is a transcription of her speech: "Where are you going this time of night? Messing around up yonder in the bottom all last night! Getting back home just in time to hitch up and get to the field a good hour after sunup." Whereas Old Man Falls is: "Cunnel was settin' thar in a cheer, his sock feet propped on the po'ch railin', smokin' this hyer very pipe." Since the copyright date on Sartoris is 1929 and the copyright date on Go Down, Moses, from which "The Fire and the Hearth" is taken, is much later, does this difference in true—in the representation of dialect indicate a definite trend on your part, or is this merely a social difference?
William Faulkner: I would say it's a social difference, that the Negro woman maybe had a little more to say to tell the story, which gets back to what we just spoke of. Also she had been associated with a better class of white—a more literate, cultured class of white people for more of her life than Old Man Falls had. It may be the Negro woman had a little more chance to talk than Old Man Falls had.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, there has appeared in American Speech magazine some articles on the southern dialect, and it points out certain peculiarities about the Southern dialect. Now these articles were written by men who—in the Mississippi and Louisiana area. The inconsistency seems to appear in the fact that some of these examples that they show are not consistent with examples shown in the Georgia dialect, or perhaps in—in the Carolinas. My question is this: do you think that there could possibly be a split in the southern dialect, between the Carolinas and Georgia, and perhaps draw a rough line down Alabama, and have a different dialect on your side?
Edward Stevenson: Sort of two subdialects, maybe an eastern and a western division of the Southern dialect?
Unidentified participant: That's right.
William Faulkner: I'm not too certain of that. I do know the dialect in some parts of Mississippi and Louisiana has been colored a little by French and Spanish influence. I think that the dialect would be consistent more by contour lines. As Mr. Stevenson spoke of, the people of the lowlands speak differently from the people in the hills, so the people in the north Alabama hills and east Tennessee hills and Georgia hills would speak a dialect. The people in the flatlands of Georgia, the flatlands of Alabama and Mississippi would speak a dialect, which would be almost identical. The people along the coast would speak a dialect colored just a little by the influence of Spanish and French and Creole.
Unidentified participant: In connection with this, sir, Wash Jones uses speech characterized by the following: "air" for "are," "yit" for "yet," and "hit" for "it," and various others of course. Although we know from our studies in our class that this is generally common Southern speech, many of your characters on somewhat the same social plane as Wash Jones do not use this type of speech. In the genealogy at the rear of the—Absalom, Modern Library Absalom, Absalom!, Wash Jones is said to—it's said that the date and location of his birth is unknown. Could we assume possibly that he comes from—from somewhere in Tennessee, if he uses this speech?
William Faulkner: From a hill country, yes.
Edward Stevenson: Here's a question I'd like to get in before our time runs out, about a linguistic device that writers often use, more commonly seen in poets perhaps than in prose fiction, in poetry rather than in prose fiction. Mr. Faulkner, I refer to the use of alliteration. And let me read you a sentence from "Barn Burning," and note the alliteration on the "s" sounds. "His two hulking sisters"—this is the little boy's point of view—"His two hulking sisters in their Sunday dresses and his mother and her sister in calico and sunbonnets were already in it, sitting on and among the sorry residue of the dozen and more movings which even the boy could remember." Was that a conscious use of alliteration, or is it just happenstance?
William Faulkner: Happenstance.
Edward Stevenson: Sure enough. Do you ever use alliteration consciously?
William Faulkner: No, I don't have time. [audience laughter] I mean by that the writer is too busy getting the story down before he forgets it to bother too much about his grammar or his style or the tricks he might use.
Edward Stevenson: But in the process of revision mightn't you scratch out sometimes and substitute something which you think would sound a little better?
William Faulkner: A reviser would but nobody is going to revise if he can help it. That is, nobody revises for fun. If it's all right he lets it go. The publisher can correct the grammar if he thinks it's needed.
Edward Stevenson: Well, I see our time has run out. I want to thank Mr. Faulkner [very much]—
[end of recording]