Continuing my efforts to understand "ladyhood," I've taken to listening to Pride and Prejudice:


Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

This has nothing to do with "ladyhood," but one of the things I've loved about my current pursuit is seeing all the forgotten ways English can be used. You just don't hear people described as being of "mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper" anymore. A few chapters later Austen describes a character who's reading--"With a book, he was regardless of time." There's something beautiful in that which I'm struggling to name.

You see this sort of deployment of English all through the literature of the immediate past. A freedman describing his father says, "My Daddy was a caution," which I translate into modern Ebonics as "Pops wasn't to be fooled with." Of course I like their's better. A matron signs up to instruct another man's daughters in the art of running the house--"un femme de charge." Later, bragging of the work she's done, she writes him and says, "By now you have a specimen of my skills." A father, sensing age upon him, is tired by his futile instructions to his daughter, and suggests she write her mother, "I have so little time or strength," he tells her. " That I am anxious to make every blow tell."

It's always been clear to me that English was many languages. The language I learned as a child, is not the one I use here. (OK, sometimes.) But what I'd never really thought on was how there areĀ languages within languages across time, and that when phrases fall away, thoughts--ways of seeing the world--fall with them. "My Daddy was a caution" says something different, something grander than "My Daddy was a bad nigger." And not simply because of the profanity.

I know linguists deal with this all the time in the effort to preserveĀ language. What's interesting to me is that even in a dominant language, the vocabulary can live on, but ways of using that vocabulary can die. Of course those ways can also be rediscovered, reworked to presumably live again.

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