English 190

Research Seminar: "Rotten English"--on contemporary dialect literature


Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
12 Spring 2011 Best, Stephen M.
Best, Stephen
TTh 3:30-5 305 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

Chesnutt, C.: The Conjure Woman; Dunbar, P. L.:  Lyrics of Lowly Life; Hurston, Z. N.:  Their Eyes Were Watching God; Iweala, U.:  Beasts of No Nation; James, M.: The Book of Night Women; Okara, G.:  The Voice; Saro-Wiwa, K.:  Sozaboy; Smith, Z.:  White Teeth

Description

The English were unique in assuming that the word “barbarism” encompassed both language and social condition – taking it to refer to both the specific mistakes that non-native speakers made when essaying a strange language and the absence of culture more broadly (the antithesis to “civilization”).  Thus, when characters speak in English vernaculars (whether slangs, cants, dialects, pidgins, or creoles) their deviant speech is likely to give off a whiff of inferiority even as it provides the illusion of heightened interiority.  In this seminar we will read works written in what the novelist and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa termed “rotten English,” with attention directed primarily toward works produced in the United States and Nigeria.  Our sessions will be organized with the purpose of developing an account of how black writers turned a badge of dishonor into an occasion for literary experimentation, specifically the technical challenge of figuring character consciousness.    Our terms of analysis will be primarily narratological and linguistic, and pitched in the direction of a number of formal concerns: free indirect discourse and the return of omniscient narration in contemporary literature; grammar and ethics; grammar as thought; speech as a representation of the secrecy of thought (and of linguistic communities).  Must characters think in the same linguistic register in which they speak?  When can we take the prattle of subalterns to represent a “shiny externality” (in the words of James Wood) that frustrates the reader by hiding the characters’ inner depths and when “the secret tongue” (in Daniel Tiffany’s phrase) that makes a display of that depth’s inaccessibility?  What makes dialect seem simultaneously like a foreign tongue and the language of the people?  Is the deformation of word and sentence a more subtle means of registering shifts in the ethical landscape of a world out of joint (e.g., the topsy-turvy world in which some people can own others, or postcolonial African states where children do the adults’ fighting), and why can’t Standard English prose adequately capture the same?  

English 190 replaced English 100 and 150 as of Fall '09. English majors may fulfill the seminar requirement for the major by taking one section of English 190 (or by having taken either English 100 or English 150 before Fall '09). Please read the paragraph on page 2 of this Accouncement of Classes for more details about enrolling in, or wait-listing for, this course.

Please click here for more information about enrollment in English 190.

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