Monday, April 14, 2008

Manday is Happy First Movie Day

Today in history there were several important firsts:

Noah Webster published the first dictionary of the American language, beginning the slow death of American dialects and verbal orthography. Today America has less dialects than any other country in history.

Thomas Edison made the first movie on his kinetiscope. Not long after he gave us the Great Train Robbery, the movie which arguably started the cinema industry and helped, I am certain, Webster's cause to homogenize language by perpetuating a kind of cinematic dialect as the one true trope.

Finally, in 1935,
a dark cloud appeared on the horizon in the western midwest. Not locusts or carrier pigeons or crow, but dirt. Plain old soil, lifted into the air with such alacrity and authority by the wind that it blocked out the sun and caused people standing thirty feet from their back door to get lost in the sudden darkness.

It may be hard for us to imagine the disparity between people prior to the conformity brought on by the 20th century. People living only a few towns away from each other in America may have developed accents and dialects so distinct they could not easily converse though they both spoke English.

But the dictionary and the movie theater made these things different. For one, a theater might be the first place people congregated in enforced silence other than church. Imagine even today seeing a new movie and how wonderful it can be, how thoroughly we leap into the movie, becoming entirely vested in the story even though we have grown up in a culture of cinema. Imagine now being there when "The Great Train Robbery" first appeared and everyone in some town hall somewhere, some converted storefront, was together, hushed, engaged. Where other than Church had anyone experienced that?

Dictionary's certainly existed before the version by Webster (Caudrey's lexicon from 1604, for instance) none had tackled the American version of English. Mark Twain used rural orthography to his advantage when Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were talking but all other words, all other essays, employ the King's English (if driven through the pen of a 19th century man of American letters), as did all other popular writers of the time. They all had a similar, if not identical, grammar and vocabulary and their books and plays were popular. But their effect on the language overall was not as strong as that of movies.

Twain and Page and Howells celebrated regional dialect. It's easy to read Huck Finn's twang as a diminutive but Twain was recording this voice as it was. He was celebrating that specific American tongue. Which is a good thing because pretty soon, that tongue disappeared.

There may be some twang left in deep pockets of American regional and rural living--Alabama and Mississippi come to mind--but mass communication leveled most of it. And movies started the whole thing and dictionaries put it down in writing.

Of course, I love dictionaries (I own an ungodly number) and I love movies. But I can't help but wonder what kind of world it would be if they hadn't happened, if there wasn't some way that language and ideas were so seamlessly transferred. Movies happened right as a major agriculture disaster, a major economic disaster, and world war were all occurring (not simultaneously, but over nearly contiguous years and that matters). After all the grief and terror, here's this magical thing to take our mind off of the crap. People flocked to the theaters because they needed to be entertained, to be distracted, to get a breather.The identity of neighborhoods and regions remains strong. You can hear a difference from Kentucky to Indiana. The twang is more open, softer, in Kentucky. But they're both still talking about what a dick Simon Cowell is.

Please save me: my children are trying to kill me.

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