Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A gaffe that hoits, whether it's Hammett's or mine

In the absence of a real post, I’ll stick with the Hammett theme, specifically a gripe about the famous opening to Red Harvest. Here's the opening:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.
Here's the gripe: Someone who called his shirt a shoit would not pronounce the first part of Personville poison, and that undercuts Hammett's whole point. Rather he would say poi-suhn, with an s sound rather than a z.

Unless Hammett referred to a regional pronunciation unknown to me, in which the pronunciations of s and z are much closer than in the English I know, he can’t have it both ways. The Personville/Poisonville pun works, or else the shirt/shoit dialect pronunciation joke works, but they can’t both work. Contrary to what he has the Continental Op tell us in that opening paragraph, the pun does not hinge on pronunciation of the r's, but rather of s and z.

This is not a trivial point; an opening, especially one as celebrated as this, ought to pull the reader right, and not distract him with minor inaccuracies. Comment from Hammett lovers and sociolinguists welcome.

Oh, geez, could the town's name be pronounced Per-zuhn-ville, in which case the jocose mispronunciation would make sense?

***
Hammett's linguistic slip, if it was such, did not stop Time magazine from naming Red Harvest one of the 1oo best English-language novels from 1923 to the present when it compiled a list five years ago.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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21 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

I first read RED HARVEST about a dozen years ago. I thought it was okay, not great.

I read it again a couple of years ago. It's amazing how much better Hammett became as a writer in that time, being dead and all.

August 25, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

The regional pronunciation (which you probably know) is from Brooklyn or the 9th ward of New Orleans (Who Dat).

I don't see much difference between "poi-suhn" and poizun to my untrained ear or eye. But what the heck I really don't think it matters. The times I have read "Red Harvest" I found the first paragraph succeed in preparing me for the location, a town of persons filled with "poison" (evil).

August 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I appreciate the Continental Op stories more mow that I did when I first read them, though I liked them then.

Now that I'm rereading bunches at a time, I'll be interested, among other things, in how the writing changed over time. Last night I finished "The Tenth Clew," for example, the earliest story in the collection called The Continental Op.

That story makes much broader use of a comic cop as the Op's colleague, a character who is tolerable but who feels entirely like a stock bit of comic relief. Hammett modified or dropped such characters in later stories, and I mean later by just months.

August 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I'd watched enough Bugs Bunny to know that the shirt/shoit pronunciation was New York, probably Brooklyn. I didn't know it was typical of the Ninth Ward, too. Thanks.

But here was what I meant: Say the word "person." Now, say it again, this time applying the shirt/shoit rule. By any pronunciation I know, the result is not going to be poison. Maybe this example will be clearer than poi-suhn/poizun:

"He took a sip of beer, then fired his zip gun."

To my ear, the initial sounds in the boldfaced words are distinctly different. And that was anough to take me out of the story, if just for a moment.

OK, I'll shut up now, or else go start a sociolinguistics blog.

August 25, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

This is a famous opening?

Okay, so I'm not a Hammett lover.

August 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's well-known, at least among Hammettophiles and Hammettians, yes.

August 25, 2010  
Anonymous Nathan said...

I agree with Michael that, while I hear a difference between poi-suhn and poizun, I still hear the poi-sun as close enought to poison as to interpret it that way.

Which is to say, poi-suhn-ville sounds like poisonville where they denisens soften their z's. Does ray-sin sound like raisin? To me, yes. But in any case, the key is to investigate the locales where there are variations in the "z" sound, not the er/oi distinction.

Not that I know what I'm talking about.

August 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We agree that the key, for anyone researching Hammettian linguistics, is variations in the "z" sound, so that means you do know what you're talking about, though I may not really know enough to say so.

What it boils down to is that the opening may be a bit too clever for its own good -- which does not reflect on the story that follows, of course.

You've heard of readers who will judge a book by its first chapter; I'll often decide on the basis of the first line whether to pick up a book. No doubt I've deprived myself of some fine reading that way, but I'm just impatient.

August 25, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Speaking of Hammett's screw-ups ... Check out again The Maltese Falcon, chapter nine ...

Important question: How should Spade know what happened in Constantinople?

Nobody mentioned it before.

August 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wouldn't the problem I mentioned rises to the level of a screw-up, and the gaffe may well be mine, as I suggest in this post's title.

But this Constantinople thing ... Hmmm, I may just have to go gaffe-hunting and read The Maltese Falcon again.

Is there any plausible way Spade could have heard about Constantinople off-stage?

August 26, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"How should Spade know what happened in Constantinople?"

"Is there any plausible way Spade could have heard about Constantinople off-stage?"

For the answers to these (and just about any other questions regarding "The Maltese Falcon") please see:

"Discovering the Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade: the evolution of Dashiell Hammett's masterpiece, including John Huston's movie with Humphrey Bogart," Richard Layman (ed.), 2005.

August 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That comment is a good script. Now, we need a suitably resonant newsreel-like voice to read it.

August 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

By "good script," of course, I mean the advice contained therein is good! I'm confident the source will answer Fred's question.

And I still like "For the answer to these and ... other questions."

August 26, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

The question is would anyone other than a copyeditor or linguist even catch the "poison" thing? Most readers wouldn't even notice it and it certainly wouldn't take away from enjoyment of the whole story or appreciation of Hammett.

August 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Before insisting that yes, a layman could catch the "poison" thing, I have to concede that I may have missed part of the point of Hammett's joke.

A Brooklynese pronunciation of person does not yield poison. I think that that's clear, and that it does not take a specialist to see it. What I failed to notice is that the same paragraph lumps Personville/Poisonville with "the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary." It's a deliberately bad joke.

Still, Hammett would have us believe that the Op simply assumed Poisonville was a natural dialect pronuncation of Personville. The Op must have been young and inexperienced at the time.

I hasten to add that yes, this need not interfere with anyone's enjoyment of Hammett.

August 29, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Even if readers notice it, it wouldn't take away enjoyment of Hammett's works, as the misplaced apostrophe in Larsson's third book, aggravates the heck out of copyeditors, proofreaders and English teachers (and anyone who knows grammar at all!), but it doesn't diminish the enjoyment of that book--for those of us who liked the Millennium trilogy.

August 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, it doesn't diminish one's enjoyment of the book, but it's a small distraction where such distractions are least welcome.

August 29, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

And then there is Damon Runyon...

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And then there is Damon Runyon...

... to whom one Irish crime writer happily pays book-length tribute.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

In any case, Brooklynese (which is really spoken all over New York City, mostly by white people over fifty) and its descendant Yat (spoken in several parts of New Orleans by both whites and blacks) don't actually interchange the CHOICE and NURSE vowels. Rather, they merge them into a third sound, /ʌɪ/ in IPA, very roughly "uh-ih" with the stress accent on the first vowel. People who don't have this merger tend to hear nurse as "noice" and choice as "cherce", but it's not actually so.

July 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have also read that the old Pittsburgh Pirates ballplayers Paul and Lloyd Waner acquired their nicknames, Big Poison and Little Poison, from a Brooklyn Dodgers fan's addressing them loudly from the stands as "big person" and "little person."

Wikipedia quotes A.J. Liebling thus on yat, which I had not heard of before:

"There is a New Orleans city accent . . . associated with downtown New Orleans, particularly with the German and Irish Third Ward, that is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Astoria, Long Island, where the Al Smith inflection, extinct in Manhattan, has taken refuge. The reason, as you might expect, is that the same stocks that brought the accent to Manhattan imposed it on New Orleans."

The Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø' principal protagonist is Harry Hole.I explained in a review that the name is pronounced something like HEU-leh. But Barry Forshaw, that eminent English expert on Scandinavian crime writing tells his readers: "pronounced Hurler." What do Irish readers think of that English rendering of a Norwegian name?

July 17, 2013  

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