2 NOTES CMP 2850 Walt Whitman, Cluster 2 Slang, Argot, Street Language:

Walt Whitman, Cluster 2
Slang, Argot, Street Language:
The Incorporation of Street Language in Whitman’s Poetry
Michael Skafidas, PHD
The origins of slang as a critical and caustic language are to be traced in sixteenth-century Britain and early seventeenth-century France, where the argot was known as the language of the drifters and, according to the lexicographer Richelet (1626-1698), was first recorded in a French dictionary in 1680. The argot has been described as “an antilanguage, the language of antisociety, a language that in essence exists to express the anticulture of an establishment, contravenes grammatical, syntactical and semantic rules and exists simply as an isolated entity.” Part of the increasing popularity of the English slang vocabulary in the seventeenth century is owed to the expansive politics of the British, which culminates with the defeat of Napoleon and the infiltration of British culture and customs in the New World through immigration.
According to David Reynolds, “the term ‘slang’ was first used in America around 1850 to mean ‘illegitimate language’” (319). The development of the English language has sprang from an alliance of two old European languages: the Old English of the Anglo Saxon culture formed by the Germanic tribes and the relatively more recent Romanesque, or sometimes called Romance English, a direct influence of Latin, including Norman French. The “Romance” languages had a lasting impact on British literature, especially after the Renaissance, when a revered poet like Milton extensively used words of Latin origins in his revival of the epic poetic form. Whitman demonstrates knowledge of both by combining Middle English –a late form of Old English –words such as “yawp” or “rankness”– with Romance terms like “afflatus,” as it appears in section 24 of “Song of Myself.” Overall, his declared intention corresponds with the earlier discussion about the formation of an American language that grows independently from the tradition and authority of British language.
Regional dialects provided Whitman with an opportunity to update and enrich his poetic American vocabulary that he picks up on the streets and every corner of life in a new city that in its daily communication has little knowledge, let alone use, for words like “afflatus.” The “nigger dialect,” for instance, Whitman praises for furnishing “hundreds of outré words, many of them adopted into the common speech of the mass of the people … (it) has hints of the future theory of the modification of all the words of the English language, for musical purposes, for a native grand opera in America” (Whitman 1904: 24). He borrows extensively also from the Native American vocabulary, especially place names. With the curiosity at once of a lexicographer and a journalist, Whitman collects – and rescues – hundreds of such words from their vernacular insignificance: “Many of the slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, are powerful words,” he exclaims. “These words ought to be collected – the bad words as well as the good. –Many of these bad words are fine.”
When Whitman notes that “modern taste is for brevity and for ranging words in spelling classes” he adequately anticipates the upcoming discourse on English language. By the early twentieth century the influence of Romance English gave way to the tendency for shorter and simpler words that made up a popular and more fitting language for modern prose and verse, fiction and journalism.
The vernacular served Whitman’s egalitarian mission: it enabled him to incorporate the idioms of his nascent nation into his narrative, and by doing so to give voice to the linguistic texture of the American working class life that was changing in mid-century due to rapid urbanization. Reynolds suggests a reasonable application of Bakhtin’s idea of skaz to Whitman’s poetics. The Russian literary term refers mainly to the incorporation of national idioms into an oral form of narrative that broke into fiction in the late 1910s. Skaz idiomatic speech consists both of vernacular and slang whose spontaneity is integrated into a narrative that elicits the characteristics of particular characters with strong personas. Even though the term is usually applied to prose fiction, as Reynolds demonstrates, it has relevance to Whitman’s proselike verse which abounds in incorporations of idioms obtained through the oral dealings of the bard with the street culture. This exchange is processed in an all-assimilating narrative that revolves around the omnipresent persona of a poet with a thousand faces. Blending the temperaments of opposites – high and low, beauty and death, male-female, revolution and repression – Whitman aspired to find a third way of understanding modern life’s utterances.