Friday, June 26, 2009

Ain't You Learnt Them Letters?

Help me, help me, help me!

I am looking for a story that I used when I was teaching American Literature. I'm 98% sure that it was by Zora Neale Hurston. But I can't remember the name.

Unfortunately I read it to the class; I didn't assign them to read it. If I had assigned it, then I would have the record of the assignment in the handouts I prepared for each class. But no, I didn't assign it. I read it to them. No record. Bah!

I'm 94% sure that it is from her anthropology days, travelling the south. 6% chance it is a purely fictional short story. At least I'm positive it is short, else I wouldn't have read it in class.

The gist of the story is that a girl goes to school to learn her letters. Her papa is none too impressed. One day he asks her to take dictation as he narrates a letter. He gets a few sentences in and she is writing. Then he says something like "And then (here he makes a popping sound with his tongue). . . " He waits for her to write it down. She doesn't. "Well, aren't you going to write that down?" "I can't." "You can't? Ain't you learnt them letters yet?"

You get the idea. He wants her to write what he says, but she can only write things that fit into 26 letters. Tongue clicking just don't fit nowhere. And when you think about it, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of distinct tongue and/or lip clicks and vibrations that have clear meanings and even subtle inferences. They are words by any definition, just not writable ones in English.

I love the story because it is so true. Far more of our language (as used, not as given in the dictionary) is unwritable in our 26 letters than most of us take time to realize. And yet few of us take the time to be dissatisfied with it.

So, if anyone remembers the name of the story, I'd be most obliged. I had intended to post it today, but it isn't on my bookshelf.

No comments: