Broken English

Cracked open the CD case for David Byrne’s The Forest today, returned to the liner notes, and had a thought about why it is that “bad English,” Engrish, Spanglish, Finglish, and other nonstandard forms of my native tongue appeal to me so much.

My first copy of this album was a cassette, which I got for the startling price of $1.50 at the surprising location of my local Target (they clearly didn’t know what to do with a Byrne album with a cover that looked like it could have been designed for something particularly dark by Queensryche). It came into my posession at a particularly important-feeling moment of my teenage years.

The liner notes added to my feeling of its magical importance. There’s one panel that reads:

Mai lajf is bjutifull
Mai Bet soft end Worm
Wejk ap mai lidl lembs
Sun yt uyl bi daun.

Oll sings,ar wondefull
Houm is neva far
Your Poppa hyrs ju nau.
Aj hijr hym krain.
Uan end Tu end Sfri end vor
Hoold on Tajt end dount let gou.
Stiks end stouns uil brejk jour bouns.
God hes left as on aur oun.
Uan end Tu end Sfri end vor
Aj don’t keer end dont nou.
Hold on tajt end dount let gou.
God,hes left as on aur oun.

There is little explanation for this. It’s not lyrics, though I often wanted it to be, and there’s a song that almost uses the same language. Byrne’s explanation of the album elsewhere in the liner is that it’s a search for the myths we tell ourselves about where we come from, which sheds a little light. The Forest was originally a staged production. I don’t have a sense if the verse had a bearing on its action somehow.

To me the text echoes another text which is a touchstone to my family: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a post-apocalyptic travelogue about the descendents of nuclear holocaust survivors trying to piece together knowledge and religion in the ruins. The book is written in difficult but enthralling English dialect which depends to some extent on British rhyming slang. The language of these people has clearly been through as much abuse, then drift, as their ways of knowing.

I’ve always loved the puzzle of reading transliterations of broken English, loved sounding it out in my head and rolling it around on my tongue. Umberto Eco’s first chapter of Baudolino similarly enchanted me, and then, so do handmade signs in New York City. We Have Bed Bugs Spray, says the pharmacy downstairs. The things written on piragua carts and chicharron trucks make me giggle. I had that whole series on my blog about reports of food served by bilingual childcare providers in the Bronx, because they were so entertaining.

Sometimes I feel bad, like the Good White Liberal I am. Am I laughing at these people and the way they speak the language of coin I was so fortunate to be raised into? Can’t rule it out, I guess.

Back in the context of David Byrne seeking primal myths, I think I see it. The words are barely familiar, but still understandable.

In its primal state, language is flexible. It morphs and drifts. The society we live in now is highly concerned with ensuring it not change. Not just concerned with shibboleths – the ways of using language that separate high status people from low. To send language all over the globe and have it understood for commerce – to have it understood by the strict, obsessive, unforgiving brains of computers – it needs to be as uniform as possible.

Broken English, nonstandard English, forms of patois are all reminders of our power to escape from these bonds. They are manifestations of the raw power of the language centers of our brains. Testaments to our ability to transform, adapt; to grow.

(Now, that said, when it comes to music I could really do without the Mister Softee truck wreaking its own changes on the chords of The Forest…)

JUST ONE MORE REMINDER THERE’S JUST OVER 48 HOURS LEFT TO PLEDGE AND SUPPORT THE MEDIA SHOW I hate that I’m still hollering about this; I hate raising funds, but puppet needs a new pair of shoes. You know how it is.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *