Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Use of Language in “The Catcher in the Rye”

Apart from literary interest, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye can also be justified on the basis of its linguistic significance. 'The Catcher in the Rye' has been compared by many critics with 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' on various counts. Just as 'Huckleberry' is not only as a great work of literary art, but also a valuable study in 1884 dialect. In coming decades, The Catcher in the Rye will be studied in all probability not only as a literary work but also as an example of teenage vernacular in the I950s.

As such, the book is a significant historical linguistic record of a type of speech rarely made available in permanent form. Its linguistic importance is bound to increase as the typical American speech it records would become less current. Most critics who looked at The Catcher in the Rye at the time of its publication thought that its language was a true and authentic rendering of teenage colloquial speech.

Various aspects of its language were also discussed in the reviews published in prominent American publications like the Chicago Sunday Tribune, the London Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, the New Yorker and Newsweek. Almost all reviewers have specifically mentioned the authenticity of the book's language. Of these scores of reviews, only the reviewers from the Catholic World and the Christian Science Monitor denied the authenticity of the book's language, but both of these are religious journals which refused to believe that the 'obscenity' was realistic.

The language of Holden Caulfield, the book's sixteen-year-old narrator, struck the ear of the contemporary reader as an accurate rendering of the informal speech of an intelligent, educated, Northeastern American adolescent. In addition to commenting on its authenticity, critics have often remarked uneasily the 'daring,' 'obscene,' 'blasphemous' features of Holden's language.

Another commonly noted feature of the book's language has been its comic effect. And yet there has never been an extensive investigation of the language itself. That is what this paper proposes to do. Even though Holden's language is authentic teenage speech, recording it was certainly not the major intention of Salinger.

He was faced with the artistic task of creating an individual character, not with the linguistic task of reproducing the exact speech of teenagers in general: Yet Holden had to speak a recognizable teenage language, and at the same time had to be identifiable as an individual. This difficult task Salinger achieved by giving Holden an extremely trite and typical teenage speech, overlaid with strong personal idiosyncrasies.

There are two major speech habits which are Holden's own, which are endlessly repeated throughout the book, and which are, nevertheless, typical enough of teenage speech so that Holden can be both typical and individual in his use of them. It is certainly common for teenagers to end thoughts with a loosely dangling 'and all,' just as it is common for them to add an insistent 'I really did,' 'It really was.'

But Holden uses these phrases to such an overpowering degree that they become a clear part of the flavor of the book; they become, more, a part of Holden himself, and actually help to characterize him. Holden's 'and all' and its twins, 'or something,' 'or anything,' serve no real, consistent linguistic function. They simply give a sense of looseness of expression and looseness of thought. Often they signify that Holden knows there is more that could be said about the issue at hand, but he is not going to bother going into it:

..... how my parents were occupied and all before they had me
..... they're nice and all. I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything
..... splendid' and clear-thinking and all.

But just as often the use of such expressions is purely arbitrary, with no discernible meaning:

..... he's my brother and all
..... was in the Revolutionary War and all

It was December and all gloves or anything
.....right in the pocket and all

This habit is indicative of Holden's tendency to generalize, to find the all in the one. According to Donald barr, "Salinger has an ear not only for idiosyncrasies of diction and syntax, but for mental processes. Holden Caulfield's phrase is 'and all'- 'She looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around in her blue coat and all'-as if each experience wore a halo. His fallacy is ab uno disce omnes; he abstracts and generalizes wildly."

Heiserman and Miller, in the Western Humanities Review, comment specifically upon Holden's second most obvious idiosyncrasy: 'In a phony world Holden feels compelled to reinforce his sincerity and truthfulness constantly with, "It really is" or "It really did.' S. N. Behrman, in the New Yorker, finds a double function of these 'perpetual insistences of Holden's.' Behrman thinks they 'reveal his age, even when he is thinking much older,' and, more important, 'he is so aware of the danger of slipping into phoniness himself that he has to repeat over and over "I really mean it,' "It really does. "

Holden uses this idiosyncrasy of insistence almost every...
...time that he makes an affirmation. Allied to Holden's habit of insistence is his 'if you want to know the truth. One is able to find characterization in this habit too. Holden uses this phrase only after affirmations, just as he uses 'It really does,' but usually after the personal ones, where he is consciously being frank:

o I have no wind, if you want to know the truth.
o I don't even think that bastard had a handkerchief, if you want to know the truth.
o I'm a pacifist, if you want to know the truth.
o She had quite a lot of sex appeal, too, if you really want to know.
o I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.

These personal idiosyncrasies of Holden's speech are in keeping with general teenage language. Yet they are so much a part of Holden and of the flavor of the book that they are much of what makes Holden to be Holden. They are the most memorable feature of the book's language. Although always in character, the rest of Holden's speech is more typical than individual. The special quality of this language comes from its triteness, its lack of distinctive qualities.

Holden's informal, schoolboy vernacular is particularly typical in its 'vulgarity' and 'obscenity.' No one familiar with prep-school speech could seri ously contend that Salinger overplayed his hand in this respect.

On the contrary, Holden's restraints help to characterize him as a sensitive youth who avoids the most strongly forbidden terms, and who never uses vulgarity in a self-conscious or phony way to help him be 'one of the boys.' Fuck, for ex- ample, is never used as a part of Holden's speech. The word appears in the novel four times, but only when Holden disapprovingly discusses its wide appearance on walls.

The Divine name is used habitually by Holden only in the comparatively weak for God's sake, God, and goddam. The stronger and usually more offense for Chrissake or Jesus or Jesus Christ are used habitually by Ackley and Stradlater; but Holden uses them only when he feels the need for a strong expression. He almost never uses for Chrissake in an unemotional situation.

Goddam is Holden's favorite adjective. This word is used with no relationship to its original meaning, or to Holden's attitude toward the word to which it is attached. It simply expresses an emotional feeling toward the object: either favorable, as in 'goddam hunting cap'; or unfavorable, as in 'ya goddam moron'; or indifferent, as in 'coming in the goddam windows.' Damm is used interchangeably with goddam; no differentiation in its meaning is detectable.

Other crude words are also often used in Holden's vocabulary. Ass keeps a fairly restricted meaning as a part of the human anatomy, but it is used in a variety of ways. It can refer simply to that specific part of the body ('I moved my ass a little'), or be a part of a trite expression ('freezing my ass off'; 'in a half-assed way'), or be an expletive ('Game, my ass.').

Hell is perhaps the most versatile word in Holden's entire vocabulary; it serves most of the meanings and constructions which Mencken lists in his American Speech American Speech article on 'American Profanity'. So far is Holden's use of hell from its original meaning that he can use the sentence 'We had a helluva time' to mean that he and Phoebe had a decidedly pleasant time downtown shopping for shoes.

The most common function of hell is as the second part of a simile, in which a thing can be either 'hot as hell' or, strangely, 'cold as hell'; 'sad as hell' or 'playful as hell'; 'old as hell' or 'pretty as hell.' Like all of these words, hell has no close relationship to its original meaning.

Both bastard and sonuvabitch have also drastically changed in meaning. They no longer, of course, in Holden's vocabulary, have any connection with the accidents of birth. Unless used in a trite simile, bastard is a strong word, re- served for things and people Holden particularly dislikes, especially 'phonies.'

Sonuvabitch has an even stronger meaning to Holden; he uses it only in the deepest anger. When, for example, Holden is furious with Stradlater over his treatment of Jane Gallagher, Holden repeats again and again that he 'kept calling him a moron sonuvabitch' .

The use of crude language in The Catcher in the Rye increases, as we should expect, when Holden is reporting schoolboy dialogue. When he is directly addressing the reader, Holden's use of such language drops off almost entirely. There is also an increase in this language when any of the characters are excited or angry. Thus, when Holden is apprehensive over Stradlater's treatment of Jane, his goddams increase suddenly to seven on a single page.

Holden's speech is also typical in his use of slang. One can catalogue over a hundred slang terms used by Holden, and every one of these is in widespread use. Although Holden's slang is rich and colorful, it, of course, being slang, often fails at precise communication.

Thus, Holden's crap is used in seven different ways. It can mean foolishness, as 'all that David Copperfield kind of crap,' or messy matter, as 'I spilled some crap all over my gray flannel,' or merely miscellaneous matter, as 'I was putting on my galoshes and crap.' It can also carry its basic meaning, animal excreta, as 'there didn't look like there was anything in the park except dog crap,' and it can be used as an adjective meaning anything generally unfavorable, as 'The show was on the crappy side.'

Holden uses the phrases to be a lot of crap and to shoot the crap and to chuck the crap all to mean 'to be untrue,' but he can also use to shoot the crap to mean simply 'to chat,' with no connotation of untruth, as in 'I certainly wouldn't have minded shooting the crap with old Phoebe for a while.'

Similarly Holden's slang use of crazy is both trite and imprecise. 'That drives me crazy' means that he violently dislikes something; yet 'to be crazy about' something means just the opposite. In the same way, to be 'killed' by something can mean that he was emotionally affected either favorably ('That story just about killed me.') or unfavorably ('Then she turned her back on me again. It nearly killed me.').
This use of killed is one of Holden's favorite slang expressions. Heiserman and Miller are, incidentally, certainly incorrect when they conclude: 'Holden always lets us know when he has insight into the absurdity of the endlessly absurd situations which make up the life of a sixteen-year-old by exclaiming, "It killed me." Holden often uses this expression with no connection to the absurd; he even uses it for his beloved Phoebe. The expression simply indicates a high degree of emotion-any kind.

It is hazardous to conclude that any of Holden's slang has a precise and consistent meaning or function. These same critics fall into the same error when they conclude that Holden's use of the adjective old serves as 'a term of endearment'. Holden appends this word to almost every character, real or fictional, mentioned in the novel, from the hated 'old Maurice' to 'old Peter Lorre,' to 'old Phoebe,' and even 'old Jesus.'

The only pattern that can be discovered in Holden's use of this term is that he usually uses it only after he has previously mentioned the character; he then feels free to append the familiar old. All we can conclude from Holden's slang is that it is typical teenage slang: versatile yet narrow, expressive yet unimaginative, imprecise, often crude, and always trite.

Holden has many favorite slang expressions which he overuses. In one place, he admits:

'Boy!' I said. I also say 'Boy!' quite a lot. Partly because I have a lousy vocabulary and partly because I act quite young for my age sometimes.

But if Holden's slang shows the typically 'lousy vocabulary' of even the educated American teenager, this failing becomes even more obvious when we narrow our view to Holden's choice of adjectives and adverbs. The choice is indeed narrow, with a constant repetition of a few favorite words: lousy, pretty, crumby, terrific, quite, old, stupid-all used, as is the habit of teenage vernacular, with little regard to specific meaning. Thus, most of the nouns which are called 'stupid' could not in any logical framework be called 'ignorant,' and, as we have seen, old before a proper noun has nothing to do with age.

Another respect in which Holden was correct in accusing himself of having a 'lousy vocabulary' is discovered in the ease with which he falls into trite figures of speech. We have already seen that Holden's most common simile is the worn and meaningless 'as hell'; but his often-repeated 'like a madman' and 'like a bastard' are just about as unrelated to a literal meaning and are easily as unimaginative.

Even Holden's nonhabitual figures of speech are usually trite: 'sharp as a tack'; 'hot as a firecracker'; 'laughed like a hyena'; 'I know old Jane like a book'; 'drove off like a bat out of hell'; 'I began to feel like a horse's ass'; 'blind as a bat'; 'I know Central Park like the back of my hand.'

Repetitious and trite as Holden's vocabulary may be, it can, nevertheless, become highly effective. For example, when Holden piles one trite adjective upon another, a strong power of invective is often the result:

He was a goddam stupid moron.
Get your dirty stinking moron knees off my chest.
You're a dirty stupid sonuvabitch of a moron.

And his limited vocabulary can also be used for good comic effect. Holden's constant repetition of identical expressions in countless widely different situations is often hilariously funny.

But all of the humor in Holden's vocabulary does not come from its un imaginative quality. Quite the contrary, some of his figures of speech are entirely original; and these are inspired, dramatically effective, and terribly funny. As always, Salinger's Holden is basically typical, with a strong overlay of the individual:

He started handling my exam paper like it was a turd or something.
He put my goddam paper down then and looked at me like he'd just beaten the hell out of me in ping-pong or something.
That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat.
Old Marty was like dragging the Statue of Liberty around the floor.

Another aspect in which Holden's language is typical is that it shows the general American characteristic of adaptability-apparently strengthened by his teenage lack of restraint. It is very easy for Holden to turn nouns into adjectives, with the simple addition of a -y: 'perverry,' 'Christmasy,' 'vomity- looking,' 'whory-looking,' 'hoodlumy-looking,' 'show-offy,' 'flitty-looking,' 'dumpy-looking,' 'pimpy,' 'snobby,' 'fisty.' Like all of English, Holden's language shows a versatile combining ability: 'They gave Sally this little blue butt-twitcher of a dress to wear' and 'That magazine was some little cheerer upper'.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the adaptability of Holden's language is his ability to use nouns as adverbs: 'She sings it very Dixieland and whorehouse, and it doesn't sound at all mushy'.

As we have seen, Holden shares, in general, the trite repetitive vocabulary which is the typical lot of his age group. But as there are exceptions in his figures of speech, so are there exceptions in his vocabulary itself, in his word stock. An intelligent, well-read ('I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot'), and educated boy, Holden possesses, and can use when he wants to, many words which are many a cut above Basic English, including 'ostracized,' 'exhibitionist,' 'unscrupulous, 'conversationalist,' 'psychic,' 'bourgeois.'

Often Holden seems to choose his words consciously, in an effort to communicate to his adult reader clearly and properly, as in such terms as 'lose my virginity,' 'relieve himself,' 'an alcoholic'; for upon occasion, he also uses the more vulgar terms 'to give someone the time,' 'to take a leak,' 'booze hound.' Much of the humor arises, in fact, from Holden's habit of writing on more than one level at the same time.

Thus, we have such phrases as 'They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pency' and 'It has a very good academic rating, Pency'. Both sentences show a colloquial idiom with an overlay of consciously selected words.

Such a conscious choice of words seems to indicate that Salinger, in his at- tempt to create a realistic character in Holden, wanted to make him aware of his speech, as, indeed, a real teenager would be when communicating to the outside world. Another piece of evidence that Holden is conscious of his speech and, more, realizes a difficulty in communication, is found in his habit of direct repetition: 'She likes me a lot. I mean she's quite fond of me' and 'She can be very snotty sometimes. She can be quite snotty.' Sometimes the repetition is exact: 'He was a very nervous guy-I mean he was a very nervous guy' , and 'I sort of missed them. I mean I sort of missed them.'

Sometimes Holden stops specifically to interpret slang terms, as when he wants to communicate the fact that Allie liked Phoebe: 'She killed Allie, too. I mean he liked her, too'.

There is still more direct evidence that Holden was conscious of his speech. Many of his comments to the reader are concerned with language. He was aware, for example, of the 'phony' quality of many words and phrases, such as 'grand,' 'prince,' 'traveling incognito,' 'little girls' room,' 'licorice stick,' and 'angels.'

Holden is also conscious, of course, of the existence of 'taboo words.' He makes a point of mentioning that the girl from Seattle repeatedly asked him to 'watch your language, if you don't mind', and that his mother told Phoebe not to say 'lousy'. When the prostitute says 'Like fun you are,' Holden comments:

It was a funny thing to say. It sounded like a real kid. You'd think a prostitute and all would say 'Like hell you are' or 'Cut the crap' instead of 'Like fun you are.'

In grammar, too, as in vocabulary, Holden possesses certain self-consciousness. (It is, of course, impossible to imagine a student getting through today's schools without self-consciousness with regard to grammar rules.) Holden is, in fact, not only aware of the existence of 'grammatical errors,' but knows the social taboos that accompany them.

He is disturbed by a school- mate who is ashamed of his parents' grammar, and he reports that his former teacher, Mr. Antolini, warned him about picking up 'just enough education to hate people who say, "It's a secret between he and I".

Holden is a typical enough teenager to violate the grammar rules, even though he knows of their social importance. His most common rule violation is the misuse of lie and lay, but he also is careless about relative pronouns ('about a traffic cop that falls in love'), the double negative ('I hardly didn't even know I was doing it'), the perfect tenses ('I'd woke him up'), extra words ('like as if all you ever did at Pency was play polo all the time'), pronoun number ('it's pretty disgusting to watch somebody picking their nose'), and pronoun position ('I and this friend of mine, Mal Brossard').

More remarkable, however, than the instances of grammar rule violations is Holden's relative 'correctness.' Holden is always intelligible, and is even 'correct' in many usually difficult constructions. Grammatically speaking, Holden's language seems to point up the fact that English was the only subject in which he was not failing. It is interesting to note how much more 'correct' Holden's speech is than that of Huck Finn.

But then Holden is educated, and since the time of Huck there had been sixty-seven years of authoritarian schoolmarms working on the likes of Holden. He has, in fact, been over taught, so that he uses many 'hyper' forms:

I used to play tennis with he and Mrs. Antolini quite frequently.
She'd give Allie or I a push.
I and Allie used to take her to the park with us.
I think I probably woke he and his wife up.

Now that we have examined several aspects of Holden's vocabulary and grammar, it would be well to look at a few examples of how he puts these elements together into sentences. The structure of Holden's sentences indicates that Salinger thinks of the book more in terms of spoken speech than written speech.

Holden's faulty structure is quite common and typical in vocal expression; I doubt if a student who is 'good in English' would ever create such sentence structure in writing. A student who showed the self-consciousness of Holden would not write so many fragments, such afterthoughts (e.g., 'It has a very good academic rating, Pency' , or such repetitions e.g., 'Where I lived at Pency, I lived in the Ossenburger Memorial Wing of the new dorms'.

There are other indications that Holden's speech is vocal. In many places Salinger mildly imitates spoken speech. Sentences such as 'You could tell old Spencer'd got a big bang out of buying it' and 'I'd've killed him' are repeated throughout the book. Yet it is impossible to imagine Holden taking pen in hand and actually writing 'Spencer'd' or 'I'd've.' Sometimes, too, emphasized words, or even parts of words, are italicized, as in 'Now shut up, Holden. God damn it-I'm warning ya'. This is often done with good effect, imitating quite perfectly the rhythms of speech, as in the typical:

I practically sat down on her lap, as a matter of fact. Then she really started to cry, and the next thing I knew, I was kissing her all over-anywhere-her eyes, her nose, her forehead, her eyebrows and all, her ears-her whole face except her mouth and all.

The language of The Catcher in the Rye is, as we have seen, an authentic artistic rendering of a type of informal, colloquial, teenage American spoken speech. It is strongly typical and trite, yet often somewhat individual; it is crude and slangy and imprecise, imitative yet occasionally imaginative, and affected toward standardization by the strong efforts of schools.

But authentic and interesting as this language may be, it must be remembered that it exists, in The Catcher in the Rye, as only one part of an artistic achievement. The language was not written for itself, but as a part of a greater whole. Like the great Twain work with which it is often compared, a study of The Catcher min the Rye repays both the linguist and the literary critic; for as one critic has said, 'In them, 1884 and 195I speak to us in the idiom and accent of two youthful travelers who have earned their passports to literary immortality."

Acknowledgement: The Language of 'The Catcher In The Rye' -Donald P. Costello

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