Contractions and Verisimilitude in “True Grit”

The contraction-free diction and the biblical themes in the movie True Grit have caught the attention of a number of folks who know far more about movies and language and literature than I do or ever will. The movie is a remake of the John Wayne movie of the same name and is based on Charles Portis’ novel which was written in the 1960s.

Alan Barra at the Daily Beast makes it quite clear that he believes the movie accurately portrays the way people spoke back then and credits studious attention to the King James Bible by the good country people in Arkansas for this:

One of the best things about True Grit is that all of it is written in that vernacular, the speech of people who, while they may have been illiterate, were raised on readings of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, an English practically devoid of contractions and Latinate words. Portis, the reclusive author of a handful of novels (including NorwoodMasters of AtlantisGringoes, and Dog of the South, all of which have devoted cult followings), and a former journalist, supposedly learned the rhythms and cadences of late-19th century Southern speech working on newspaper stories in rural northwest Arkansas.

Illiterate people were raised on readings from Shakespeare and the King James Bible? Huh? Shakespeare is devoid of contractions and Latinate words? Umm…. The people of Arkansas in the late 19th-centrury English did not use contractions? Errr….

Maybe there was a highly redacted version of Works of Shakespeare that all the illiterates were checking out of the Little Rock library in the 1870’s that I just do not know about, and maybe Charles Portis cut class and went fishing the day he was to have read Huck Finn and missed Mark Twain’s stab at the rhythms and cadences of late 19th century Southern speech. Maybe.

(Oddly enough Barras claims to have read True Grit but seems to have not read Portis’ other novels which are covered in contractions and those fancy-pants Latinate words. No matter. Maybe Barras cut class the day those novels were assigned.)

The claims about Shakespeare are easily dismissed with a glance at any page of any of his plays from any point in his writing career, but the claims for rhythms and cadences of Southern speech in the 19th century and for the role of the the King James Bible in setting the morality of the characters seem to be taken seriously by others who should know better, such as Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanley Fish at the New York Times.

The question of the contractions comes up in two blog entries by the linguist Mark Liberman here and here. Liberman does an interesting analysis of the near complete lack of contractions in not only the narration of Mattie in the novel but even the speech of the characters throughout the movie. Personally, I caught only one contraction in the entire movie while others in the comments section of his blog claim to have heard as many as three. This is more than a little bit odd since the movie is set in the 1870’s and deals almost entirely with the lives of adults and a child who have little education.

Liberman makes a point of quoting a gentleman by the name of David Fried who brings up this issue of contractionless speech. I cannot find Fried anywhere on the Internet, which probably means he does not exist, but he does apparently quote Ethan Coen in a Newsweek interview as having explained the lack of contractions as a 19th century mode of speech:

She [Hailee Steinfeld] handles that language. Did people actually not talk with contractions at that time?

Ethan: We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.

What stuns me is that Liberman takes Coen as being somewhat serious. If Ethan Coen were at all serious, then Barras would have something akin to a point, and we should know better. Anyone who has ever seen one of the Coen brothers’ movies or read any of their interviews should know that is a pretty silly thing to take anything they say seriously. (They were, after all, born in Minnesota.) In fact, this comment that the language is true to the time comes right after Joel and Ethan have a good deal of fun with Mattie’s amputation, which Ethan flippantly compares it to 127 Hours where a hiker loses his own arm.

The whole interview is clearly a lark for Joel and Ethan, and anyone looking for something insightful into the movie itself from the words of the Coen brothers is hunting for snipes in the forests of Minnesota. But Liberman treks on and even starts running word searches through Google Labs and finds that they probably did not talk that way back in 1870.

I don’t know what Portis intended, and I don’t know what the Coen brothers did. But I know that that informal American speech in the 1870s was far from contractionless, and in fact I suspect that it had roughly the same proportion of contractions as it does today.

Liberman follows up this insight with quotations from a 1989 article in the Journal of English Linguistics and with some fairly unscientific searches for contractions through Google Books. Liberman is having some fun with this whole thing and calls it a “Breakfast Experiment,” but he does seem to think Portis and the Coen brothers believe this is how people spoke in Oklahoma and Arkansas in 19th century America.

Stanley Fish comes closer to understanding the nature of the moral themes of the movie when he notes how individual virtue is answered arbitrarily with either rewards or punishments but more often with indifference and violence in a column he wrote for the New York Times. God’s grace, he notes, is withheld or handed out to people in ways that make human virtues seems worthless, and he sees Mattie and the Coen brothers as being well aware of this in a religious sense that goes beyond what John Wayne and other might recognize:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

Oddly enough, outside of the opening frames where a quotation from Proverbs is given regarding the flight of those sinners who are not pursued, there are not any key scenes where characters quote the Bible or discuss and debate biblical morality. Quotations from the Bible or scenes where characters are attending church services are absent. There are not even ministers or priests showing up for the coffins and dead bodies that are piled up throughout the movie.

Instead of discussions of religion and morality, we get a great deal of legal talk by Mattie and others around her along with debates over who has jurisdiction and what kind of justice is to take place and where it is to be executed. Mattie’s whole motivation is based on her goal to ensure that the killer of her father is executed for his murder and not the other murders he has committed in Texas. There is nothing religious or biblical about this motive, and she is quite clear about this. She wants a legal form of revenge and is willing to pay $50.00 for it. Plain and simple.

Being one of the most accomplished Milton scholars this country has produced, Fish is certainly going to be well aware of any biblical allusions or quotations that should cross his path, but, oddly enough, he has a hard time finding them in the movie itself, let alone the words of Mattie. Fish ends up quoting lines from the book that are not in the movie and citing passages from the Bible that Mattie herself does not seem to know. This should have been a sign to him.

The lack of contractions, oddly enough, is the key to understanding the way Mattie is constructing the characters in her narrative and her views of the world. Mattie’s alleged biblical training may be responsible for aversion to contractions, but this must be inferred since she never demonstrates all that much familiarity with the Bible or any real concern with what God might think of what she is doing. She makes some loose allusions to the Bible but shows surprisingly little knowledge of the text itself and does not cite it to justify her motives. Ever. She does not even bother to have a cross placed on the tombstone of Rooster Cogburn even though she pays for his burial herself. That should have been another sign to Fish.

Instead of seeing what is missing right in front of him, Fish claims Mattie’s convictions are rooted in a faith so deep it cannot be perceived in our world:

[Mattie] goes forward not because she has faith in a better worldly future — her last words to us are “Time just gets away from us” — but because she has faith in the righteousness of her path, a path that is sure (because it is not hers) despite the absence of external guideposts. That is the message Iris Dement proclaims at the movie’s close when she sings “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”: “Oh how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way / Leaning on the everlasting arms / Oh how bright the path goes from day to day / Leaning on the everlasting arms / What have I to dread what have I to fear / Leaning on the everlasting arms.”

You would think Fish would be a little more alert to the irony of a woman with one arm humming this hymn about leaning on “everlasting arms,” but he misses that part. Again. You might also think he would be able to cite a single instance of Mattie claiming to have a faith deeply rooted in her own convictions. Once again, Fish misses what is missing.

Instead, Mattie cites the law and her familiarity with those who practice it again and again and again. You cannot get out of one scene or another without her or someone else explaining what the law is or where it applies and who has which rights. Mattie knows the law and knows a good lawyer and will take you to court again and again and again if you do not give her what she sees as hers by right.

What is so surprising is that Fish says nothing about all this legal talk. He is not only a Milton scholar but a professor of law too. Legal language, as he well knows, is one of the few areas where contractions are not used with any regularity today or back in the courts of 1870’s Arkansas. Mattie’s relentless adherence to a legal language rather than her alleged affection for a Bible would explain why she wipes the contractions right off the lips of all the characters in the story she narrates.

What becomes painfully clear throughout the movie is that her legal mind is about as well tuned to the situation she finds herself in as her ear is to the speech of the people around her. She cannot see how arbitrary and indifferent the law really is to her and those around her any better than she can hear the inflections of of the speech of the people she communicates with. She is as blind to the workings of the law as she is deaf to the contractions in speech of those around her.

So Fish is right in claiming that Mattie sticks with her convictions, but he is wrong in seeing this as occurring in spite of the indifference of God’s grace to the virtues of people close to her. Instead, she sticks with her conviction that there can be something close to justice in a legal language and in a legal system that cares nothing for right and wrong, and she sticks to a language of lawyers and judges which hears and reports no contractions in the speech of others.

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About Joseph Pendleton

I am the Reading Specialist--Basic Skills at Victor Valley College. I teach the reading courses in the English Department and the basic English grammar courses in the Basic Skills Department. My primary interests as a teacher is in how students retain the information and skills we teach them. View all posts by Joseph Pendleton

2 responses to “Contractions and Verisimilitude in “True Grit”

  • NeuroticChihuahua

    There are quite a lot of contractions in the scene with Cogburn and Mattie in the dugout talking to Quincy and the kid with the leg wound. Granted, most of them are confined to the phrase, “We don’t know those boys you’re looking for,” which gets repeated a fair amount, but Cogburn says “I’ll” a bunch of times, too.

    The language in the movie seems really inconsistent. At one point, none-too-bright Tom Chaney says, “I must think over my position and how I may improve it,” which definitely sounds like Mattie’s paraphrase of what he actually said. But other times she doesn’t bother cleaning up other peoples’ utterances. I’m not really sure what to think.

  • Study English

    This is really interesting — I wish there was more discussion of the intricacies of grammar in films! I’m going to make my advanced students watch the films and then read this exploration of the contractions within them in future lessons, I think.

    Thanks!
    Monica V : )

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