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Opinion: Bill Walton, What the Fox Say

What we have here is failure to communicate.

We were talking about ear worms - that auditory hallucination that plays a song over and over again in your head. It seems we all have songs that once heard on the radio, TV, CD player, or social media just won’t go away. One of us mentioned ‘What the Fox Say’. ( see video below)

Thank heavens I don’t know all the lyrics although it seems that you can just make them up as the mood strikes you. Being an old fox whisperer, my ears perked up at the missing verb: “What does the Fox say?”

Perhaps I should be inured to this after the Raptors tee shirt theme of ‘We the North’ annoyed the heck out of me. They could have at least said ‘We R the North’, but no, apparently, we are dropping verbs now.

A little web research about this verb phenomena assured me that this was not just a dialect thing, but the use of African American Vernacular English. A dialect is usually confined to a geographic area, like Cockney English, or Ottawa Valley lingo. There is no confining of language now as songs spread across the globe with the lyrics telling their story, but also ‘educating’ those learning a language through use, listening to the way we speak the Queen’s, whoops, King’s English.  That is a bit colonial, but nonetheless a good example of how we Anglos used to speak.

Does it matter if we adopt this dropping of the verbs? Back in the day, struggling with Grade 10 translation of Latin into English (the Gallic Wars), it was a given that Julius Caesar put his verbs at the end of a sentence and you could peek ahead to get the meaning. By Grade 12 we were expected to find meaning in Cicero’s musings where he put the verb in mid-sentence (sometimes!). But verbs there were, and you had to know that the position of words in the sentence held the clue to the author’s intended meaning.

What the fox say could be what does the fox say, what will the fox say, what did the fox say or even, I suppose, what was the fox trying to say. There is also the matter of inflection: was the fox angry, frightened, hungry, or maybe just happy to be having a conversation - verbalizing, as it were.

This all comes down to communication. Do we use the vernacular to sign business contracts, peace treaties, pre-nuptials, or wills? How do you plead your case in court, using the vernacular that the judge and jury may not precisely understand, or the opposite where your peers may not grasp the finer points of English jurisprudence?

A further complication of using the vernacular arises when someone tries to translate the words into another language. Of course, professional translators can do this but one often wonders about the directions or instructions given on food products or pharmaceuticals when they come from other countries where they do not speak the King’s English or modern French. And more often than not, it is the verb that gives it away.

I have experienced this when watching Netflix movies made in other countries (I have run out of series or movies made in Britain, Canada, or the USA) relying on subtitles in English. It can be entertaining when I happen to know a word or two in the foreign language and then see what the script translator puts on the screen.

However, the other night I was dismayed when I started to watch a movie starring mostly African-Americans (not Denzel, Morgan, Halle or other well-known stars) and I had to give it up. So much of the dialogue was in the vernacular that I could not understand what was being said. It was more than missing verbs. My old ears and tired brain could not comprehend what the actors, even with their body language, were trying to tell me.

It may be a sign of the times and/or my aging lack of adaptability to new-speak. The pronouns are bad enough, but now with the verbs! I can usually discern what the politicians are not saying, winnowing the spinning chaff from the grains of truth. And if push comes to shove on a walk in the Laurier Woods, I do know what the fox say. Just ___.


Bill Walton

About the Author: Bill Walton

Retired from City of North Bay in 2000. Writer, poet, columnist
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