The relationship between British and American English is more complicated than at first appears. At the surface, in day-to-day life, the traffic is all in one direction. Yesterday my teenage daughter wrote the word ‘mom’ in a text. In British spelling this is always ‘mum’, and for once there are phonological reasons for it. The British pronunciation of the word is a perfect rhyme with ‘bum’ and it is the natural spelling. The American pronunciation uses an intermediate vowel that is not precisely represented by any letter in the Latin alphabet and is between o and a. The conventional American spelling is with an o but the pronunciation is actually very close to a word that is only used to address the Queen, a contraction of ‘madam’ written ‘ma’am’.
This is an unusual case, as most American spellings are not based on phonological differences, but on nationalism, and specifically the nationalism of Noah Webster, who had a programme of deliberately mis-spelling English words to create an American language. So axe became ax, colour became color and so on. Nobody in Britain really cared about this, because a lot of British reformers (George Bernard Shaw, for instance) have promoted similar rationalizations. A peculiar special case is the use of z endings in -ize and -ization endings. Many people who should know better, including the editors of learned journals, have become convinced that the noble letter z is American, and its sneaky cousin s the badge of perfidious Albion. The truth is that z is a representation of the Greek letter zeta, and here of the -ίζω (-izo) endings that are the source in Ancient Greek of words in -ize and -ization, while the s comes from the French spellings of these words, with s used to write the z sound because the French did not have the letter z in common use. So while both forms are common, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for instance, prefer the z spellings as more accurate. But the strange spelling-based nationalism – Websterism – has now crossed the Atlantic, and many English editors and schoolteachers and other officers of the thought police will automatically try and suppress ‘synthesize’ as an Americanism. In the other direction, the useful distinction between practice (noun – the practice of pederasty) and practise (verb – did Plato practise pederasty?) is lost so that proud Columbia need not sully its pages with the hated letter s.
My daughter’s mistake (it is a mistake, as she doesn’t pronounce the word like that) is explained by the cultural preponderance of America, in cinema, in TV and on the internet. Every year more and more American terms are naturalized in Britain. I once met an old English lady who had been stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain for the whole duration of the Cold War. There were Czech and Polish volunteer fighter pilots in the RAF during the Second World War, and a group of the Czechs, still young men, returned to Czechoslovakia with young English wives – who they then abandoned once they were again surrounded by compliant Czech girls who apart from any other charms spoke their language. The ex-wives were now Czechoslovak citizens and got stuck in one of the most spiteful Communist regimes, under constant secret police surveillance as potential spies, and with no contact with the UK, considered an enemy state. English itself, now the language of the American imperialists, was all but forbidden, with Russian taught at school, and these ladies only had each other to talk to until 1989 and the Velvet Revolution. It was extraordinary to hear someone still speaking 1940s English. They hadn’t even listened to the radio, as the BBC and the Voice of America were strictly banned. I could understand her perfectly well, as there are plenty of films from the 1940s; but she found it difficult to understand me, and in particular she thought I was speaking American.
One sticking point was when I talked about someone ‘calling the shots’. This is a normal expression I have grown up with and always used, but she had never heard it before and didn’t know what it meant. While it is probably a military expression originally, connected with target practice, and possibly even with archery before the introduction of firearms, its popularity obviously comes from eight-ball, where you have to call the shots. This presumably comes from a similar rule in snooker, the original form of the game, where after a foul a player may have to ‘nominate a ball’ in a roughly similar way. American pool tables have become a fixture in English pubs, and yet a strange wrinkle is that people in Britain have never learned to play the game properly, and searching for a simpler form of the rules do not demand that shots be called – in fact don’t even know that the rule exists. And yet the expression became completely naturalized in Britain at some point after the Second World War.
We all at some point share that poor lady’s perplexity, hearing some incomprehensible fresh Americanism. The sports-based ones are indeed very strange. Things in Britain now come out of left field on a regular basis, although nobody plays, watches or understands baseball. We are beginning to have ‘soccer moms’. There is almost nothing travelling in the other direction. No Americans are likely to start using cricketing terms like being on a sticky wicket or being at the crease. There is no large category of small injustices which are ‘not cricket’. But from another point of view, the whole language is not, despite the fever dreams of the Websterists, actually American and is after all still called English. So while we can often explain some new expression as simply the latest American import, one of a long line brought over at first by GIs stationed in Britain (‘Over-paid, over-sexed and over here’, as the welcoming phrase had it), the Lucy Show and Bewitched, or the seductive accents of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, we should also remember that English words and expressions had a whole long history before they ever made the hazardous journey to the barbarous shores of the New World in the first place. From this perspective, let us look at the interesting history of the word ‘folks’.
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‘Folks’ has recently re-appeared in Britain in a fine new set of clothes, as a virtue-signalling badge of political correctness. This one doesn’t just make one pause and raise a metaphorical eyebrow: there is something distasteful in it. To be told that we must worry about disabled folks or whatever it is just seems insulting to those so identified. Do they not have the dignity of people? The normal dignity you would grant automatically to any member of the human race? ‘Person’ maybe acquired a slightly pejorative connotation for some people as a result of the feminist Websterism that told us we had to start saying chairperson and so on, but we are over that because you can see the point of such a change. Going from the entirely neutral ‘people’ – which sounds perfectly respectful in ‘disabled people’, ‘black people’ and so on – to the unctuous ‘folks’ really feels retrograde. But I did have to do some reading in order to understand why I have this automatic reaction.
This usage evidently sounds strange to some Americans, too, and so rather than the friendly, classless and natural expression it is supposed to be, it is self-consciously seen as an artificial part of the Social Justice Newspeak, and therefore gets discussed and analysed and justified on ideological grounds. As usual, any half-way coherent or plausible account will do, however unlikely as an actual explanation, and however false in its premises. ‘People’, we discover, is a universalizing term that assumes whiteness. When white people use the expression ‘people’, they are only talking about themselves. They are using it to marginalize women, or the disabled, or human beings with different skin pigmentation, or something. Saying ‘you people’ is a way of belittling others, and is for all practical purposes hate speech. One could go on in a similar vein for ever, and yet it is not necessary to do so. Just suppress your natural desire to call people ‘people’ and everything will be fine.
The hypocrisy and artificiality of this position is easily demonstrated by the fact that the same people who adopt ‘folks’ bang on about ‘people of color’ without missing a beat. What they mean is that it is OK for them to use the word ‘people’ but if other people use it, then it is a token of sexism, racism, anti-trans bigotry, Nazism and hatred generally. Hence, ‘folks’.
The real history of the word has two parts to it: what we could call its natural-language history, meaning its use in ordinary language, in the wild, so to speak, as documented by the normal means of finding references in literature, plus learned reconstructions of etymology, and then its use in what we could loosely call ‘black studies’ – that is, as a part of an academic vocabulary related specifically to black people in the United States. (Most black people in the world are not covered by Black Studies. American blacks have learned to substitute ‘African-American’ for ‘black’ in an automatic, conditioned-reflex way that demonstrates that they and their white champions don’t even include Africans in their definition of black people. People of African descent living in Europe, Asia or elsewhere are also left out, as are people like the Dravidians of South India, some of whom are as black as any Sudanese or Congolese.)
To start with the natural-language part of this story, ‘folk’ is an ancient word found in various spellings and pronunciations across Europe and especially in the Germanic languages. In Old English it was spelt folc, and in German it has gone from the same folc in Old High German to the modern form ‘Volk’. The Middle English version was also sometimes spelt volk, but actually it is the same word, as at the beginning of a word the German v is pronounced as f. It has a kind of double meaning in that it means both ‘people’ (plural of ‘person’) and ‘a people’. An additional detail is that the people in question were the common people, not the nobility. So in England there are a lot of place-names with ‘folk’, like the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk (the North People and the South People) and the town of Folkestone, the ‘people’s town’.
Up until about the 14th century, ‘folk’ was the normal and the only word used to describe a mass of people. However, about then, two things happened. One is that the plural form ‘folks’ began to appear; and the other is that a rival term, ‘people’, derived from Latin populus and existing in many European languages based on Latin, came on the scene. Over about the next four hundred years, these two terms co-existed, nearly but not quite the same in meaning. One difference was that the Latin term had a sense of personal belonging that the native English term didn’t. So in Spanish ‘mi pueblo’ is ‘my village’, and the English version of this was a meaning of ‘my relatives’, or ‘members of my family, tribe or clan’. As society modernized, and the idea of belonging to a tribe or clan disappeared, what was left was the expression ‘my people’ as ‘my family’, which became a polite, even genteel form: ‘How are your people?’ or ‘And where are your people from?’
The term ‘folks’, meanwhile, was sounding more and more like an old-fashioned country term, and had difficulty making it into high society. ‘Folk’ had always been used in compound words, and the same happened with ‘folks’, forming the popular expression ‘gentlefolks’ which sounded just like what it was, a word the peasants used to describe their social superiors. By the 18th century, the tide had turned against ‘folks’, and it was replaced everywhere by ‘people’. ‘Folk’ lasted a little bit longer in some country dialects, but from then on the two terms parted company. ‘Folks’ evidently took ship to America, probably in the mouths of poor country people, and perhaps due to their lack of social pretensions, became part of the vocabulary of the frontier, its log cabins and its homesteads. It had now absorbed the sense of belonging from ‘people’, and through the 19th century, it took on that glow of country hospitality and cheeriness it still has today. A kind of family feeling. ‘Howdy, folks!’ For some reason, it was well-established in Iowa, and when a wave of Iowans migrated to California at the end of the 19th century, the locals began to call them ‘the folks’, perhaps because they used the word so much, and it is perhaps from that moment that the expression moved from the former frontier lands to mainstream usage across the United States. However, considering that the United States of that time was still recovering from the cataclysm of the Civil War, we should note that before the South was absorbed this was a yankee expression. Also as the saying goes it was W,H,I,T,E, and it is difficult to think of a more mainstream whitebread expression. A family singing group actually called The Whites performed at the Grand Ole Opry from 1962 as the Down Home Folks. Aw shucks.
In the pre-Civil War South, the word ‘folks’ seems to have been used, at least by slaves, in a different way: not to indicate shared humanity, but mainly to differentiate ‘white folks’ and ‘coloured folks’ (as we find from oral histories compiled in the 1930s, with freed slaves reminiscing). And yet in the 21st century we find Barrack Obama in an address to black graduates calling the Trump administration ‘the folks in charge’, as if calling them ‘the government’ would be too official and grown-up. Tyler Perry’s stock characters in his powerful morality plays of Black American life use it. In Madea Goes To Jail from 2009 one stock character (handsome young lawyer who has struggled up from the hood) says to another stock character (troubled young woman fallen by the wayside) about a third stock character (you-go-girl tough love preacher) ‘She’s good folks’ and like all Madea’s happy family, he is sincere. It is the highest praise available. It has moved from the Opry to Oprah.
There is, however, a simple reason why church-going, respectable black America should have adopted the word ‘folks’. Every single one of the actors and production staff involved in black TV has been informed by the education system of the existence of WEB DuBois’ classic The Souls of Black Folk, and therefore have come to believe that there is something inherently black about the word ‘folk’. As the singular ‘folk’ is not really used like that any more, the expression has been corrected to ‘black folks’. Indeed, DuBois uses both ‘folk’ and ‘folks’ in the text of his book. However, in this important and distinguished work, DuBois, the first black graduate of Harvard, had an agenda which few people today will know about, and which is unlikely to have been mentioned in the average Ebonics course. So this provides the hinge at which this essay will move on to what we could call the intellectual part of the story.
We need to return to Europe, and remind ourselves that the old Germanic word ‘folk’ had returned to the singular in Britain, and was getting on with a parallel life in Germany as Volk. A great man now enters the tale. Perhaps the most influential writer of the 18th century, the inventive Scottish poet James Macpherson. Scotland was becoming fashionable, both in England and in Europe. One reason for this is the invention of the kilt in the 1720s by Thomas Rawlinson, an Englishman who wanted to employ Scots in an iron smelting operation and thought they needed something that wouldn’t get caught in the machinery. He had unwittingly created an unstoppable terror weapon for the British Army, and the ‘men in skirts’ of the Highland Regiments were soon striking fear into the hearts of enemies of all shapes and sizes, the banshee wailings of their bagpipes completing their ghastly assaults. Many believe that it was the English who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. It was the Highlanders who broke his cavalry.
The military successes created a big fashion for Scottish stuff of all kinds, with English aristocrats and princes dressing up in more expensive versions of the new costumes. Indeed, the English royal family today can still often be seen wearing it. So around 1760, aged twenty-four, Macpherson had his Big Idea. He started showing people translations of Gaelic poetry he claimed to have found in manuscript form in obscure places around the Highlands and Islands. The poems were supposed to be part of a lost epic of noble warfare among great heroes, and literary magazines in Scotland and England snapped them up. A supporter raised a subscription to pay for further researches, and the Epic of Ossian was born. Macpherson kept going back for more, and kept finding more. He claimed to have discovered an unknown epic poet, Ossian, who chronicled the adventures of a Scots version of the mythical Irish hero, Finn MacCool. His kilt-wearing Scottish doppelgänger was called Fingal, and his mighty doings are the origin of every epic tale since then, from Wagner to The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. By 1765 the ambitious anthologist had enough material to publish The Works of Ossian, the Son of Fingal in two volumes. The success of this work set him up for life, and he had an estate in the country and a seat in parliament, and in 1796 in the blaze of international fame was buried in Westminster Abbey along with the greatest Kings and Queens, scientists and poets of England. While many had questioned the authenticity of Ossian while he was alive, he managed to keep promising to produce the original manuscripts but never did. After he died, some supposedly original texts were finally examined by Gaelic scholars and the fraud was uncovered. But the great work had been done.
The works of Ossian were snapped up even more eagerly in Germany, with a long series of verse and prose translations appearing in German periodicals from 1762, as fast as Macpherson could supply fresh material, so that by 1774 a translation by Goethe of Macpherson’s ‘The Songs of Selma’ was published in Leipzig and Macpherson was walking with the gods. Ossian was the Scottish Homer: only better. Brahms and Schubert would set portions of the poems to music. He influenced Schiller and Hölderlin, indeed the whole of German high culture. They loved it so much they even read it in English, with special editions published in Germany for that purpose. Then things got really crazy. Klopstock, a fanatical religious and patriotic poet and celebrity, made a historic decision. Ossian was German! Yes! This ancient Celtic world was the world of the ancient North, of forests and mountains… All that German stuff with the horned helmets and the swords was adopted from Ossian. The Caledonians were Germans. This meant that Ossian could safely be mixed in with Norse mythology, and when you see Thor and Loki at the movies it is still Macpherson’s hand pulling the strings. His simplest, most universal and lasting memorial is the name Oscar. One of his first fragments was the moving ‘Death of Oscar’. It became a hugely popular boy’s name in Germany, and when the King of Sweden asked Napoleon to be his son’s godfather, Napoleon, another big Ossian fan, suggested he name the boy Oscar. He became King Oscar I of Sweden in 1844. The Oscars themselves are in essence an annual homage to the genius of James Macpherson.
Now, one of the translators of Ossian in Germany, and a critic who praised him to the skies, was Johann Gottfried Herder, a clergyman who was in his way as influential as any of the literary giants who accompanied him in the craze. For the questions of national identity and patriotism that had inspired Klopstock were on everyone’s mind. What did it mean to be German? There was no single German nation, but a patchwork of independent and semi-independent states. It was divided in religion, divided in tradition between Prussia and Bavaria. Ossian gave him the answer he had been looking for. The Germans were not a political or religious unit: they were a Volk. A Folk, that is. And how could you recognize a Folk? Through its songs. As mighty Ossian had sung the soul of his Celtic people, so every Folk (and especially the German one) could find in its songs the truth of its soul.
Herder developed this theory into a doctrine of the identity of a Folk that came to dominate German thinking on the subject. Lacking political unity, you can see why it was an attractive idea. Germans did have a shared literary culture and spoken language, and so Herder’s Folk theories told them that this was the expression of their Soul. The Soul or Geist was another big theme of German thought in the 18th and 19th century, including the Weltgeist or World-Soul discussed at stupefying length by Hegel. But the Folk definitely had its Soul as well. Its greatest and most natural expression was in its song. The original of this was the ‘song’ of Ossian (actually presented in prose translation), but once Herder had invented the idea of the Folk Song, there was a wide variety of plausible material. Folk Dances were available too, along with a certain amount of Folk Poetry and Folk Art. The idea became deeply embedded in European, and particularly German thought. Unfortunately, the main association we make today with the German word ‘Volk’ is the main slogan of the Nazi Party, ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer’ (One Folk, one Realm, one Leader), which is not exactly Herder’s fault except that in a way it kind of is.
Another place this prospered was Russia. The Russian aristocracy, though they spoke French, were much influenced by German ideas in the late 18th century, thanks to Catherine the Great, and were also in need of some national identity. Herder’s ideas took root there too. After the Russian revolution a century later, they realized they needed to spread the national identity around, as the territory of the USSR and its satellites included many smaller nationalities of all kinds. So for the whole existence of the USSR a Herderian policy of promoting national identity through folk music and folk dancing was put into effect.
I saw a memorable example of this in Eastern Slovakia in the early 1990s. Around the town of Medzilaborce there is an area populated by Ruthenians, a people who use the Cyrillic script and have the Orthodox church, and live in an extremely remote area straddling Slovakia and Ukraine. Andy Warhol’s parents were both Ruthenians from this small region, and although he was a New Yorker and never even went there, a local artist had a crazy dream: an Andy Warhol museum. When the Berlin Wall fell, he wrote to the Andy Warhol Foundation, and while Andy had now died, they said ‘Why not?’ And so there it was. Medzilaborce was a small industrial town that ran on the Soviet principle of keeping everyone drunk all day and it was a cheerful enough place, but in spite of the fact that there were all these people walking around who looked just like him, they were a million miles away from Andy Warhol’s soup cans and screen prints, and the museum was a complete white elephant as far as they were concerned. But there was a separate part of the museum on the ground floor, the offices, which seemed to have been taken over by a Ruthenian nationalist group. For Herder, the only true art is Folk Art, and Andy Warhol notwithstanding, they were going to grab the chance to express some Ruthenian soul. The Museum was obviously financing all this, so the town was full of posters from the museum, with a large and dramatic image of Warhol himself. But instead of advertising Pop Art, they were advertising the real upcoming attractions: readings of nationalist poetry and exhibitions of Ruthenian folk dancing.
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Now I expect that the reader has guessed that by referring to DuBois I am trying to build some spurious case that when he talks about Black Folk and Souls he is really referring to Herder’s theories about Folk and Soul; but if so, the reader is wrong. Right about the idea; wrong about the spurious part. For strangely enough, between 1892 and 1894, William Edward Burghardt DuBois studied courses in political science and economics, history of philosophy and history of the 18th century at Humboldt University in Berlin. All these courses included study of Herder and his theories of culture. While at Harvard he had also studied Hegel. His connection with German ideas of history and culture was more than accidental.
This connection is not (quite) as unlikely as it sounds. Although Herder was mainly interested in the problem of the German Volk, he was not a crude nationalist, and his theory was meant to be a universal theory of human culture, according to which not just the German Volk, but every other Volk as well, expresses itself authentically through its ‘folk’ art, and especially its song. This creates a kind of atmosphere in which the member of the Folk will recognize his or her soul. While the highest expression would be the grand perfection of Ossian, a lullaby or village folk dance will do, as long as it is imbued with the authentic spirit of the Folk. Having realized this, Herder became a keen collector of German folk songs.
What’s more, Herder had written specifically about the liberation of the slaves in the United States, and of the resulting oppressed black society. The writing in question is a series of poems which are difficult to assess, but one thing that is clear is that in the early 20th century there was great interest in Herder among African-American intellectuals seeking an ideology and a political and cultural theory. DuBois does not explain precisely why he uses a Herderian and Germanic type of language, and also it must be said that the ideological or theoretical component or aspect of The Souls of Black Folk is difficult to judge, as it is not really a single book but an edited collection of essays written without the plan of presenting a unified argument. But there has been an effort to structure it, and the editorial plan of the book if we can call it that looks extremely Herderian.
It is presented in terms of music. DuBois has found the authentic songs of the black Volk: the ‘sorrow songs’ that are more familiar as ‘negro spirituals’. But the black Volk has ‘souls’ rather than a ‘soul’ because of a dual nature: at once black and American. So while the sorrow (which he breaks down at length) of slavery and oppression is authentic and therefore (to use a word he does not himself supply) Völkisch – an expression of the Folk’s consciousness – it is also the only authentic American music. Most discussion of DuBois seems to skirt around this concept. It would seem to follow – although again, he does not spell this out – that he thinks that this deep black music is also the true music of the American Volk, including white people and other non-blacks.
Before we get too carried away and see him as an early proponent of James Brown or Jay-Z or even the ‘black classical music’ of the Modern Jazz Quartet we need to remember that his enthusiasm for the ‘sorrow music’, a passage of which was printed at the head of every chapter of The Souls Of Black Folk, was not just in opposition to white music, but also in opposition to the hot jazz which he saw as degrading black culture by reducing black musicians to enacting racial stereotypes for white people who went ‘slumming’ among black people in search of excitement among people with no ‘higher strivings for the good and noble and true’. He wanted a Black Renaissance. What was his ideal for the kind of dignified music an uplifted people should have? Ossian wins out again. DuBois was a Wagner fan, as he explains in his autobiography from 1940, even after he had seen what it all led to. He had in fact attended the 1936 Ring cycle at Bayreuth, which was also attended by Adolf Hitler. It was this Germanic ideal of high culture that still seduced him. He thought that the basis for a high culture like that for black Americans was going to be built out of their songs of sorrow. More concretely, the answer lay in a kind of bourgeois refinement: going to Harvard maybe. Writing poetry.
So where does that leave the Oprah version of black folks? I think it’s fair to say that Tyler Perry’s melodrama is not aiming to compete with Wagner any time soon. DuBois was a man of his time, a child of the nineteenth century, and Marx too saw the Revolution in bourgeois terms. The working class would essentially stop being working class, and start being interested in the intellectual pursuits of the bourgeoisie. Does DuBois want his black folk to stop being black? In a way he does. He wants a society in which there is no difference any more between black and white, but in which the music of the sorrow songs provides the authentic expression of the American soul. But what he has got instead, what his students are creating, is the same kind of slumming he deplores, except that it is not white people doing the slumming, but the educated, middle-class blacks on whom he pinned his hopes. By calling each other ‘folks’ they are not emulating his ideals at all, but imitating the manners of good ol’ boys and Iowa hicks. Pretending to be white so they can vicariously enjoy the forbidden pleasures of the lower reaches of black society just as DuBois describes.
But the truly revolting spectacle is that of the white activists who think that using this kind of down home language makes them sound black. To my way of thinking, it just makes them sound stupid.