Exploring the art of prose


Inherited Language

Image shows the front face of an old cash register with dollar symbols on the buttons; title card for the new craft essay, "Inherited Language," by Nick Almeida.


By Nick Almeida •

If you had grown up in my house, “You’re dollaring me to death” would forever echo in your head. The phrase is one of my mother’s favorites, inextricably linked to any requests for small amounts of money. As children, when my sisters or I asked for two bucks, my mother would say, “You’re dollaring me to death,” and begrudgingly fork over two singles or scoot us, empty-handed, out the door. Twenty-five years and twenty-five-hundred miles removed from the household of my youth, that phrase still haunts me at tollbooths and tip jars. At the coffee shop, I find myself muttering toward my shoes, lecturing dirty laces about frugality and the dimwittedness of ordering another fancy whatever-it-is: “You’re dollaring yourself to death.” And, to complete the scene (apologies, Black Hole Coffee House in Houston), my muttering gives way to a punchy, satisfied smile, because my mother and my grandfather (who allegedly coined the phrase) are summoned to me, wagging their fingers.

In the broadest sense, all language is inherited. As children, we absorb language spoken by those around us. Some of the earliest phrases we learn are coached to us by adults—“Help please,” “Thank you,” “I love you,” and so on—but as we develop, so does our capacity for complex language, and we soon begin absorbing phrases of all lengths and rhythmic complexities. In The Art of Syntax, Ellen Bryant Voigt describes the importance of rhythm and music in language acquisition, using the term “chunking” to refer to the brain’s habit of unitizing a particular sequence of words in one’s memory:

“Chunking” is a normal and widespread brain function, essential to what we think of as human intelligence and to memory. The construction 78-321-78 does not declare itself as a telephone number but 783-2178 does, if you’re American; Europeans expect numbers grouped in pairs (country code, city code, etc.); your Social Security number—xxx-xx-xxxx—is its own little rhythmic motif.

Of all our household phrases (my mother also liked “Think before you do”), “You’re dollaring me to death” stuck perhaps because its particular rhythmic roll made a neat and memorable linguistic chunk. When I speak the phrase aloud, I hear the same nonthreatening, semicomic exasperation as other, perhaps television-provided phrases like “You’re tearing me apart!” or “You’re driving me up a wall!” These are the sort of Fred-Flintstone exclamations that busted me up as a kid—but which came first, the television humor or the inherited language? I believe the answer is the language came first, which suggests that the affable-tough-guy quality in those phrases I loved were derived, at least in part, from my family. As it carries across generations, “You’re dollaring me to death” is likely to preserve the particular flavor, texture, and attitude of our family history, the homes left behind. A final (chilly, but oddly comforting) thought: My grandfather’s humor will outlive me.

In written scenes, inherited language likewise provides insights into a character’s family history. In her autobiographical essay “The Family Hour” from The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard writes from the first-person perspective of her teenage self. The young narrator tells the story of the Beard household in the present tense, focused sharply on the sometimes-humorous, oftentimes-terrifying reality of living with an alcoholic parent. Beard’s first sentence incorporates inherited language, and what’s important to note beforehand is that the sentence opens the essay without quotation marks, italics, or other typography that might suggest the narrator is consciously referencing somebody else’s words or shifting registers. She appears to be relaying facts as they come to her:

If she has to come up here we’re both going to regret it. It’s ten o’clock at night and there has been a territorial dispute over where the line down the middle of the bed really is. After a short skirmish we have yelled downstairs to the mediator. From the top of the stairs all we can see is my father’s bare feet crossed on the white divan and a corner of my mother’s newspaper.

The she in the opening sentence is delivered without a clear referent, but does the narrator need to make clear who she is? For this reader, anyway, the identity of she seems obvious (or at least likely) from the start—she is the aggravated mother of the narrator. The choice to use the pronoun she rather than a name or Mother is an immediate gesture toward intimacy—the narrator is speaking with a kind of intuitive trust that the language presented will be familiar enough for the reader to comprehend, and certainly the implied threat in the opening sentence carries a distinct familiarity. If your behavior continues to disrupt this household, “[you’re] both going to regret it.” We assume this if-then threat has been spoken so frequently that the narrator has internalized its logic and syntax. The threat has pervaded the narrative consciousness, and, in only a dozen or so words, the texture and attitude of this particular household has been made clear: here rambunctious kids goof off until they cross a line, and now “[they’re] both going to regret it.”

The absence of italics or quotation marks in Beard’s opening is important because the sentence appears to be an ordinary line of exposition in the voice of teenage Jo Ann. But there’s more at play. While the threat’s origins are clearly the language of Jo Ann’s mother, that fact resides in implication, and yet the realness of the threat is treated (or untreated, as in without quote marks or italics) the same as the white divan or the fact that it’s ten o’clock. The sisters have taken on their mother’s language as if it were their own. The syntax of the if-then threat has been internalized across generations, instantly recallable in the right context.

As the essay continues, and the Beard household comes into focus, the mother’s neurosis presents itself as a symptom of the father’s alcoholism. When he drunkenly falls and breaks a ceramic salad fork, the narrator once again incorporates inherited language into the direct action of the scene:

He falls backward into the wall and the big ceramic salad fork drops from its hook and shatters. My mother can’t have anything nice; the minute she gets something decent, it’s ruined. She works all day and then comes home and makes a beautiful meal like this, and the dog is the only one who will eat it.

Notable here, again, is the lack of transition between the action sentence in which the father falls and the inherited language, “can’t have anything nice,” as if the language required to show action and the inherited language of the mother’s despair are inextricably linked, equally present in the space of the scene and the psychology of the narrator. No distinctions exist between the language used to describe the world and the particular phraseology of the household. In other words, inherited language is treated with the same degree of reality as the action occurring in a given moment—and the mother’s exasperated litany of complaints (“she works all day,” etcetera) are also built into the consciousness of the narrator. The mother’s descriptions of her own suffering have filled the household with such frequency that their language is as real as the floorboards and furniture. Simultaneously, the narrator is being funny in this moment—to a degree, she is lampooning her mother, while at the same time recognizing her mother’s suffering. In this world, within the walls of this house, within this character’s consciousness, that which is painful is often undercut with humor. “You’re dollaring me to death” evokes a similar vibe: We don’t have a lot of money, kid, and that can be a hard truth to bear, so let me package the truth with humor to soften the blow. As an authorial tool, inherited language has the unique power to poke fun without being arch, and to simultaneously reveal a legacy of emotion.

One key element of first-person narration to consider is that, given a character is actively telling the story, the narration cannot show every detail or every angle. Rather, the narration is limited to the narrating character’s particular habits of observation—conventional thinking about the first-person suggests that what’s on the page is only what the character pays attention to, and sometimes even less than that, if the character is tricky or withholding. “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for,” Judge Taylor says in To Kill a Mockingbird. And perhaps he’s right. Perhaps first-person narration shares a quality of human nature, that we are constantly swayed by confirmation bias, interested in perceiving that which affirms what we already believe in the world.

But what I find fascinating about inherited language is the way it seems to arrive (to characters and to me in my life) somewhat uncontrollably from an internalized place. I never seek out “You’re dollaring me to death” as if the phrase resides in a bank of available phrases. When we produce language organically in our moment-to-moment lives, we are subject to a battery of unseeable forces that shape the way we speak. These forces can originate in politics, identity, history, trauma, autobiography, films, books, and countless other sources. Every invisible force shaping language bears its own complexities. While I think of inherited language as sourced and shaped by my family in absentia, the recallable phrases themselves have no doubt been hammered and bent by various forces across time and space. When I say “You’re dollaring me to death,” I am evoking an entire history of usage, alteration, families, and individuals. Perhaps more evident in inherited language than most other sources of language is the fact that my speech comes from places far outside my reach and control. I am language’s subject, rather than the other way around, which is also true for teenage Jo Ann; the particular power dynamics in her household occasion particular “chunks” of language to bubble up in certain circumstances, all without the intermediary of subjective control. Here’s a possible example from “The Family Hour,” when Jo Ann, tussling with her sister, lands a kick to her sister’s eye:

When I wake in the morning she’s sitting in the rocking chair with her ankles crossed, virtuously reading her science book. I go back under the covers immediately. She has the most pronounced black eye I’ve ever seen, even on TV. I’m a dead man.

Reading this passage, I found myself surprised and enthralled with the concluding sentence: “I’m a dead man.” To be idiotically literal, Jo Ann is neither dead nor a man—so, put another way, the narration is not offering direct reporting of the action in the scene. A degree of editorializing is occurring here, coupled with genuine fear (Jo Ann cowers beneath the covers, anticipating her punishment). Of course, we’ve all heard a version of Jo Ann’s sentence before, likely spoken as a threat. If you do X, then you’re a dead man. While I can’t be certain, I would wager that Jo Ann is used to hearing the phrase in a similar fashion—and with some frequency, given the pugilistic nature of her household. In a moment of fear, the phrase seems to almost bubble up.

We can pause to imagine what Jo Ann’s employment of this particular phrase suggests about her alcoholic father who, after a car wreck toward the end of the essay, resembles a dead man. Perhaps he’s used the if-then-dead-man threat in front of his children before, as a threat to a noisy neighbor or rude server at the diner. Or perhaps the phrase has been used on him and the kids have noticed. Keep drinking like that and you’re a dead man.

When Jo Ann calls herself “a dead man,” the repurposing of the phrase is not just humorous, it also emerges at a moment of high stress. Is Jo Ann the character, in this moment, in control of her language as it occurs to her? It may be more accurate to say that Jo Ann is unconsciously soothing her fear by making it linguistically recognizable with a familiar phrase. To imagine a forthcoming punishment is painful and scary, because of the inevitability but also because of the mystery. What’re you gonna do to me? We already know that Jo Ann has learned to instinctively imbue painful moments with undercutting humor. But if I put the prior question another way—Is Jo Ann the narrator in control of her language?—the conversation gets more interesting. In the first-person point of view, several contradictions seem to arise regarding where language is sourced from, especially in the present tense, with its implied qualities of immediacy, improvisation, and reporting. After all, isn’t the character telling us what she sees, feels, and does as she sees, feels, and does these things? If so, do we begin to doubt the authenticity of a teenage narrator, whose language is both beautiful and complex?

Standard academic practice in analyzing literature often excludes any mention of authorial intent. But as writers ourselves, we should consider the reasons why authors make particular choices in their works, what effects those choices have, and what important questions they raise. The use of inherited language in “The Family Hour” interests me most broadly for the way it calls into question what degree of control the narrator has over her language. For example, toward the end of the essay, the family dog has gone missing, but not really: everyone knows the dog is spending the afternoon in front of the tavern where Jo Ann’s father is drinking. When the dog is finally brought back home, Jo Ann narrates the following: “Well, that’s a relief; one of the boozehounds is home.”

Here pain is once again coupled with humor. Her father has not returned home but is across town, spending his day getting drunk. “Boozehound” is humorous because it fits the alcoholic father but also cleverly describes the dog, who was, after all, also at the bar. But are we to believe the term boozehound, cleverly applied to a dog, is a description that organically occurred to Jo Ann in the moment of the dog’s return home? Would this be her first thought when she sees that her father has decided to stay out drinking? Would she have ever thought to call a dog a boozehound at all? It seems far more likely that, in this moment, a certain ironic gap has opened between Jo Ann the character and Jo Ann the narrator; the consciousness guiding us through the story suddenly seems more complex and sophisticated than the young narrator in the story, even though, supposedly, those two entities are supposed to be the same.

This ironic gap might suggest that boozehound is language Jo Ann didn’t understand on initial acquisition. Perhaps it’s a name her mother once spoke to describe her father or the dog, or perhaps the two of them. Regardless, when the word boozehound appears in this moment, it’s with a sense that an older, perhaps retrospective narrator’s consciousness is beginning to hover above that of the child’s.

Write the word reliability on an index card, crumple it, and eat it. Or burn it, or tape it to your forehead so you can only see it backward when you look in the mirror: ytilibailer. The problem with reliability as a term to describe the complex relationship between a first-person narrator’s language and reality is that it’s too narrow. When Jo Ann’s cleverness seems more sophisticated than her abilities, it isn’t that she’s no longer trustworthy. Rather, the narration has accomplished something far greater. By using inherited language, the multidimensionality of consciousness and language has been brought to the page—we sense a retrospective tone in the narrator, even though the essay is written in the present tense, and we see sadness, humor’s shadow, tracing each clever phrase woven into the text. In our own work, we can borrow Jo Ann Beard’s use of inherited language to make more complex, comic, tragic, and rich narrative voices, to speak humor and pain in a single breath, and to evoke the voices of the dead who are still with us, speaking through us, until our own language is inherited, and we become them.


NICK ALMEIDA is from New Hope, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in PleiadesMid-American ReviewSoutheast Review, and elsewhere. Masterplans, a chapbook of stories, is available now from The Masters Review. Nick graduated from the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Houston. Find him on Twitter @nickalmeidasays.


Featured image by Dan Meyers, courtesy of Unsplash.