3 Dec 2020

On the Use of Dialect as an Erotico-Elementary Language in D. H. Lawrence

An aged priest of love sharing terms 
from his phallic vocabulary 
Image by Realitees on teepublic.com
It has been suggested that the use of dialect in Lady Chatterley's Lover - liberally interspersed with expletives - is an attempt by D. H. Lawrence to construct an erotico-elementary language that is expressive of what he terms phallic tenderness. An attempt, in other words, to translate feeling and desire more directly - more authentically - into words; to speak straight from the heart rather than the head. 
Readers of the novel can decide for themselves how successful he is in this; whether, for example, it's a real advance in the poetics of courtship and amorous discourse for Mellors to tell Connie that she's "'the best bit o' cunt on earth'" and how pleasing it is to him that she shits an' pisses [1]
But I would like to make the following points, if I may ... 
Firstly, I quite admire the refusal by Mellors to speak standard English - the language of his class enemies - at all times and in all circumstances, even though he is perfectly capable of so-doing. If his lapsing into the vernacular and use of profanity is partly a defensive mechanism, so too is it oppositional and defiant. Perhaps he even has a duty to try and articulate his thoughts and feelings in his own words as far as is possible - as do all those who pride themselves on their singularity.   
Having said that, I'm not sure how far we can (or should) take this. I don't, for example, like the idea of individuals or small groups of people - tribes - retreating into semi-private languages in order to uphold some narrow identity and exclude others. I'm not arguing for a universal language which would somehow absorb all others and allow only a single vision to be expressed in but one tongue, but I do like the idea of being able to communicate.        
Secondly, I'm dubious when Lawrence suggests that a mixture of East Midlands dialect and a sprinkling of obscenities allows Mellors to articulate desire and display a proper reverence for sex and the body's strange experiences. He can't, of course, provide any evidence for this; it's ultimately just a personal preference for the language of his childhood based upon an intuitive understanding of physical consciousness. 
I'm inclined to agree with Richard Rorty's dismissal of this type of fantasy as, at best, lacking in irony, or, at worst, politically reactionary:
"What is described as such a consciousness is simply a disposition to use the language of our ancestors, to worship the corpses of their metaphors. Unless we suffer from what Derrida calls 'Heideggerian nostalgia,' we shall not think of our 'intuitions' as more than platitudes, more than the habitual use of a certain repertoire of terms, more than old tools which as yet have no replacements." [2]      
The problem is, Lawrence does - on occasion - suffer from something pretty similar to this form of philosophical sickness. He trusts his intuitions and, more, he believes his phallic vocabulary does a huge amount of work; i.e., that words such as tenderness, touch, desire, and fuck can be employed to bring about a revolutionary change in society; that such terms have almost a magical power and that they are closer to some vital primal reality and constitute what he terms blood-knowledge (a kind of instinctive common sense).  
Heidegger designated such terms as elementary - although, obviously, he privileged very different ones from Lawrence - and in Being and Time he claims that the "ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elementary words in which Dasein expresses itself" [3]
Now, as I confessed in an earlier post [click here], there was a time when I found this kind of thing seductive if never entirely convincing: I wanted to believe that there was an occult litany of words, letters, and phonemes that might somehow tear up the foundations of the soul and shatter eardrums and law tables alike; a kind of Adamic language, if you like.  
But now I fear this is precisely the kind of linguistic mysticism that Heidegger paradoxically practised whilst also warning against - not least of all because it's open to ridicule. 
Indeed, whenever Mellors shouts out arse! cunt! balls! like an erotomaniac with Tourette's, he reminds one of Father Jack Hackett, the foul-mouthed, lecherous old priest played by Frank Kelly in the Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted. His attempted display of authenticity is, ultimately, full of transcendental pretension and, as such, is laughable; Connie's sister, Hilda, is right to find him (and his use of dialect) affected. 
In sum: Lady Chatterley's Lover is an attempt by Lawrence to bring together the personal and the political, by showing us how sexual self-discovery and social revolution could be united in one project articulated via a phallic narrative spoken by Oliver Mellors.
Like Heidegger, Lawrence "thought he knew some words which had, or should have had, resonance for everybody" [4]; words which were relevant not just to the fate of people who happened to share his concerns and obsessions, but to the public fate of the modern world. He was unable to believe that the words which meant so much to him - words rooted in the body - don't necessarily excite the same interest or call forth the same response in others (not even from amongst his most sympathetic readers).
As Rorty concludes: "There is no such list of elementary words, no universal litany. The elementariness of elementary words [...] is a private and idiosyncratic matter" and the democracy of touch is simply a beautiful attempt by a poet and novelist to "fend off thoughts of mortality with thoughts of affiliation and incarnation" [5].
[1] D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover, ed. Michael Squires, (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 177 and 223. 

[2] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, (Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 21-22. 

[3] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Blackwell, 2001), p. 262. 

[4] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 118. 

[5] Ibid., p. 119. 
This is a follow up to an earlier post on the use of dialect in D. H. Lawrence as a form of defensive communication: click here.  


  1. Dialect and language are fundamental aspects of identity. Words conjure up associations and familiarity which is why they are so strongly associated with culture - a cult, a barrier, a form of differentiation. Whether they have power beyond this function is a matter of debate. It's worth considering when Lady C was written (dialect was clearly something he no longer heard given his self imposed exile); the fact there are three versions of the book (clearly this was difficult to write and the overall message or emphasise changed); and that in terms of the writing process, especially given the themes, the fucks and pisses served an essential role in defining M as a particular type of person. I feel an intense sense of belonging when I hear a Notts accent, such as Henry Normal on the radio. This isn't parochialism, it's genuine warmth and excitement because it's so rare. You have the M25 as your corset and therefore are so used to hearing and reading the southern twang it is little surprise that you perceive anything that deters from this as a semi-private language or tribal. Ironically, tribes is exactly what we are today. In 2020, we've gone from a European nation, to Little England, and now because of covid, into lockdown bubbles. Let a Midlander into your bubble, Stephen!

    1. I don't usually discuss things with fundamentalists and identitarians, but, would like to challenge the (laughable) idea that people living within the M25 only hear one type of voice and that post-Brexit we are no longer a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic nation.

      There are, as a matter of fact, over 300 languages spoken in London, including English, though even that is obviously spoken by different communities in different ways with different accents.

      In my own household, for example, I hear it spoken with a Greek accent (by Maria) and a Geordie accent (by my mother); my next door neighbours (Stefan and Marianna) are from Moldova and yesterday I went to see my dental hygienist (Vilma) who is from Lithuania. I also have friends from all over the world. So, trust me, I'm very familiar and perfectly comfortable with all kinds of spoken English.

      Thankfully, none of them give me that "intense sense of belonging" that you feel when you hear a Notts accent and I don't feel that any language, dialect, or accent gives greater authenticity to the speaker.

  2. I was referring to the accents we hear on the radio, the places and voices that dominate the media. Hearing a Notts accent is nothing to do with authenticity, it's about recognising more than one type of person exists.

    To be called a fundamentalist is a very fundamentalist thing to say. Anyway, glad to get an insight into your home life.