“Go to the unprintable,” Agustin said. “And unprint thyself.”
This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books, For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. The line exemplifies not one but two of the remarkable things Hemingway does with language in that novel.
The less obvious one is the use of thee and its related pronouns. Most people don’t know what these vintage grammatical features are for anymore—I’ve seen them used wrongly in print—but Hemingway clearly did know, and his use of them is the clearest hint of the most linguistically brilliant aspect of the book; he uses English to write in Spanish.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in Spain, among people who either do not know English at all, or who are bilingual and thinking mostly in Spanish. And yet the book was written for potentially monolingual English-speakers. Hemingway therefore wrote in English, but in such a way as to give a flavor of Spanish. He does it in the expected way, by salting the pages with a few Spanish words and phrases, and he does it in the brilliant way, by using English cognates of Spanish words and a slightly altered phrase structure to approximate the vocabulary and patterns of the other language. The result is an earthy elegance of speech English usually doesn’t have.
Thee, thou, thy, and thine are used by Hemingway to stand in for the Spanish informal singular pronouns. In Spanish, which set of pronouns you use signals the kind of relationship you have with the other person. You use the informal set when speaking to friends, children, or people of lower social status than yourself. You use the formal set in professional contexts, to speak to strangers, or to address people of higher status. It’s a distinction we English-speakers can no longer make–but we could until recently.
Thee, thou, and thy and thine were the informal, singular pronouns of English.
(The English and Spanish pronoun systems are not identical; Spanish has the formal/informal distinction in both singular and plural, except in Mexico, where the formal plural is missing, whereas English only had it in the singular)
The other reason I like the quote I opened with is, of course, the lovely ridiculousness of “unprint thyself.” We know what Agustin is really saying. I’m not going to print it, either, not today.
In 1940, when For Whom the Bell Tolls was originally published, the F-word and its variously four-lettered colleagues may literally have been unprintable. Certainly, rendering them literally on the page would have made the novel a very different book, for a very much smaller audience. How do you write about characters cursing when you are not free to use the words yourself?
Hemingway’s solution isn’t the only one available. You can simply pretend that people like your characters don’t curse, writing as if in a parallel and PG universe. Or, you can use narration to refer to what you can’t quote, as Robert Louis Stevenson did in Treasure Island. Rendered in such a style, our Hemingway quote becomes “Go away,” Agustin said, with a cheerfully filthy oath.
Hemingway actually uses Stevenson’s solution, too, in some places. In other passages he uses printable synonyms, such as befoul, besmirch, or muck, but by inserting words like unprintable or obscenity in their grammatically correct places (“Go and obscenity thyself”) he achieves something at once clear, elegant, and humorous.
Of course, were he writing today, Hemingway would have had no obvious reason not to simply print the unprintable. The book could have been filled with four-letter words of Saxon derivation standing in for the wealth of intricate crudeness that apparently exists in Spanish. Why not?
Except that the book would then have felt heavy and blunt to read. Those words are unpleasant–that is the whole point. When a curse word ceases to be unpleasant, it ceases to be a curse word and is replaced by something else. Granted, sometimes unpleasant words are useful, necessary, even, to capture the ugly unpleasantness of a character or a situation. Some stories should feel gritty and harsh.
But must they all?
For Whom the Bell Tolls is about a grandly tragic situation, a place and time where many people were trying very hard to do the right thing and yet did awful things, while awful things were done to them. It’s entirely understandable that these characters use foul language quite often.
And yet the story is often lovely, full of the scent of a pine forest, the dedication of the idealistic, and the clean silence of falling snow. That lyric loveliness sharpens the tragedy. Crudeness, crudely printed, would have dulled it, rendered it cynical and ugly.
There is an argument to be made for not cursing, even if we can.