21 October 2007

Shopkeeping in the Vernacular

I never dreamed I'd be blogging about Dante and Milton. Couldn't stand the guys, actually, when I was in school, both as a student and a teacher. But here we go!


I gave in upon a recommendation from a friend and started reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This book is apparently the new sensation of the literary world, and I'm starting to think that's for good reason. Maybe you saw the author on Oprah a couple weeks ago? That was my introduction to her and her story. The title of the book alone had beckoned me over to the New Non-Fiction display at Borders a couple months back, but I didn't actually take a copy home. But last week, sweet Lindsay convinced me that I would like it and lent me her copy. Now I'm hooked!


A memoir, Eat, Pray, Love is Gilbert's story of how she came to terms with what she didn't want in her life and found her way to what she did want, which was to enjoy all of the pleasures the world has to offer while simultaneously experiencing a true peace and a connection to God. Sounds tricky, no? Gilbert chronicles with humor and raw honesty her journey across Italy, India, and Indonesia in hopes of learning how to experience life to the fullest while learning how to experience God in an authentic way, and learning how to balance the two. It's not an esoteric or heady read, but rather very funny! And it keeps you turning pages almost in spite of yourself.


The other night I was reading it while I was brushing my teeth. (I'm a multitasking reader; I almost never sit down just to read. Instead, I read as I take care of personal hygiene, blow dry my hair, etc.) The author was talking about why she wanted to learn to speak Italian. She dove into a fascinating explanation of how European languages came into "official" existence. Many of them, including French and Portuguese, were the tongues spoken in the most powerful and dominant cities of the regions that would later become nations. For instance, the language we know today as French is actually "Parisian," or, the dialect spoken in Paris, which was the most prestigious city in the region at the time "officialness" was bestowed. And modern-day Portugeuse is actually "Lisboan," or, the dialect spoken in dominating Lisbon. In linguistic terms, French and Portugeuse were the prestige dialects of their nations. The prestige dialect becomes and remains the standard, preferred dialect (or variant of a language) that is commonly thought of as "the" way to speak a language. Need an example here at home? Well, in the U.S., our prestige dialect is termed Standard American English, or S.A.E. (to linguists). It's what you think of when you think of the most "proper" way to speak American English, and it happens to be the dialect spoken by newscasters. In fact, there is an urban legend (which may be true) that newscasters from across the nation are sent here to Northeastern Ohio to get voice coaching, lose the "accents" and dialect of their own home states, and learn to speak "properly." Apparently, we Northeastern Ohioans are some of the most perfect S.A.E. speakers in the nation!


But back to Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert hails Italian as one of the most romantic and artistically-influenced languages in Europe, namely because the Italian we speak today was not the prestige dialect of Italy. Rather, when a group of scholars and lawmakers met in the mid-1800s to determine which dialect would be the "official" language of Italy, the dialect they chose was that which the writer Dante Alighieri used to pen his masterpiece The Divine Comedy. Far from being a prestige dialect, it was a casual, rhyme-y, singsong-y, street dialect spoken by commoners. It was the vernacular--plain, everyday, ordinary language, and it was beloved for its musicality, revered as the language of Dante, and thus crowned as the official language of Italy. How cool is that? 'The language of the people' and the language of a literary classic became the language of an entire nation.


I took special notice of this story because just by happenstance this fall, we included an old edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost in our front window display at The Blissful. Milton's book is usually paralleled with Dante's The Divine Comedy, as the books have similar themes and motifs, which boil down to one man's journey from Hell to Purgatory and ultimately, to Heaven, or "Paradise Regained". Even more by happenstance, when we flipped the book open to make it look as if someone had gotten up and left it behind in her chair, we noticed that it wanted to fall to the first page of "Paradise Regained," which is the last book within Paradise Lost. We were delighted by the symbolism here! As a former English teacher, you might be surprised to know how little I really knew about Dante's book (or Milton's, for that matter). I am sure I probably read it in college, but I never taught it, and for whatever reason, it did not remain active in my memory. I am thoroughly relishing my new knowledge that Dante's book (on which Milton's book is based) was written in the language of the people and esteemed throughout the ages for that very reason.


Which brings me to this idea, which is one I have visited before in past blog posts: the idea of a shop as a tactile, tangible, three-dimensional story of sorts. A story that people can walk through, touch, smell, listen to, and sometimes (when we're sampling our gourmet goodies) even taste! Every shopkeeper is the author of her own shop's story. I know one thing for sure: at The Blissful, we write our story in the vernacular. Our story is in the language of the people. Nothing hoity-toity, no fake Euro accents (like Madonna Ritchie's), nothing prestigious about it. Our selection of goods is intended for wonderfully everyday people with wonderfully everyday lives. And, of course, there's always something unusual thrown into the mix to keep you wondering, because life, on many levels, is about discovery. The Blissful has always been about this, and it always will be.


I hope you don't mind my divergence into literary analysis today. It's Sunday, and I think I'm hearkening back to the days when I could while away some good hours in a coffee shop on a weekend afternoon. But then, back in those days, I was writing lesson plans or grading papers. Today, I'm determined to take a crack at organizing all of the drawers and shelves behind our cash wrap area. There aren't too many more weeks left before the Holiday rush commences, and if I don't get this done now, I never will!


Here's hoping you regain your own little slice of Paradise this afternoon.


melissa @ the inspired room said...

The book sounds quite interesting, I have been wondering about it! Thanks for the preview! And your store, I'd love to come spend the day sitting in it and absorbing everything! It just sounds blissful.

Tracie said...

Very interesting, prestige dialects, had no idea - I so love these bits of information to file away in my brain. Had a little chuckle about the Madonna Ritchie comment as well, thank you!

Love the bag in the background as well, have one with two bolsters - very cute!

Good luck organizing all of the drawers and shelves before the holiday rush.


KJ said...

Abby . . .

This is a fabulous article! It evoked so many thoughts and responses in me that I don't know where to begin.

Although I am a good distance from your idyllic, sweet shop, I feel that I have visited many times through your provocative writing. There are many inspiring, thoughtful blogs that tend to ramble. When I read "Lettres from the Blissful," I am transfixed by every word. I am immediately hooked and I must allow it to reel me into its conclusion!

I, too, love language! Many times, I have jokingly told people that California is host to the official version of S.A.E., primarily because I can travel to any state with an accent (other than mine) and the local news broadcasters will sound just like me. I'm sure this has a great deal to do with the permeating influences of Hollywood. (I didn't realize that Ohio had such high distinction with the English language.)

The origin of modern dialects are also an area of great interest to me. As a singer, I so appreciate the meter and melodic flow of language. Romance seems to have played a predominant role in deciding which languages would be considered elite.

Finally, I so agree with your concept of a shop. The shops that I migrate towards are always those that extract me from the mindless pace and sweep me into a tactile, sensory journey! I want to feel as if the merchandise has been courted and romanced!

Merci mille fois, KJ

KJ said...

P.S. A bitty thing... I also appreciated the font you used on this piece. Verdana? It's easier for these almost 50 year old eyes to see– a little more spaced apart.