Jeff Dolven   Recently updated !

The Truth of Diction


Daniel Tiffany makes much of the root dict- in “diction,” and properly so. He traces it to the Greek deixis, the action of pointing, in order to explore how the way we talk points to where (or when) we come from and the company we keep. Pointing backwards, as it were, toward origins—and as Wittgenstein wonders, how do we know that we shouldn’t react to the gesture of pointing “by looking in the direction from fingertip to wrist, rather than from wrist to fingertip”?1

Following this path, we could say that dict- points backward, in turn, to deik-, the Proto-Indo-European root behind the Greek. Deik- is defined by the philologist Calvert Watkins as “to show, pronounce solemnly; also in derivatives referring to the directing of words or objects.”2 A wide range of language-words derives from it (via the Greek), including “dictate,” “contradict,” “verdict” in English; in Latin, dicere. meaning simply “to say,” and likewise dire in French and Italian. That oldest sense of “show” suggests that the pointing can go the other way, too, wrist to finger, toward what you are looking at or talking about. That is the kind of pointing that gets called “reference.”

There is a stubborn, intuitive power in the idea that the basic function of language is to refer to the world, and that we can explain how it works by pointing to what it points to. Wittgenstein is among the twentieth-century thinkers who have tried to cure us of what he calls that “false picture.” One of the reasons the picture is so tenacious, however, is that it comes along with an equally robust and intuitive theory of truth, often called a correspondence theory. A true sentence is one in which the proposition the words make corresponds to the state of affairs in the world. A false sentence is one in which it does not. Tiffany’s account of diction as deixis could be said to imply a correspondence theory, even if it points backward rather than forward. If you speak with a Cockney accent, you state the implicit proposition that you are from East London. You point there, to the neighborhood within earshot of Bow Bells. If indeed that is where you grew up, the proposition is true. If not, your diction is a forgery, however accomplished the imitation may be.

There is another way for diction to be false, one that does not depend on pointing. Say you are from Highgate, a fancy neighborhood of London, but you are trying to pass yourself off as an East Londoner. You are a capable mimic, and your accent passes, but you ask, at a pub, for a napkin (not a serviette). It is a fatally false note. False because it points elsewhere, back to the neighborhood where you really grew up, but also false because your speech has become internally inconsistent. Now a different theory of truth is at stake, what the philosophers call a coherence theory. Your diction does not cohere; it contradicts itself; it fragments, and your story fragments with it. You are suddenly out of place, and you might well be embarrassed at your imposture. Perhaps you will even find yourself pointed at.

Let me give a couple of poetic examples, one older and one recent. The first is from Edmund Spenser’s 1579 pastoral, The Shepheardes Calender. The poem consists of twelve eclogues spoken and sung by a community of shepherds, one of whom, Colin Clout, aspires to learn a higher song. He does not want to sound like his old, country friends any more; he wants to sound like an English Virgil. At the same time, Spenser has enlisted him to a larger, exogenous design for the poem, shared by his fellow forward Protestants, which was to persuade Queen Elizabeth to turn away from the prospect of a French, Catholic marriage, and embrace the native virtues of an English husband. Colin is caught between the diction of his poetic ambition and the diction of Spenser’s nationalism. When he sings a lay to Eliza, the shepherds’ queen, it comes out like this:

Pan may be proud, that euer he begot 

such a Bellibone, 

And Syrinx reioyse, that euer was her lot 

to beare such an one. 

Soone as my younglings cryen for the dam, 

To her will I offer a milkwhite Lamb: 

Shee is my goddesse plaine, 

And I her shepherds swayne, 

Albee forswonck and forswatt I am.3

The Ovidian references, to Pan and Syrinx, reach for a higher style, as does the complicated metrical scheme; there is nothing disqualifying in the milk-white lamb, for Virgil wrote pastoral at the outset of his career. But “forswonck and forswatt” is too much, out-rusticating the rustics, a clumsy parody of the humble idiom he has forgotten how to speak. The moment is painful, an internal difference in diction—a false note—that betrays his mixed motives. It opens Colin both to shame and to reprisal.

The second example is from a poem Tiffany cites to good effect, Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution. The main character is known as the Guide, a young radical who has fled Korea (she was imprisoned after the 1980 coup) to settle in the Desert, a sort of multicultural levantine theme park filled with hotels pastiching foreign capitals. She is a virtuoso speaker of the Desert creole:


hotel the McCosm o any city...Bangkok ova here,

Paree ova dere...

I speak Han-guk y Finnish, good bit o Latin

y Spanish...sum toto Desert Creole an evachanging dipdong

’pendable on mine mood...ibid...4

This crossroads language is so polyglot and so ceaselessly inventive, it seems like it could only point toward freedom. But as the book goes on, we learn about the linguistic purists of New Town, exiled across a long bridge, who wage an insurgent jihad against the tourist industry, and we also learn that the Guide gets paid for informing against them to the Desert authorities. Now, the everchanging creole sounds a little different, as though its revolutions are driven by the replacement cycles of the marketplace. Is its ecumenical, multicultural microcosm just a McCosm of global capitalism? The poem’s language is at risk of falling apart along the infinite fault lines of its compound diction, every contradiction a symptom of the class conflicts on which the Desert is built. Perhaps it is a perfectly false tongue.

What these two examples share is an interest in how social solidarity and individual integrity are threatened by an incoherent diction. These are the dynamics of impersonation and appropriation so hot in our own moment, across differences of race and class especially. Poetic diction in the traditional sense (“a specifically poetic, or lyric, diction...characterized, variously, by a taste for unusual words, circumlocution, abstract nouns, figures of speech, archaism, adjectival enrichment, and sentimental phrasing,” as Tiffany puts it) has long existed to minimize these risks, producing poems that sound like poems, demonstrating a firm command of the social space of a genre. Colin and the Guide enjoy no such security. Spenser and Hong dramatize the excruciations of speakers whose words falsify each other, falsehoods that are at once intimate and exposed in the open mouth. No wonder shame waits on them. Swallow the words down? Spit them out? Bad poems are vitiated by false notes. A good poem, however, is its own place, the very place its words are from. How that comes to pass is something of a mystery, how Colin’s fractured voice becomes his own, for all its contradictions; how the Guide is finally able to turn her labile idiolect toward resistance. Crimes of diction are transformed into local customs, and we come to say, when we hear them committed elsewhere, that we know where they come from. Indeed it is in respect of its diction that a poem is most like a place, a place where they do things differently, and where truth is not a proposition so much as a fluency. Wittgenstein might call it a form of life. Perhaps they even follow the pointing gesture back up the arm there? There, or, you would say inside the poem, here.


1Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations, eds. P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2009), 81e.

2The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 3rd ed., s.v. “deik-.”

3Edmund Spenser, The Shorter Poems, ed. Richard McCabe (London: Penguin, 2000), 63.

4Cathy Park Hong, Dance Dance Revolution (New York: Norton, 2007), 25.



Jeff Dolven teaches poetry and poetics at Princeton University. He is the author of Senses of Style (Chicago 2018), Scenes of Instruction (Chicago 2007), and the admittedly hasty Take Care (Cabinet 2017); as well a volume of poems, Speculative Music (Sarabande 2013). He is also an editor-at-large at Cabinet.