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The Collation

There's the Short and the Long 'ſ/f'

He loves your wife; there’s the short and the long.

– Merry Wives, 2.1.134

And the Oscar goes to…ſ/f!

This past March 10, on an annual gilded evening, the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay was awarded to Cord Jefferson, writer and director for the satire, American Fiction. American Fiction is an adaptation of the 2001 novel, Erasure, by Percival Everett.

The film and novel critique, if not skewer, the problematic racial dynamics in the publishing industry. Out of utter frustration with bigoted constraints, the protagonist pens a text to pander to the worst biases of said ‘gate keepers’.1 This act of resistance is a joke; forthwith, the ‘inside’ joke backfires. Taken seriously, the enthusiastic reception of publishing ‘elite’ leads to that season’s heralded novel. The title of the contentious novel at the center of Erasure and American Fiction – respectfully – is Pafology. Choosing that particular spelling of ‘pathology’ may signal Black American-Ebonics but/and it equally references Elizabethan English. Specifically highlighted is the archaic use of the initial or medial or otherwise called long ſ/f. The astute blog reader is apt to note that ‘th’ ain’t ‘s’. The First Folio bequeaths Twelfe Night, or What You Will. Curiously, what I wink in naming Elizabonics™, is actually more focused on the title’s instructively indecisive conjunction than ſ/f. Merchant Or JewOr and Otherwise Called can register as titular waffling on identity.

As a self-described ‘Intersectional Absurdist’, my Folger Artistic Research Fellowship further excavates ‘Canonotation’ in A Moft High Cotton Epic Poem…In Three Groovements or Otherwise Called A Moft High Cotton Trilogy: (an Elizabonic™ Hypothefis). Elizabonics™, daringly defined, is my phantom dialect of Black American Ebonics and Elizabethan English – uttered interchangeably to challenge connotations of ‘correct’ speech. The conjured verse is a curious ‘confrontation’ to trouble the reader’s/audience’s racialized notions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ brow speech. This fusion – or collision – of dialects is an imagined medium for exploring those unspoken norms that become the visceral pillars holding up the political constructs of race, gender, and class.

The lowercase ſ sounds like ‘s’ in Elizabethan speech whilst Ebonic pronunciation incorporates the ‘f’ sound. Whether the ſ/f refers to ‘th’ in 2001’s satirical title, Pafology, or ‘s’ in “ſeuerall Comedies, Hiſtories” of the 1623 First Folio’s table of contents, the effect is arguably equal thru an Elizabonic™ lens. Most intriguing is the First Folio’s unwitting allusion to ‘modern’ code switching, supplied inadvertently by the Elizabethan printers’ normalization of ſ/f. Context is key to code switching’s efficacy. Intention can be detected in the most ‘casual’ Ebonic discourse – which can ‘switch’ sociological ‘coding’ with loaded meaning, to desired effect. Absent such consciousness, the attuned practitioner of Ebonics, or those who refrain whilst still deciphering its subtleties, are repeatedly reminded of the contradiction in a work deemed the epitome of institutional eloquence.

Respecting a blog post’s brevity, I will avoid extensive elaboration as to otha signifiers, yet mention that Elizabonics™ need not rely upon ſ/f for ‘validity’. May this cursory overview serve:

“Nay, my lord.” [Hmph]  “Nah, my brotha.”
“How now, what news?” [C’mon]  “Hey now, What up?”
dropped g’s hither n’ thither
AysoGod b‘ wiye!” Hamlet, 2.2.575
‘holler’ spelled holla – spotted fifteen times in eleven plays/one poem: Like It, Hamlet, Henry IV/VI, Lear, Labor’s, Merchant, Midsummer, Othello, Taming, Venus & Adonis
Midsummer’s famed line, 3.2.117, “Lord what fool these mortals be!” Black church pew or Puck?

On with this recent moment of Oscar’s hiftory-making…

A screenshot showing a blank computer screen with only the words MY PATHOLOGY
Screenshots of American Fiction trailer, credit: Amazon MGM Studios/Orion
A screenshot showing a blank computer screen with only the words MY PAFOLOGY

Ye, dear reader, are directed to YouTube to view American Fiction‘s official trailer. Evidence supplied there is not minor by my humble estimation. Of all the scenes carefully curated for such ‘standard’ previews, capturing a film’s very raison d’être, in but calculated, rather precious seconds, this trailer features the camera in tightest close-up of a computer monitor where “Pathology” is typed, before the cursor backspaces to ‘correct’ toPafology‘ – increasing font size. This filmic choice underscores intent – crucial to the entire narrative. Here, Jefferson, filmmaker, agrees with author, Everett, that spelling is indeed a superior representation of stereotypes, tropes, eh-hem, Mores, and thereby commercial appeal to publishing success. Such is specific in this context, yes, yet maybe more substantive in its ‘spell upon’ or ‘read’ of the dominant cultural capacity to engage the full breadth of Black expression.

The regular reader of Early Modern texts is familiar enuf with the ſ/f to seamlessly transpose a modern ‘f’, with no further ponderance of much socio-implication. Since not phonetic, they may skim, instantaneously transcribing letters, inattentive to its possible further inference, an ostensible cue to Black-American engagement. Those readers – whose primary author of the era remains Shakespeare – are introduced to the ſ/f before the first line of theatrical text. The First Folio’s table of contents affirms my ‘hypotheſis’:

Book historian and scholar Sarah Werner, in a 2014 Collation piece – u/v, i/j, and transcribing other early modern textual oddities:

“What tends to trip readers up more frequently is the use of the long-s, which to our eyes looks so akin to an “f” that it can sometimes be very hard not to read it that way.”

Ay, so, yo! “…very hard not to…” I argue that in that very moment any reader “trips up”, what they have actually slipped into is the portal that I hope Elizabonics™ can be, to dismantle the guise of Word usage as distinguishing societal ‘worth’.

But back to the unique cue to the Black Shakespeare ‘consumer’. Regardless of whether a black body speaks Ebonics or not, code-switches, dabbles, deep-dives, appreciates, abhors, or is wholly ambivalent with this volatile tongue, might certain aspects qualify as inescapably atmospheric in particular encounters? When microaggressively complimented for surprise with a proficient Standard articulation, might the ‘specter’ of Elizabonics™ linger – in a comparative thought bubble hovering above the gas-lit compliment? When that complimenter’s adolescent child, say, in the same day of the encounter, mimics intonation of a hip hop lyric, may the cachet extracted for peer approval of subverting parental and societal norms, create – quite uniquely for them – a ‘zeitgeist’ value that remains a dichotomous deficit for the origin/source speaker?

Herein lies my sly appreciation for Pafology. A faux fiction’s delectably indirect Oscar nod is obliviously generous in validating my otherwise cheeky ‘thesis’. Adapted. Best. Acknowledgment of any ‘adaptation’ as not only a skill, but surpassing expertise to acclaim, can be a supportive provocation. The Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences 2024 ‘winner’ for Best Adapted Screenplay seems almost a meta comment – beyond yet within the angles – of ‘slang’ as a prism, releasing in cinematic technicolor, the complicated spectrum of ‘an’ English language.  Whilst my epic poem, High Cotton, writ in Elizabonic™ verse, is not satire, the experimental work is an absurd exploration, mapping its own surreal mirage, where voiced hierarchical harms might just vanish.

  1. Thanking Collation‘s Heather Wolfe. Her request for clarity of the breadth of my single quotes, spurred this footnote. May this supplement assist the reader as much as the instructive opportunity to elaborate has served me: Thought bubble around single quotes? Supposedly or allegedly. As I engage in critique to compassionately challenge ‘held’ (there I go) assumptions, I hope to cue the reader to interrogate their own. Past any assumption itself, I question the very ‘holding’ of it as a fine line between cognition and cultural influence. Hence, my use of ‘held’ right here. This can result in more usage of single quotes than usual – even past my own preference. While considering the effect – on flow of read – when many single quotes are present, I equally wonder if the discomfort serves, inviting the reader’s deliberation. A deliberate devise, my use of single quotes is a provocation.

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