When a friend recommended Cormac Mccarthy’s ‘All the pretty horses’ (the first part of the border-trilogy) to me 12 years ago, I first wondered why I would ever want to read a book that promised to mostly involve cowboys and horses and a lot of clichés about the west. A short ways into the book I realized how wrong I was—not about what the books is about, it indeed does involve mostly cowboys and horses and contains lots of familiar clichés—but I was wrong to think that such superficialities might in any way affect the degree of how captivated I would be with this book. In the hands of this writer any cliché is immediately restored to something untainted and original. I don’t know how he does it, but I’ve since read many of his books and I’m still on the hook, and also still at a loss to explain why. Or maybe I do know why. He’s just a fantastic writer and story-teller. Who cares what about, and whether sunsets are ridden into or not? I’m not surprised McCarthy is rumored to be among he favorites for this year’s Nobel prize which will be announced in a few hours.
But coming back to the clichés (this post will touch on prosody eventually…). One very noticeable trope that keeps coming up in All the pretty horses are animal emitted and other scene-setting sounds. There’s coyotes yammering and yapping, horse whinnying, desert doves waking, and, yes, dogs are barking. Pointing out that barking dogs are a cliché is already a cliché itself, but this article , which I came across googleing around while writing this blog post, does a particularly good job at that, and also at providing ample evidence that dogs bark everywhere around us the moment we pick up a book. And they form such a natural and effective part of the narrative in All the pretty horses that one has to conclude that tropes cannot be branded as clichés by themselves and black-listed because of how they have come to be used previously—how stale or original they seem all depends on how they are used in a particular case. Maybe prescriptive rules on how to avoid clichés are at the level of content what prescriptive rules about grammar at the level of style: silly. And maybe using clichés is like splitting infinitives: At times awkward, but often appropriate and sometimes necessary.
So what are scene-setting sounds? I mean sounds that are not really part of the plot, but are used to set the stage, they are part of the background. The border between sounds that are part of the plot and those that are just background is blurry of course, and it’s often artificial to single out sounds from other scene-setting elements and descriptions of nature, but let’s go with the prototype of the notorious barking dog and see what we find.
The first occurrence in All the Pretty Horses is on page three:
In the distance, a calf bawled.
The last one is on page page 286 (out of 302):
[…] and coyotes yammered and answered back all across the plain to the south from which they’d come […]
Or maybe it’s the following, which one should probably also count, for its (by then) very salient absence of any scene-setting sounds, especially given the crucial point of closure in the plot that is reached in this sentence (page 298):
[…] and everything dead still and clear on the west Texas plains.
While rereading the book this summer with my wife, I counted 25 occasions were scene-setting sounds were mentioned, most of them emitted by animals (but I think I didn’t really look out as much for non-animal emitted sounds because barking dogs were what I had in mind as the most typical example). If sounds were emitted in consecutive sentences I only count this as one occurrence. So there is about 1 occurrence in every 12 pages, and I’m sure I’ve missed many because I didn’t always pay attention.
Apart from the sheer number, the playfulness with which various sounds are evoked is striking. It almost looks like McCarthy is deliberately exploring the space of possible ways to let the dogs bark. Dog-barking occurs an impressive 7 times (at least) or once in every 38 pages, and at one point McCarthy manages to reduce the barking of dogs to what might be its minimalistic limit (page 161):
They could hear sounds from the distant village. Dogs. A mother calling. Ranchero music with its falsetto cries almost like an agony played out of a cheap radio somewhere in the nameless night.
Some of the the occurrences are interesting from a linguistic point of view. Consider the following (page 81):
Not even a dog barked.
What’s interesting is that this sentence involves a focus sensitive operator, even, which in this case evokes alternatives to the sentence, leading to a meaning that can be paraphrased like this:
It’s even the case that no dog barked.
One issue is why not precedes even although even seems to outscope it. This might be more evidence that there is a negative-polarity version of even with a ‘most-likely’ reading.
What’s also surprising is that even can associate with the entire sentence here rather than with just the subject. Consider the case where we replace the indefinite with a proper name or a definite noun phrase (and yes, if you manage to get this sentence into a novel and get a Nobel Prize you deserve another one):
Not even Fido barked.
Here, it seems that someone was present that might have barked but didn’t, and that that someone (presumably a dog) was less likely to bark than Fido. To express the reading ‘it was so silent even Fido remained quiet,’ where no alternative barkers are evoked, it seems that Fido has to precede even. Also, in this case, there is an accent on bark, while in the original example readers typically don’t place an accent on bark and sentence accent falls on dog (I asked two people about both examples, so that’s not a lot of data points yet):
Fido didn’t even bark.
In Not even a dog barked, however, clearly dogs, among animal alternatives, should be the most likely to bark, and for this sentence to make sense even must associate with the entire proposition. This sentence doesn’t express that cats also didn’t bark, it expresses that it was silent to the degree that even the dogs were quiet.
The Fido-example is reminiscent of an observation in Jackendoff’s 1972 monograph Semantics Interpretation in Generative Grammar. He points out, based on the following observation by Stephen Anderson, that even can take sentence-wide focus if the subject precedes it (page 248):
The result of today’s games will be remarkable: Harvard will even defeat Loyola.
Jackendoff also claims that this type of reading is absent if the subject follows even. The example from McCarthy’s book suggests that Jackendoff’s claim is correct for definite noun phrases, but not for indefinite ones–at least under negation. It’s less clear whether association at the propositional level is possible without not. However, with a little extra context, my informants tell me, it might be not so bad, so maybe negation isn’t crucial here:
It was the type of scene you’d expect from a book about cowboys. Even a dog barked.
This word order and its interaction with accent placement raises some interesting syntactic issues. Where in the structure exactly are negation, even, and the subject located? This summer, Aron Hirsch (McGill ’11) and I ran a series of experiments on stress an intransitives here at McGill, and hopefully I’ll soon be able to post some more on this work on this blog. In the meantime, below are the cases I noted down, let me know if you find more!
Scene-setting sounds in Cormac McCarthy’s All the pretty horses:
3 — In the distance, a calf bawled.
26 — In the distance they heard a door slam. A voice called. A coyote that had been yammering somewhere in the hills to the south stopped. Then it began again.
30 — The leather creaked in the morning cold. […] They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was […]
81 — Not even a dog barked.
82 — Some dogs started up. […] Dogs were beginning to bark all back through the town.
82 — A horse whinnied in the dark.
91 — Coyotes were yapping along the ridge to the south
95 — […] and the cattle was calling and the yellow squares of windowlight gave warmth and shape to an alien world.
96 — They could hear them breathing deeply […]
109 — A flock of small birds rose up and passed back over him with thin calls.
111 — They sat smoking, watching the deepest embers of the fire where the red coals cracked and broke.
112 — The brass weights stirred behind the casement doors, the pendulum slowly swept.
127 — […] saddle the horse at daybreak with only the little desert doves waking in the orchard […]
140 — […] and then riding side by side up the ciénaga with the moon in the west like a moon of white linen hung from wires and some darks barking over toward the shearing-sheds and the greyhounds answering back from their pens […]
161 — They could hear sounds from the distant village. Dogs. A mother calling. Ranchero music with its falsetto cries almost like an agony played out of a cheap radio somewhere in the nameless night.
162 — Outside Rawlins could hear a goat.
185/186 — That night they lay in their cell on the iron racks like acolytes and listened to the silence and a rattling snore somewhere in the block and a dog barking faintly in the distance and the silence and each other breathing in the silence both still awake.
196 — He could hear the buses in the street outside the gate and realized that it was Sunday. […] He heard a child crying
199 — Outside somewhere in the streets beyond the prison walls a dog barked.
202 — A dog had begun to bark.
226 — Doves called in the winey light.
283 — […] where the air smelled of rosin and wet stone and no birds sang.
283 — […] and dogs barked at them from behind the wooden gates and doors they passed.
286 — […] and coyotes yammered and answered back all across the plain to the south from which they’d come.
298 — […] and everything dead still and clear on the west Texas plains.
[page numbers refer to the 28th printing of the Knopf hard-cover edition]