I recall fondly a stage of my (then 3yo) son’s linguistic development, when he spoke in the third person for a brief term and also at that time would interject the phoneme a- (“uh”) before his verbs to form sentences based around verbal tenses and grammatical conventions he had not yet assimilated; for example: “Mark a-goin to pway…” “Mark a-want a pawsicle…” “Mark a-wuv Mommy.” That speech pattern is not unlike the one Melville adopts to write Ishmael writing the dialect of Queequeg into the text of MD. Queequeg only rarely speaks in the third person, but a consistent linguistic idiosyncrasy of his is to insert the phoneme “ee” (like the one in his name), after many of his spoken words; for example: “Queequeg no kill-e so small-e fish-e; Queequeg kill-e big whale!” One effect of the dialect attributed to Queequeg is to infantilize him (as when Ishmael opines on his “transitional state”), but of course this babying is accompanied by so much evidence of Queequeg’s power and capability and humility that the effect is all but irresistibly endearing.
Caveat: I’m currently reading more about the New Zealand native cultures Melville appropriated information about (primarily via Wilkes) to curate the assembly of cultural attributes ascribed to Queequeg, and it does dampen the romance the more you consider the living peoples and traditions literally cannibalized to render this representation of one of the most widely beloved characters of MD, a cannibal.
MK choses to illustrate not the first words spoken by Queeqeg in MD but his second utterance, where many of the same words are repeated – “Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam-me, I kill-e!” Only those words that are bolded appear on the canvas, the ones capturing his verbal signature, formed in sharply blocked, black letters oriented vertically on a found page stacked with horizontally orientated charts, the wavelength of Queequeg’s verbiage growing perpendicular to their grain in 2-3 in. long leaflike formations (outlined neatly in the black marker) containing the fragments of his speech like peapods. The word pods are shot from white vines emanating at intervals from a column of interlaced blue scales composed by concentric bands of blue – Queequeg’s skin texture and tone in many (not all) of MK’s illustrations of him. The column of aquamarine swirl is centered on the found page with two protuberances in its sides in the upper third of the canvas, hollows in fact in the painted pattern, where a pair of pointilated red orbs float and stare.
Consider the difference it would have made to the effect of the canvas if MK had painted another example of Queequeg’s verbal idiom from this page, for instance, what he speaks when someone finally explains what Ishmael is doing in his room: “Me sabbee plenty.” To my eyes, the leafed aquamarine tower on the found page would serve just as well for that moment of restored calm as it does for what he utters while he flourishes his tomahawk in the dark toward the grunting body he’s discovered between his bed sheets, but the mood of the canvas would be altered radically by the presence of words other than those that command and threaten. The point of MK choosing the words he does is to capture Ishmael’s fear in the distorted view of the face and the partial recognition of the speech of the man who’s about to immediately put him at his perfect ease and melt his cold, cold heart.
Queequeg’s signature – the bold, red Q over the red infinity band – is in the lower left corner of the canvas.