Friday, March 27, 2009

Borrowing Tongues: The Perils of Writing Regional Dialect

Recently a group of eight writers from one of my writing critique groups did a writing exercise together. I call it “progressive flash fiction.” I started the story with a short paragraph, and then each writer added a paragraph or two and it continued for 2-3 rounds through all eight writers. (I say 2-3 rounds because a couple of people were too busy to contribute all three times, so we skipped them.) We just kept adding to the email thread and hitting “reply all” so we could all follow the story line as it developed. It was lots of fun, but at the end, when I asked how everyone would feel about me publishing it on my blog, several people were hesitant. Turns out they had concerns that some of the dialect might be offensive to our black readers and friends. Of course none of us intended that, and I certainly respect my fellow writers’ opinions, so I didn’t publish the story. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week.

The story was set, by the second writer in the first round, in New Orleans. So, several of the writers used dialect we thought to be appropriate to the region. But it was “flash fiction,” so we didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and the finished product, which was indeed a rough first draft, could certainly use lots of editing. And the dialect could be brought down a notch. But we were writing from our gut instincts as Southerners who have grown up and lived in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. And we certainly meant no disrespect.

So, I decided to take a look at how several Southern writers have handled dialect in their work, starting with the most contemporary example I could think of.
Fellow Jackson, Mississippi, native, Kathryn Stockett, and African American actress, Octavia Spencer, did a dramatic reading from Stockett’s new novel, The Help, at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson recently. I brought my signed copy of the book home and devoured it immediately, savoring her colorful descriptions of time, place and people during the turbulent racial unrest of the 1960s South.

I went back through Stockett’s book to see how she handled the dialect, between the white women and their black maids, and between the black maids themselves. Here’s an example of a conversation between Aibileen, one of the maids, and a black man doing work on her employee’s property. The chapter is written in Aibileen’s voice, so even the narrative is written in dialect:

… they’s a knock at the back door. I open it to see one a the workmen standing there. He real old. Got coveralls on over a white collar shirt.

"Hidee, ma’am. Trouble you for some water?" he ask….

"Sho nuff,’ I say…. ‘How ya’ll coming along?" I ask.

"It’s work,” he say. Still ain’t no water to it. Reckon we run a pipe out yonder form the road."

"Other fella need a drink?" I ask.

"Be mighty nice." ….

"Beg a pardon," he say, "but where…" He stand there a minute, look down at his feet.
"Where might I go to make water?"

This is just a short sample, but there’s dialect all through the book, and I can’t help but believe that successful black actress, Octavia Spencer, who has over 100 television and movie credits to her name, must not have been offended by it, since she has chosen to join Stockett on her book tour and read the parts of the “colored help” while Stockett reads the white women’s parts.

A much older example is Their Eyes Were Watching God, the 1937 novel and the best-known work by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston.

Here’s a sample, from the article, “Use of the Southern Black Vernacular in Their Eyes Were Watching God” :

"The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

De’ lake is comin’!’ Tea Cake gasped."

This excerpt from Zora Neale Hurston’s book, Their Eyes Were watching God, is an example of her amazing writing. She makes us feel as if we are actually in her book, through her use of the Southern Black vernacular and admirable description. Her characters are realistic and she places special, well thought out sentences to keep us interested. Zora Neale Hurston’s art enables her to write this engaging story about a Southern black woman’s life. Mrs. Hurston uses Southern Black dialect through out the book. This is appropriate because all of the dialog is between Blacks who grew up in the deep South. Some authors that write in a dialect totally confuse their readers. However, Mrs. Hurston’s writing does not confuse us at all. One particular example of this is on page 102. Tea Cake starts off saying, "‘Hello, Mis’ Janie, Ah hope Ah woke you up.’ ‘Yo sho did, Tea Cake. Come in and rest yo’ hat. Whut you doin’ out so soon dis mornin’?’" Janie replied. This dialog is easily to understand. The reader really gets the feeling of the speech because reading it is just like listening to it.

But Hurston was criticized for her use of dialect, and she was writing about her own people. The following comments, from an analysis in an article in Wikipedia address the issue of whether or not writing in this dialect is disrespectful or condescending to a race or group of people:

The book, written in black southern vernacular, has attracted criticism also by those[who?] who claim it portrays African Americans as ignorant (though Hurston herself is African American). Similar criticisms have been leveled at Twain's Huckleberry Finn. But while Twain transforms the minstrel into a three-dimensional character, viewed through Huck's revelations, Hurston uses black southern dialect to show that complex social relationships and common feats of metaphoric language are possible in something considered "substandard" to English.

The phonetically-written speech of the African Americans in the novel not only gives context but also helps round out the aesthetic of the novel. While Hurston has been criticized for being condescending to her own people, a more critical analysis of the novel and the author reveals an earnest attempt at authenticity. Rather than appearing patronizing, the frequent dialogue is indeed the most oft-quoted and engrossing-- often, as well, the most telling and philosophical.

To get a bit more technical about the dialect itself, I went to Dr. Goodword’s “Glossary of Quaint Southernisms.” In the introduction Dr. Goodword says:

We all speak with the accent of the region we are raised in during the critical language learning period from 2 to 6 years of age. Your accent has nothing at all to do with intelligence or knowledge of the rules of grammar. It is simply a regional dialect and dialects are equally grammatical; they are simply slight variations in the grammar of a given language that characterize the various regions where that language is spoken.
(To read his glossary, click on this link.)

Lastly, here’s a lengthy excerpt from “Linguistics 201: The Dialects of American English.” that addresses Black English, pidgin, creole, Cajun French, and Gulluh: (It's a long excerpt, so if this is too much information for you, just scroll down to my closing paragraph.)

Black English developed in the Southern states when speakers of dozens of West African languages were abruptly forced to abandon their native tongues and learn English. Slaves from different tribes couldn't communicate with one another--in fact, masters deliberately tried to separate slaves who could speak the same language. Since the Africans had to communicate with one another, as well as with the whites, a kind of compromise language evolved on the basis of English and a mixture of the original West African languages. Such a makeshift, compromise language, used as a second language by adults, is known as a pidgin. When a pidgin becomes the native language of the next generation, it becomes a creole--a full-fledged language. The African-English creole in the American colonies evolved into today's Black English.
Black English was most influenced by the speech of the southern whites.

Features carried over from early Southern English into Black English:
--loss of final consonants, especially sonorants: po(or), sto(re) like aristocratic southern English.
-- use of double negatives, ain't, as in early English.
--loss of ng: somethin', nothin', etc.

Black English, in turn, gradually influenced the speech of southern whites--especially the children of the aristocratic slave owners. Given the social prejudices of the Old South, this seems paradoxical. However, remember that throughout all the slave owning areas, black nannies helped raise white children, and the children of blacks and whites played freely together before the Civil War. Since language features acquired in early childhood tend to be kept throughout life, Southern English naturally became mixed with Black English.

Let's look more closely at how Black English developed on the basis of West African Dialects. Whenever a group of adults is forced to learn a second language, the language learned retains many features of the original native language. Thus, the English of black slaves retained many features that were African and not present in English at all. The children of the slaves learned this form of English as their native language. Thus, on the basis of language mixing, a new dialect, called a creole, was born. This process--at least in some small degree-- characterizes the English of all Americans whose parents spoke English as a second language. But in the case of African Americans, due to the social separation they lived under from the very start, the differences were stronger and more lasting.

Main features carried over from West African languages.
--No use of the linking verb 'to be' or generalization of one form for it.
--emphasis on aspect rather than tense: He workin' (right now) vs. He be workin'. This is found in many West African languages.
--I done gone (from Wolof doon , the completive verb aspect particle + English 'done').
--Regularization of present tense verb conjugation: He don't, he know it.
--voiced th in initial position becomes d: dis, dey; in medial position it becomes v: brother > brovva. final voiceless th = f with =wif

A large number of West African words came into Standard American through the medium of Black English: bug (bugu = annoy), dig (degu/ understand), tote bag (tota = carry in Kikonga), hip (Wolof hepicat one who has his eyes wide open), voodoo (obosum, guardian spirit) mumbo jumbo (from name of a West African god), jazz (? Bantu from Arabic jazib one who allures), banjo (mbanza?), chigger (jigger/ bloodsucking mite), goober (nguba /Bantu), okra (nkruman/ Bantu), yam (njami/ Senegal), banana (Wolof). Also, the phrases: sweet talking, every which way; to bad-mouth, high-five are from Black English--seem to be either American innovations or loan translations from West African languages.

The speech of African Americans gradually became more like the speech of their southern white neighbors--a process called decreolization. (And the speech of the whites became slightly more like that of the blacks). However, in a few areas, the original African English creole was preserved more fully. There is one dialect of Black English still spoken on the Georgia coast, called Gullah, which is still spoken there by about 20,000 people; it is thought to represents the closest thing to the original creole.

After the Civil War, Black English continued to evolve and change, especially in the creation of new vocabulary. After the 1920's millions of blacks migrated to northern cities, where various varieties of Black English continue to develop.

There is one other notable southern English dialect. The Cajun French in Louisiana also adopted English with noticeable traces of their former language.

Next weekend I’m attending the Arts and Education Council’s Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga with keynote speakers Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle. Lots of great Southern writers will be there, including Wendell Berry, Bobby Ann Mason, Roy Bount, Jr., Clyde Edgerton, and many others. (I’m especially looking forward to seeing playwright Beth Henley, whom I went to high school with in the 1960s in Jackson, and haven’t seen since!) Anyway, I noticed on the program that one of the panels will be addressing this very issue that I’m blogging about today: “Borrowing Tongues: Writing To and From Another Race.” The panel will be led by Madison Smartt Bell, Allan Gurganus, Josephine Humphreys and Randall Kenan. I’ll be all ears. Check back after April 4 to see what I learned.

Until then, it’s back to work on an essay I’ve been asked to contribute to a second anthology on Southern women and spirituality. Not a lot of dialect in it, but I’ll be paying closer attention to every syllable uttered!


Susan Cushman said...

One of our writing group members who contributed to the progressive flash fiction story just sent me an email with his comments. Herman said to feel free to post them here:

The "Uncle Remus" book you picture is authored by Julius Lester. I know the original was by Joel Chandler Harris, for I have visited his home --"The Wren's Nest,"now a museum--in Atlanta. He was criticized the height of the civil rights movement for his portrayals. Later when it was discovered that his stories were of African origin and the type of animals changed to fit those found in America his stories became acceptable.

The "voice" I heard in my head when I wrote Nathan was an old black man I worked with on a summer job during high school. He could work all us young white boys into the ground and had a joy of life that made the day enjoyable and fun. He talked to the animals and birds and laughed and kept us laughing all day. I never thought of him as ignorant despite his lack of education and he was a bit of a philosopher. Once when we were digging in some sandy soil I commented "this is pretty good digging!"
Nathan (his real name) leaned on his shovel wiped his brow with his bandana (like in the story) and counseled me. "I been around a good many more years than you and they's two things I ain't never seed--good digging and bad [lovin'][edited by blogger--sorry, Herman]

I have come to know that, often, what people find offensive has more to do with the agenda of the reader than the intent of the writer.

This Nathan was real and a wonderful person. There and many blacks I knew that are precious in my memories.I find it a bit sad that political correctness wishes to erase the memory of the Nathans and Hattie Mays. If my portrayal was condescending or contrived then I did not do my job as a writer.

Susan Cushman said...

Great comments, Herman. Thanks for taking time to enlighten and explain. I wondered if you had someone real in mind when you introduced Nathan's character in the story. And I didn't know any of what you shared about the Uncle Remus book. Thanks, again.

Anonymous said...

all this makes me remember Cold Sassy Tree. don't remember who wrote the book but it was an eye opener for me

Love you

Susan Cushman said...

A comment sent by writing group member, Doug, from his IPhone while enjoying the Oxford Conference for the Book: (I'll be there tomorrow!)

My 'guy' was an old man of color who walked everywhere, his garden or truck-patch veggies, along with other needful things, bundled in a croaker sack slung over a bowed shoulder, a powerful smile revealing bare blue gums and a boundless soul. His name was Scott Donald. When I finally owned my first $300 car at 15, I'd pick up old Scott whenever our paths crossed, his going to town with his produce, or returning with his sack flopping, or containing a pound of coffee or a few tons of sardines and a sleeve of soda crackers. His needs were few,his wife dead and his children grown and moved away to Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta. But he kept the wild roses that his lady started from cuttings when he cleared the weeds in spring. He's been gone these 30 years, but his memory lingers and his roses bloom every summer.

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks for those beautiful memories, Doug. See you in Oxford on Saturday!

she who must be obeyed said...

We have been talking about this recently because I have been reading Huckleberry Finn aloud to the kids - J loves to hear the dialects, and often likes to mimic them - which of course to someone who just overheard him would probably sound offensive or mocking - but is just his way of playing with the story.

We love the Lester version of Uncle Remus you posted - and a few years back I also got to take the kids to see The Wren's Nest - we were delighted to be the only visitors and treated to a one on one story telling in the gardens. The thing I experience with dialect writing is that to be truly enjoyed, it needs to be read aloud. I cannot imagine enjoying Huckleberry Finn half as much if I was not hearing it aloud rather than just reading words on a page (and the dialect at times is such that I am not sure of what I am reading until I hear myself say it!). Of course, the Uncle Remus stories were oral tradition passed down, not meant to be read but to be retold and changed by each storyteller.

Charli said...

Susan, there's a poem by Judson Jerome you should read. I've been looking for it since I read your post, but I can't find it, and I don't remember the title. The poem is written in black dialect; the speaker is a black man who is talking with someone else about John Keats -- in fact, he's berating the other person in the conversation because he "don't know Keats." The poem ends with a couplet, something like this:

Alas, this is a poem I'm not allowed to write/It's melody unheard because I'm white.

I used the poem with my class when I taught literature at LeMoyne Owen. I gave them the poem one day without the concluding couplet, and we discussed it, then I gave them the whole poem, and asked them how that changed their experience and understanding of the poem.

You might want to find a copy of The Book of American Negro Poetry edited by James Weldon Johnson -- it was another source I used with my class when we were studying the use of dialect in literature. If we were closer, I'd drop my copy off for you to look at! It's fascinating to see when and how a writer like Paul Lawrence Dunbar uses dialect -- and when he doesn't.

Susan Cushman said...

Okay, I know I'm commenting on my own blog, but this is a sort of "P.S."... I'm reading Same King Of Different As Me and the regional dialect written by one of the co-authors, who is black, is really good. Maybe I'm just noticing dialect more now after this exercise. (It's also a great book!)

David Johnson said...

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