I’ve been reading two books that are mainy written in dialect, or at least non-standard English. One is Their Eyes were watching God, Zora Hurston’s most famous novel, where the black Southern dialect alternates with an authorial voice written in standard English. Hurston had a folklorist’s expertise in dialect. She wrote the novel in Haiti, and must surely have been thinking about how Haitian creole had separated itself out from French to the extent that it was a separate language. Hurston was right proud of her rendering of black speech, and criticized Richard Wright for what she believed were amateur mistakes in trying to convey its sound and power.
The other book, Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman, is about a future in which the US is populated largely by tribes of teens, who all face a disease that eliminates them when they enter their young twenties. The teens are black – although the plot in the book begins with an encounter with a “Roo”, a white man who is presumably Russian. The entire book is dipped in the language that Newman makes up for her narrator, Ice Cream Star.
Wright accused Hurston of making a minstrel show of a novel. I wonder if he was responding to the way the two levels of English operate, with standard English becoming the median of understanding and explanation – producing the usual distance that the authorial voice mediates between the actions and the characters and their passions and the reader. The traditional hierarchy between low passion and high reason, of course, stands behind this. But, as a particular instance of that structure, there is also, in the play of phonetic spellings, a sort of global implication of a kind of illiteracy in the characters, as if they were misspelling their own words. Given the American penchant to use black speech against the speaker, to lower the status of the speakers, it is easy to see where Wright is coming from. But as Hurston is writing from Haiti, where the idea of using creole against the chains of orthodox french was certainly in the air, there’s another perspective on the dialect business, a claim and proclaim program.
There is a long history of dialect as a literal, or rather, oral declaration of independence. Walter Scott did the same thing with Scots. The jungle of apostrophe marks that accompany these forays against the metropole are the equivalent of the dust tossed up by some vast marching army of Goths, on a pillaging expedition to Rome.
In Scott’s novels, the tie to the extinguishing of a culture, as the Gaelic highlands culture was extinguished in Scotland, is the loser’s wound that throbs beneath the whole edifice. Scott’s dialect characters are tied to their political and economic station. Here, from Old Mortality, is the kind of thing that occurs frequently in Scott:
"Your leddyship never ca'd me sic a word as that before. Ohon! that I
suld live to be ca'd sae," she continued, bursting into tears, "and me a
born servant o' the house o' Tillietudlem! I am sure they belie baith
Cuddie and me sair, if they said he wadna fight ower the boots in blude
for your leddyship and Miss Edith, and the auld Tower--ay suld he, and I
would rather see him buried beneath it, than he suld gie way--but thir
ridings and wappenschawings, my leddy, I hae nae broo o' them ava. I can
find nae warrant for them whatsoever.”
And here is the kind of thing that occurs in Hurston – a snippet of dialogue between Janie and Tea Cake:
“Ah know it and dat’s what puts de shamery on me. You’se jus’ dis gusted wid me. Yo’ face jus’ left here and went off some where else. Naw, you ain’t mad wid me. Ah be glad if you was, ’cause then Ah might do some thin’ tuh please yuh. But lak it is—”
“Mah likes and dis likes ought not tuh make no dif ference wid you, Tea Cake. Dat’s fuh yo’ lady friend. Ah’m jus’ uh some time friend uh yourn.”
The image of a Vandal army attacking Rome brings up, of course, the barbarian/civilized opposition that has long formed a certain mainstream approach to dialect. Indeed, language follows conquest, with its attendant justifications all centering around some essential fault of the conquered. Rome, however, was founded by barbarians in the strictest sense – Trojans who were defeated by the Greeks. Underneath the victorious power, it is easy to find a level of subjection and defeat. The Scots tribes, whose defeat becomes Walter Scott’s theme, moved out – they populated much of the Southeast U.S. that Hurston knew. And they put their stamp of victory on the slaveholding society that raided at large other tribal societies.
I’m going on to Newman’s book tomorrow.