Sunday, March 3, 2013

Putting a Little English on It

My wife, who grew up in rural coastal South Carolina in the 1960s, was one of four black students to integrate a white high school. She has lived through danger and repression I can only imperfectly imagine. I'm something of an aberration in her portfolio, which documents a lifetime of involvement in and championing of African American culture. One thing that makes her angry is novels by black writers in which educated, professional, upper-middle-class black characters are familiar with the drug culture, routinely drop the f-bomb and n-bomb in conversation, and have a casual attitude about sex and marriage. She gets particularly incensed at the depiction of black men as dogs.

A writer at a recent workshop presented a story set in a working-class urban community. The writer and the characters were black and, though the writer did not, all of her characters spoke in a cursing, slang-filled argot in dialog replete with phonetic spellings. A white member of the workshop admitted she'd had difficulty following some of the conversations and suggested the writer's work would be more accessible if she employed standard usage with only a few bits of slang. The writer questioned whether telling her to make her characters sound more white was a valid criticism. I cited the works Caribbean writers here in Novel Spaces (with directions to their respective websites) as examples of incorporating elements of a culture authentically but in a way that was accessible to the widest range of readers and the conversation ended soon thereafter.

My native tongue is Southern English. This means that in the spoken language I know that 'child' rhymes with 'while'; that there's no need to enunciate the silent G at the end of words like readin, writin, children, or singin; and that an R following a vowel is softened (not eliminated, as some impersonators would have you believe). As a Southern writer I know the language is enriched by whimsical usage and the employment of words not currently in vogue; that initial articles are often superfluous; and that one should trust one's listeners and readers are intelligent enough to apprehend the occasional unspoken verb or subject. However, I'm also aware that many folk outside the South assume that Southern usage implies the inability to master any other and may be evidence of limited intellectual acuity. If not inbreeding. More troubling to me is that for many people of colors other than beige a white person who speaks with a Southern accent is suspected of being a closet klansman, or to at least harbor prejudicial tendencies. (And I know from personal experience that a white writer who depicts black Southerners as speaking with the same Southern accent he speaks with can find himself vilified as a racist.) With that in mind, I limit the dropped G in my characters' conversations to just often enough to establish locale and at no time call attention to the fact 'mild' and 'mile' are homophones. While I do exercise my cultural predilection for offbeat word choice and atypical sentence structure, I make a conscious effort to keep things simple enough for English majors to follow.

The assumption writing in dialect implies racism is not a new development; and it's not exclusively directed at white writers. I know my love for Zora Neale Hurston is on record somewhere—several someheres. According to Google Maps the Maitland, Florida, house I grew up in is four-point-three miles from the Zora Neale Hurston Museum in Eatonville, Florida. Never met her. I discovered her in college, and through her the Harlem Renaissance, but she had passed away the winter before the summer I became a reader. She did not, as I've seen reported elsewhere, starve to death in a homeless shelter. She was working as a librarian in Fort Pierce, FL, when she died of a stroke. However, it is true that due to lack of funds she was buried without a headstone. And the reason she had to work as a librarian and died too poor for a headstone is the direct result of the way she wrote. Or, more accurately, how her writing was perceived by others.

Hurston was an anthropologist by training – as in had degrees from Howard and Columbia – and a dedicated folklorist. She traveled to remote southern communities and as far afield as Haiti collecting legends and folk tales and recording them before they were lost to history. As a trained folklorist she wrote phonetically – because how a language is spoken shapes the sound and rhythm of the words. In other words, she wrote in dialect for legitimate academic as well as her own cultural reasons. However, many influential writers and social leaders felt she was betraying black culture and undermining black social progress by doing so. As Richard Wright (Black Boy and Native Son) wrote of what is now considered her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God: "her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought… her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is 'quaint,' the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the 'superior' race." Because her use of language offended such powerful voices in the African American literary movement her books were out of print for thirty years. No books in print meant no royalties, a low-wage job, and a funeral paid for by working class friends.
(Which kinda puts my whining about being abused by internet trolls in perspective, doesn't it?)

There is no one right way to speak English. It's a living language, malleable and resilient. It's lost and gained words over the years. Nor is English homogeneous – it's not changing in the same ways or at the same rate everywhere. Or with everyone. There is no one white way of speaking, no one black way of speaking, no one Native American, or colonial, or Hispanic or Asian, or Australian, or Canadian, or American – and try telling folk in the UK they all sound alike. There's no one any way of speaking. However, there is an agreed set of general conventions that enable all of us divergent English speakers to understand and be understood. As writers who write in English, we need to hew close to these conventions if we are to reach the widest audience. But at the same time we need to be true to our own voices, and true to the voices of our characters. The trick is in finding the balance.


Charles Gramlich said...

I really love the line, "There is no one right way to speak English." As a southern, I speak in the same general accent as you use and I have seen that condescension on other faces at times. As for black characters, I have generally not had the courage to write them. Given where I teach, an accusation of racism could be fatal. I did use a man of mixed race, a Creole, as the main character in Cold in the Light. He was educated and from a very educated family and so spoke rather precisely. That was one way of getting around it.

William Doonan said...

Wonderful post, KeVin. I just finished talking about this last week in my cultural anthropology class. A message I tried to hammer home - all languages are perfect. Some may be more closely associated with the rivers of wealth that flow on our planet, but that doesn't make them any more perfect.

Liane Spicer said...

Fascinating article, KeVin. English was my first language, partly because of my parents' determination and partly because of the schools to which they chose to send me. Many of my characters, however, speak what the linguists call Trinidadian Creole, which is a subset of the anglophone Caribbean Creole. (I used to call it a dialect. Still not too clear on the nuances of the various labels.)

My method of dealing with this issue was to use the phonetic spelling in dialogue, but Merle Hodge, a Caribbean literary icon and university lecturer with whom I was privileged to do a creative writing course last year, challenged me on that.

Why distort the words, she asked. It makes the characters appear cartoonish, especially to anyone who is not a native speaker of Creole. It diminishes them. Why not use the standard spelling in most instances and include idiomatic words for authenticity? According to her, it's more important to capture the rhythm of the Creole. Creole speakers will then automatically read the dialogue in Creole, and non-Creole speakers will not find the text incomprehensible.

So, I've mostly stopped writing 'chirren' for 'children', 'talkin' for 'talking' and 'gorn' for 'gone' in dialogue. I've challenged Dr. Hodge on several issues, but not this one. We all want to reach as wide an audience as possible with our stories.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

Interesting topic, Kevin. It's something I struggle with but,I've come to the same conclusion as Merle Hodge, and decided to let it be more about the rhythm. One thing, Spanish was actually my first language as it was my mother's language (she never did become too good at English) and my father grew up in Cuba. English became something I learned in the classroom and from books primarily and then, later, from my friends. This means I tended to speak "proper" English and my efforts to speak creole or patois sometimes made my friends laugh.
That said, your post ties in with what Carol said earlier and reminds me of a book I read recently by an American who used various islands of the Caribbean as his setting but he used phraseology associated with African-Americans. For example, "they be coming." While Caribbean English differs from island to island to country, we would more likely say "them coming." In fact, he had his black Caribbean characters sounding like southern blacks (or, like how we have been condition to think Southern blacks talk).
People who haven't been too exposed to anything but standard English would, presumably, also have a problem with Irish or Scottish writers who use phonetic spelling. On another, but related note, it's a bit sad to think that some languages have died out altogether. When that happens to the rich dialects of different regions, English itself will be poorer.

KeVin K. said...

Charles - Oh, yes. I learned from my one spectacular failure; my black characters have better diction than my white. Louisiana has so many rich and textured accents that you could explore. I've only been there once, in the early 70s following the coast along from Florida then up to New Orleans before taking to the highways to complete my journey to California. My sense was there were some fundamentally different assumptions underlying the language I was hearing.

William - Right. What drives folk like my brother (who teaches English at Catholic University of America and has worked very hard to perfect his mid-Atlantic accent these past 40 years) crazy is the chameleon core of English. Half our words are changelings and none of them will hold still. English is not the language of choice for folk who like order.

Liane - Your comment inspired a quick Google of anglophone creole. Found a preview of the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Lost about 20 minutes (would have lost more if there'd been more to the available preview). I'll bet you already knew Trinidad and Tobago speak two distinctly different brands of English. As nearly as I can tell dialects have the same source and share 95+% of their linguistic DNA; subsets have spent more time away from home and picked up DNA from other languages. I'm going to have to get a copy of this dictionary. Two; I'll send one to my brother.
Geechee is a language I believe is a type of creole that's spoken along the coast and islands where my wife grew up. Her mother was a school teacher, so she and her brother were forbidden to speak other than 'proper' English. She understands it somewhat, but wouldn't dare try to converse in it.
I take Dr. Hodge's point. I think the reason dictionaries use all those symbols to denote pronunciation is phonetic spelling would make all the words look silly. Also, so much of a language's voice is in its rhythm and cadence (two different things often conflated) that sentence structure would do more to convey nuance than spelling. At the same time, I also think a bit of phonetics can help with characterization - especially if the characterization involves a person's response to the fact another pronounces words in a way she's not used to hearing.
Also for effect: "Riiight" reads differently than "Right," he drawled.

Eugenia - I always taught my ESL students to speak English more precisely than the locals. Didn't want to add a southern accent to their difficulties.
I remember reading a British detective cozy from the forties or fifties in which the visitor from I think Georgia spoke like ... I'm not sure what. But "Geee-aw" was his standard interjection.
I think your last sentence reflects back to Hurston's purpose in both her academic works and her fiction. Unfortunately, when one group regards the other's culture as inferior, any difference is regarded as proof of that inferiority - so the accurate depiction of that difference, that uniqueness, can be perceived as a deficit. Perhaps standard usage in the novel but include a scholarly appendix?

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

Interesting and thoughtful post and a great discussion. You've set my brain ticking. I lived in Ghana for ten years and have included some pidgin in some of my stories - I've had big doubts about being authentic or not (I'm originally from Australia) but generally let the story take over, without getting out of my depth. I think accents and dialects are fascinating and one of favourite books is Ken Saro-wiwa's book Sozaboy, written mostly in Nigerian pidgin (even called A Novel in Rotten English!)

Liane Spicer said...

KeVin, yes, we've got English, and we've got Creole which is very much influenced by French, with traces of Spanish, Taino and West African languages. My mother's family (the older ones who are all dead now) all spoke French patois as well as Creole.

Valerie's upbringing sounds a lot like mine. My mother was also a teacher and I found out fairly late in life that Creole was her first language; she did not tolerate 'broken English' in the house. Now that she's old she often lapses into Creole.

Now I'm off to find out the difference between rhythm and cadence. Btw, Dr. Hodge might have said cadence, or she might have said syntax. (I'll need to check my notes.) 'Rhythm' was the way I processed what she said.

I agree that sometimes the phonetic spelling is best to convey a particular effect. She does too.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Really beautiful post, KeVin. Like your wife, I detest too much slang especially if it doesn't complement the character speaking it. I write short stories written totally in Kittitian dialect, but it is meant for a specific insular audience. In my writing meant for a larger audience, I try to keep it minimal because a reader can spend unlimited energy just trying really hard to understand the dialog and end up losing interest. Great post.

And Eugenia, just to add to the "dem comin'" phrase, some of us in the Caribbean will say, "Dem a come." :) And that is why I insist if you are going to write about a culture, immerse yourself in it.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

Exactly, Jewell. I do understand where you're coming from and that's why I made the point that Caribbean English can differ from island to island to country. :) Research is key to a believable setting and culture.