On Dialect

Dear Amanda,

Thank you for your nice review.   I’m glad you found the conclusion “age-appropriate” and that it showed Mary Mae “respectful of her religious beliefs while remaining open to the possibilities of science.”   But you wonder how you could pass this book on to a nine-year old because you found the dialect difficult to read.  I would like to answer that question.

Have you read any of  Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly?  It’s a series of American black folk tales, each told in a different dialect.  Here’s a paragraph from “Tappin, the Land Turtle”:

“There the food come out the dipper.  They get everythin to eat.  So the king go and call all the people and everybody eat from the dipper.  They ate and ate the meat, the fruit, everythin.  Tappin think he take the dipper back home, so he do.”

I love the black dialect—the phrase “so he do,” and the way the “g” is dropped off “everything.”  This is, admittedly, a little harder to read than standard English.  I have to reread certain sentences—but is that such a bad thing?  We in America, who are used to “fast food” and “jiffy car washes” seem to want “fast, easy reads.”  But fast and easy isn’t always better.  I don’t mind a book that makes me work a little harder.

As a child I found dialect fascinating.  I remember reading Tales of Uncle Remus.  Now there’s some difficult parsing.  Here’s a line from “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story”:

“Brer Rabbit keep on axin’ ‘im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin’ nothin’, twel present’y Brer Rabbit draw back wid his fis’, he did, en blip he tuck ‘er side er de head.”

I remember as a child figuring out what things such as “axin’”  and “twel” meant and finding that very satisfying but mainly just loving the sound of the voice and cadence.  It was different from the way I spoke and took me to a different place and time.  That’s what I’m doing in “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth.”  Mary Mae  speaks the way her family, from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, speaks.  This speech was (and is) spoken by many Appalachian people in my hometown of Norwood, Ohio.  It’s a dialect thick with double negatives and phrases such as “he come” and “they was,” but it tells Mary Mae’s story better than standard English ever could.   To show you what I mean, I’ll quote my opening paragraph and then change it into standard English:

“Stomping, jumping, I’m a-singing away.  Me and Granny’s up here at the microphone, Granny on guitar, double strumming, foot tapping, urging everyone on for the chorus.”

Now for standard English:

“Grandmother and I sang together at the front of the church.  Grandmother strummed the guitar and tapped her foot.  She asked everyone to join her on the chorus.”

The second version lacks the color and urgency of the first, the sound of a real individual with her own view of things, of phrases that connote knowledge of music such as “Granny on guitar” and “double strumming.”  I think young readers deserve the best, so I use dialect when it best tells the story.  I also believe that it’s good for children to become acquainted with other cultures, and one of the best ways is to read stories in authentic language.

Yesterday I received this letter from a 10-year-old:  “My name Lara. I just finished reading  Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth. I loved the book.”

So go ahead and pass this book on!

Sandra Dutton

Leave a Reply