Thoughts on Dialect (‘cause y’all keep buggin me ‘bout it)

So I’ve been following with great interest the discussion about dialect in fiction. It started off by Daniel Jose Older’s comments of a review of his anthology Long Hidden in Strange Horizons, and followed by Abyss & Apex doing an editorial post on the decision to post two different version of a story with a Carribean dialect. There have been many thoughtful essays on it, including Tobias Buckell, Amal El-Mohtar, and Ferrett Steinmetz, so I don’t think I have anything to add except to tell my experience. Which isn’t much, but it’s my two cents, so take that as you will.

Personally, I’ve struggled with dialect in my fiction. Growing up, I was the kid who was teased for "talking proper". I understood Shakespeare better than the slang kids used around my neighborhood. So when I write fiction with black kids, I always worry that they don’t "sound black enough". But now that I’m thinking about it, I was at least aware of it–we tended to drop our ‘g’s a lot, mainly in -ing suffixes. "I’m goin to the store."  Using the d sound for th–what’s dat? Is it over dere? You know what I miss? ‘Fin’. As in "She finna go to the store." "Did you wash the sheets like I axed?" "Man, I FIN to!" 

Interesting aside #1–my mother always mocked us when we said "ovuh dare" for "over there". She said it made us sound like country hicks. That was the only thing she corrected our speech on. Either that or I’ve blocked out what else she corrected us on.

Interesting aside #2–in college, I dated a white guy who one showed me how to use the ‘th’ sound. Up to that point, I didn’t think there was a difference until he showed me how to place my tongue at the back of my teeth. And by that, he showed me using his tongue. Looking back at it now, I have super mixed feelings about it: on the one hand, there’s the dynamic of a white guy teaching a black girl how to speak ‘properly’ (I’m sure he didn’t think about that at all–only thought he was doing a good thing). On the flip side, damn if that wasn’t the sexiest linguist lesson I ever had….

So I just wrote those two asides, and I thought huh. Actually, those two asides play a lot into how I write. I’m coming from a background where "proper English" was correct, not just grammar, but also pronunciation. My mother didn’t want me and my sisters to sound like uneducated hicks because she wanted us to have clear diction, which in her opinion would get us better jobs than working at McDonalds.. My boyfriend wanted me to speak the way he did. And in the African American community, we don’t have the option where the way we speak is consider a "second language" or a "foreign dialect". With us, "white english" equals proper and preferred, "black english" equals ghetto and uneducated. I could show proof, but ain’t nobody got time fo dat.

Angry aside #3–I once dropped a white ex-co-worker from Facebook because of that. Seemed to be a nice guy, went to church, volunteered at our community center. When he learned that Obama had been re-elected, he wrote on his wall "Mo welfare fo us all!" I wanted to say, "How can you mentor those kids at the community center and then turn around and write such a thing?" but I was too upset to respond to him Instead, I dropped him like a hot potato.

It would be good to change black english from being a stigma to something more legitimate. One way we can do so is through stories, because it allows us to tell our own narratives. The problem is that there are those who will always see those dialects as low brow and ignorant. How can we move beyond that? I don’t have an answer. It’s something that is far larger and deeper than I can touch on. The notion that I’ve been bending  towards the white dominant culture is something I’m just now beginning to recognize in my life. I’m working on a separate blog post about it–it’s pretty long and deep, and I’m still trying to decide if I’m going to post it here or somewhere not as public

But what I can do is strive to have more black dialect in my writing. And for me, that means becoming more aware, paying attention, listening. Advocating it more. And having more conversations about it. I liked what Apex Abyss did in putting both versions of Celeste Rita Baker’s story "Name Calling" on their site. (Interestingly, I found the original patois version more engaging. I could hear her voice in my head, whereas the edited version was okay, but more muted.)

Isn’t that the point of stories? To push us? Transport us? To take us out of our lives and put them into another’s?

We also need to give writers a safe space to write stories in their own voices. I thought the point of Long Hidden was to give marginalized voices a chance to be heard. And those voices should include ‘black english’ because that is just as legitimate. It has its own rhythm, its own music, and to erase that is to erase voices that groaned in captivity, that sang in both joy and sorrow, that shouted for justice, and to this day continues to unsettle, unnerve, and push comfort zones to make itself heard.

Now, if you excuse me, I finna go work on my writin, cause dat’s wha’ its’’ ‘bout, son.

3 Responses

  1. […] and Liburd led to another round of discussions by El-Mohtar, Sofia Samatar, Tobias Buckell, and LaShawn M. Wanak, among many […]

  2. […] Thoughts on Dialect (‘cause y’all keep buggin me ‘bout it) […]

  3. First time visitor to your blog. I find it odd when I’m reading something that should be in dialect but isn’t which people find weird since I’ve always been fairly middle class white. For me it’s no different than expecting historical fiction to use correct terminology.

    So I would expect a book to have Black English if it were appropriate just like Brit English or Australian English or US English… But I am kinda weird.

    Great post.

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