More on Dialects

In my last post I talked about correctness and about dialects of English and in this post I will continue that discussion and end with some examples of dialect in English language literature.

Dialects are not inferior forms of language. Every form of language is a dialect: the standard, if there is a standard, is only a dialect with a certain social position. Standard languages often develop as a result of national centralization. When there is no national center, there is usually no pressure to develop a standard, and even when there is a national center, there may be no standard dialect. Until sometime around 1400 there was no standard English, written or spoken. A written standard gradually became established, probably based on the usage of government documents, and a spoken standard then developed based on the grammar and vocabulary of the written standard, but regional pronunciations were never standardized.

The situation became even more complicated as English began to spread to other places. English in the United States, Canada, the West Indies, South Africa, India, New Zealand, Australia—all of these are different, especially in pronunciation, but also to some extent in vocabulary and even in grammar.

Written English, however, has been largely standardized. With a few exceptions, an academic essay or a legal brief or a scientific paper will use the same words and spellings no matter where it is written, and no matter how the person who wrote it pronounces the words. Exceptions include variant spellings, such as program and programme, color and colour, center and centre, but these are minimal.

Even within a country there may be no standard pronunciation. In the United States a politician from Boston can sound Bostonian and a politician from Texas can sound Texan. Some dialects, however, have been excluded from power. No national elected politician speaks Black English, at least in public.

Some novelists have been very interested in representing dialects in the speech of their characters. George Eliot, for instance, went to great trouble to transcribe the speech of the rustic characters in Adam Bede. Here is the first passage of dialogue from the novel; Seth Bede, Adam’s younger brother, is working in a carpentry shop, making a door:

            ‘There! I’ve finished my door to-day, anyhow.’

            The workmen all looked up; Jim Salt, a burly red-haired man, known as Sandy Jim, paused from his planing, and Adam said to Seth, with a sharp glance of surprise—

            “What! Dost think thee ’st finished the door?’

            ‘Ay, sure,’ said Seth, with answering surprise, ‘what’s awanting to ’t?’

   A loud roar of laughter from the other three workmen made Seth look round confusedly. Adam did not join in the laughter, but there was a slight smile on his face as he said, in a gentler tone than before—‘Why, thee ’st forgot the panels.’ (pp. 8–9)

The language of this novel makes an implicit claim, a claim that the troubles of rustic people are worthy of serious treatment. But the narrator’s voice is what Eliot and her readers took to be the standard form of English. Eliot uses rustic speech in dialogue, but the narrator does not use it as her own voice.

Nor, for that matter, do the upper-class characters in the novel. Here is a passage spoken by Arthur Donnithorne, the young squire who turns out to be the villain of the story, more or less; he is describing Dinah Morris, the young woman who preaches for the Methodists in the area:

   ‘O, by Jove!’ said Captain Donnithorne, laughing. ‘Why, she looks as quiet as a mouse. There’s something rather striking about her, though. I positively felt quite bashful the first time I saw her: she was sitting stopping over her sewing in the sunshine outside the house, when I rode up and called out, without noticing that she was a stranger, “Is Martin Poyser at home?”’ (p. 64).

Here we find none of the elisions or archaic forms that we saw in the previous passage. Eliot is very aware of the dialects spoken in the story, and so are the characters. In the following passage, Mr. Casson, who is the owner of the local inn, is talking to a stranger who is riding through the town; Mr. Casson explains to the stranger that he himself isn’t from this part of the country:

‘I’m not this countryman, you may tell by my tongue, sir. They’re curious talkers i’ this country, sir; the gentry’s hard work to hunderstand them. I was brought hup among the gentry, sir, and got the turn o’ their tongue when I was a bye. Why, what do you think the folks here say for “hevn’t you?”—the gentry, you know, says “hevn’t you”—well, the people about here says “hanna yey.” It’s what they call the dileck as is spoke hereabout, sir. That’s what I’ve heard Squire Donnithorne say many a time; it’s the dileck, says he.’ (p. 17).

Eliot is playing this for a joke against Mr. Casson, who prides himself on being able to speak the speech of the gentry but betrays his lower class origins with his tongue.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain gives the whole story over to the speaker of a non-standard dialect, Huck. Here is the famous beginning of the story:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before. (p. 3)

The implicit claim here is that Huck’s voice has the necessary eloquence for the story he tells; he needs no help from an educated, upper-class author. Huck’s story is partly a critique of the society represented by Widow Douglas—a society of slave-owners, after all—and the dialect of the narration is part of the critique. As the story unfolds, Huck has occasion to represent the speech of many other characters, white and black, well-to-do and poor, and Twain simply lets him reproduce their various dialects in his narration. Perhaps there is some inconsistency in allowing Huck such linguistic flexibility, but nothing to trouble the sympathetic reader.

The Canadian writer Austin Clarke was born in Barbados, and his stories often show his interest in characters who belong to two cultures, as we can see from the beginning of his story “If Only, Only If…”, from the collection Nine Men Who Laughed:

I had never see a “coloured” girl in Toronto that look so good and so pretty, and with such a lovely “clear skin,” in the three years that I did a student at Trinity College, playing I studying to be a political scientist and the saviour o’Barbados, and then afterwards, when I finish-up at Trinity, bound-‘cross the English Channel, enter Middle Temple, tek torts, become a barrister-at-law and gone-back straight home, back to Barbados, to help run the country.

The narrator of this story has been educated to speak the standard dialect; his use of a non-standard dialect is a deliberate choice with political implications. The claim here is that the language of the colony is equal to the language of the empire.

In all of the stories quoted here, covering a couple of centuries and four different countries, the varieties of English are part of the meaning of the reading experience.

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