Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Naw Sir, I Ain't Got It Yit

I found that Zora Neale Hurston story I was looking for.

Hurston was many things: poet, fiction writer, public speaker, political essayist, social critic, center of the Harlem Renaisance, America's premier folklorist. And she was a first rate anthropologist.

As a folklorist and anthropologist she travelled the American south collecting the old tales that had been passed down through the African American community since the days of slavery. And thank God she did, for within a few years it would have been impossible to collect such stories from people who had been born under slavery. Not only did she collect the stories, but some of them she actually was able to record in audio! Hurston's work on many fronts has left a treasure that America should cherish as long as we exist!

Toni Morrison was absolutely right when she called Hurston "one of the greatest writers of our time." No one who has read Their Eyes Were Watching God would ever argue that point!

The following is from one of her anthropological trips in the south. I appreciate her careful rendition of the dialect in which Robert Williams first told this tale to her.

"Man sent his daughter off tuh school fur seven years. Den she come home all finished up. So he said tuh her: "Daughter, git you things an' write me uh letter tuh mah brother." So she did.

He says: "Head it up," an' she done so. "Dear brother, our chile is done come home from school all finished up, an' we is very proud of her." (To daughter): "You got dat?"

She tole 'im, "Yeah."

"Our dog is dead an' our mule is dead, but I got anuther mule, and when I say (the clucking tongue and teeth sound used to urge mules), he moves from de word . . . Is you got dat?" She told him, "Naw." He waited a while and he ast her again, "Is you got dat down yit?"

"Naw sir, I ain't got it yit."

"How come you ain't got it?"

"Cause I can't spell (clucking sound)."

"You mean tuh tell me you been off tuh school seven years and can't spell (clucking sound)? Well, I could almost spell dat myself. Well, jest say (sound) and go on."

I find it wonderful that a culture to whom written speech was new took the time to notice and mock the limitations that it places on us, while most people who grew up with the written word have never even noticed how much of their everyday language can not be put down on paper.


John W. May said...

I dig the humor here.

The written form of the original dialect sounds prettier to me than correct grammar- where the ‘uneducated’ sounds of local folk shape the letters used (I still have relatives that speak and write this way- no lie).

I’d love to get a hold of those audio collections.

John W. May said...

In fact, Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of America’s first black poets (and a poet I truly admire) was very educated, and wrote ‘in dialect’ as well as in proper syntax.

Some of his ‘in dialect' poetry is the best, the prettiest.

Doug P. Baker said...


I totally agree that dialect poems are often preferable to Queen's English poems. Take for instance, Robert Burns. Or Yeats. Or Shakespeare for that matter. Much of his drama was written in a modified dialect. And perhaps only the appostle Paul was ever more overeducated than TS Eliot. And Eliot wrote habitually in dialect; he just couldn't stick to one dialect; he moved through them like a teenager through hairstyles.

Reading through a bunch of short fiction by Zora Neale Hurston I've loved the dialect, although at some points I have to read a sentence three or four times to pronounce it as spelled. Having little else to compare it to, I compare it to the negro dialect used by Mark Twain. I admit that I've always admired his dialect writing, but Hurston makes him sound hollow! For one thing, I can pronounce his writing somewhat correctly on the first try. That is suspicious! I have no basis to do a real critique of either of their dialect writings, but to my untrained ear hers sounds much more authentic.

And all that you say just solidifies that feeling in me. Where is your family from? Is a similar dialect in use as far north as Colorado?

Please, I'd be very grateful if you would share one of your favorite Paul Laurence Dunbar dialict poems. I love "The Right To Die," though it is not one of his dialect poems. And "The Sermon" is great; that is a dialect piece. But I don't know many. What is your favorite Dunbar?

John W. May said...

I have a lot of family (especially in the older generations) living in New Jersey. I can remember hand written letters that my NJ grandmother sent to me as a kid: surprisingly I understood them well, but it was quite obvious she was writing ‘the sound’ of the words rather than the words themselves (of course I didn’t care, I was just happy for the letter itself).

I posted a blog this morning answering your question to me: my favorite Dunbar poem.

Mary Rae said...

I just came across this in reading The Importance of Being Earnest--one of my favorite plays.

Cecily:Oh, don’t cough, Ernest. When one is dictating one should speak fluently and not cough. Besides, I don’t know how to spell a cough