‘The Art of Vernacular Voice’: UPK author Amy D. Clark for the New York Times

Amy Clark, co-editor of Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community, writes on dialect, history, and identity for the New York Times (link).

The Art of Vernacular Voice:

In an interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rick Bragg, John Sledge tells the story of Mr. Bragg’s encounter with the acclaimed author Willie Morris, who opened Mr. Bragg’s memoir “All Over But the Shoutin’,” and read several pages aloud. He slammed the book and leaned forward, telling Mr. Bragg, “You say it’s the story, and I say it’s the language.” Mr. Sledge is talking about the voices in Mr. Bragg’s books, which ring true down to the red Alabama grit on their shoes. Every voice on paper has a linguistic and social history that needs to be heard.

I come from a mountain region where the dialects take many forms, from urban (Pittsburghese) to rural (Smoky Mountain English). Most people call our dialects Appalachian English, though many English dialects are spoken along the mountain chain.

Nevertheless, too many writers over the years have tried — and failed — to re-create the melody of mountain speech. Some writers make us sound like plantation owners from the Deep South. Other writers have depicted mountain people in ways that make them sound ignorant and cartoonish. This practice of writing in “literary dialect” began with unconventional spellings by mid-19th century writers who used them to illustrate differences in the perceived intelligence and social status of their characters. These images have persisted in television shows and movies over the years in large part because of how little people know about the how and why behind a language, its dialects and the people who speak them.

Capturing the true cadence of any region’s dialect in written form is tricky, because it should harmonize sounds with words and grammar patterns (the three elements of dialect) that may be centuries old. There may be generational differences among those who use them, as well. For example, I grew up hearing my great-grandmother use the 15th-century word counterpin for quilt, and the Scots-Irish haint for ghost. My grandparents use hit for it and least’uns to describe the youngest in a family. They also pile on modifiers, especially if they had a right smart bunch of company for the holidays, a holdover from our storytelling, ballad-singing ancestors who migrated from Western Europe through the Pennsylvania cultural hearth in the early 1700s and populated the Appalachian mountain chain.

My parents, though they live in the same holler (what we call the narrow valley between hills), typically do not use those expressions and pronunciations, though their patterns and vocabulary are recognizable to southern midland or central Appalachians. My generation’s version of our dialect reflects the most change; like many in my age range, I tend to vocalize the words or grammar patterns only if I’m with my family, though my accent — or the way I pronounce words — can be clearly heard when I speak.

So, literary dialect can be used to illustrate changes in spoken usage among families who have lived in the same area for generations. In Denise Giardina’s turn-of-the-century novel “Storming Heaven,” Miles has returned from the mountains with a formal education and refuses to say “hit” for “it” like his siblings, resisting the speech he equates with backwardness. When his brother Ben points out that Chaucer said “hit,” Miles replies, “He’s been dead a long time. He was medieval. This is the scientific age.”

However, in Ron Rash’s more contemporary novel “One Foot in Eden,” a deputy remarks that “haints are bad to stir” on “lonesome-feeling” nights, which is what his “Momma notioned.” The language of Mr. Rash’s characters connects them to the history of their region, and explains why the sheriff (and many of us in Appalachia) continues to use vernacular though his wife thinks he is a hillbilly: “It was the way most folks spoke in Oconee County. It put people more at ease when you talked like them.”

Well-written vernacular can also explain one character’s perceptions of another. Consider this line from Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Prodigal Summer”:

“Bite,” he’d said, with the Northerner’s clipped i. An outsider, intruding on this place like kudzu vines.

Here, Ms. Kingsolver capitalizes on the power of vowels in vernacular speech. One vowel instantly marks the speaker as the Outsider, leading to assumptions about his politics, religion and trustworthiness. It’s a brilliant comparison to the kudzu vine, a choking weed imported from Japan in the late 19th century that swallows entire hills and trees.

Finally, vernacular speech should never be used to suggest that one character is less intelligent than another, a myth about dialect and cognition that was debunked by linguists half a century ago and many times since. Nonstandard grammar patterns such as double negatives or the leveling of irregular verbs like blowed for blow tend to be the most stigmatized of dialect patterns, though their origins and usage are historical and cultural.

Writers who want to tune their ears to a particular spoken dialect should spend an extended amount of time in the part of the region where the dialect is spoken, not only to learn the features, but to study ways that it may be used among different groups. Primary documents such as letters, journals and recipe books, which are often written in unguarded, spoken vernacular, may also be counted on as authentic recreations of voice. My great-grandmother’s recipe book includes spellings like “baloney” for “bologna,” illustrating the way she pronounced it.

Above all, writers should know that people speak the way they do intentionally, and for many reasons. The author Lee Smith, who grew up in central Appalachia and whose characters often speak in those dialects, says in her essay “Southern Exposure,” “I have no intention of ever giving up this accent … it’s a political choice.”

Sometimes dialect is the only way a person can stay rooted to family, to community, to everything that is familiar in a fast-changing world where nothing is certain.

Behind that decision is an entire linguistic history and an army of ancestors whose language patterns were carried forward like guarded treasure, which is all the more reason for writers to choose their words carefully.

Amy D. Clark is associate professor of English at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. She lives in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

 

 

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