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Chapter 5: dialect writers

I. Negro dialect: Joel Chandler Harris

A part from its purely literary significance, Uncle Remus: his Songs and his Sayings makes a threefold claim upon our interest. (I) In the character of Uncle Remus the author has done more than add a new figure to literature; he has typified a race and thus perpetuated a vanishing civilization. (2) In the stories told by Uncle Remus the author has brought the folk-tales of the negro into literature and thus laid the foundation for the scientific study of negro folk-lore. His work has, therefore, a purely historical and ethnological value not possessed in equal degree by any other volume of American short stories. (3) In the language spoken by Uncle Remus the author has reproduced a dialect so accurately and so adequately that each story is worth studying as marking a stage in the development of primitive English.

The life of Joel Chandler Harris was comparatively uneventful though it was an ideal preparation for the work that he was to do. He was born in Eatonton, Putnam County, Georgia, 9 December, 1848,—a date now celebrated annually in all Georgia schools. It is a remarkable fact that the middle counties of Georgia have produced the most representative humorists of the South. Among those who were born or who at some time lived in this part of Georgia may be mentioned A. B. Longstreet,1 the author of Georgia scenes; Richard Malcolm Johnston,2 the author of The Dukesborough tales; William [348] Tappan Thompson,3 the author of Major Jones's courtship; and Harry Stillwell Edwards, the author of Two Runaways and other stories. In the same section were born the two poets Francis O. Ticknor,4 author of Little Giffen of Tennessee, and Sidney Lanier.5 Middle Georgia was also before the war the most democratic part of the slaveholding states, a circumstance not without its influence upon the development of Harris's genius.

‘The sons of the richest men,’ he tells us,6 ‘were put in the fields to work side by side with the negroes, and were thus taught to understand the importance of individual effort that leads to personal independence. It thus happened that there was a cordial, and even an affectionate, understanding between the slaves and their owners, that perhaps had no parallel elsewhere. The poorer whites had no reason to hold their heads down because they had to work for their living. The richest slave owners did not feel themselves above those who had few negroes or none. When a man called his neighbor ‘Colonel,’ or ‘Judge,’ it was to show his respect, nothing more. For the rest, the humblest held their heads as high as the richest, and were as quick, perhaps quicker, in a quarrel.’

Young Harris owed little to the schools but much to a country printing office and to a large library in which it was his privilege to browse at will. At the age of twelve he read one morning the announcement that a new newspaper, The Countryman, was to be started a few miles from Eatonton. The editor, Joseph Addison Turner, the owner of a large plantation and many slaves, was a man of sound but old-fashioned literary taste and wished his paper to be modelled after The spectator of Addison and Steele. This announcement kindled the ambition of young Harris, who was already familiar with the best literature of Queen Anne's time and to whom the very name Spectator recalled days and nights of indescribable delight. He applied at once for the vacant position of office boy, received a favourable answer, and devoted the rest of his life to journalism in his native State. The duties of his new position were not onerous, and he found time, or took time, to hunt foxes, coons, opossums, and rabbits [349] whenever he wished, and to make himself familiar with every nook and corner of the surrounding country.

It was in these early years that Harris laid the foundation for his future work. There was not a negro myth or legend in which he was not interested; there was not a negro custom or peculiarity that he did not know; and there was not a sound or idiom of the negro language that he could not reproduce.

‘No man who has ever written,’ says Thomas Nelson Page, ‘has known one-tenth part about the negro that Mr. Harris knows, and for those who hereafter shall wish to find not merely the words but the real language of the negro of that section and the habits of mind of all American negroes of the old time, his works will prove the best thesaurus.’

In addition to his interest in the life about him Harris soon came to have an equal interest in Turner's large library. Among his favourite books were the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, the essays of Addison and Steele, and later the Bible and Shakespeare. His best loved writer, however, from first to last, and the one whose genius was most like his own, was Goldsmith.

‘The only way to describe my experience with The Vicar of Wakefield,’ he said in his later years, ‘is to acknowledge that I am a crank. It touches me more deeply, it gives me the ‘all-overs’ more severely than all others. Its simplicity, its air of extreme wonderment, have touched and continue to touch me deeply.’

Among the writers of New England Harris seems to have cared least for Emerson and most for Lowell.

‘Culture,’ he once wrote, ‘is a very fine thing, indeed, but it is never of much account either in life or in literature, unless it is used as a cat uses a mouse, as a source of mirth and luxury. It is at its finest in this country when it is grafted on the sturdiness that has made the nation what it is, and when it is fortified by the strong common sense that has developed and preserved the republic. This is culture with a definite aim and purpose . . . and we feel the ardent spirit of it in pretty much everything Mr. Lowell has written.’


In the march through Georgia, General Sherman's army devastated the Turner plantation, and The Countryman was of course discontinued. After various experiences with different newspapers Harris joined the staff of The Atlanta Constitution in 1876. At this time he was known chiefly as an essayist and poet, but he began almost immediately to publish some of the plantation legends that he had heard from the lips of the negroes before and during the war. The first volume of these stories, Uncle Remus: his Songs and his Sayings, the Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, was published in 1880. It contained thirty-four plantation legends or negro folk-tales, a few plantation proverbs, nine negro songs, a story of the war, and twenty-one sayings or opinions of Uncle Remus, all supposed to be sung or narrated by Uncle Remus himself. In 1883 appeared Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation. This contained sixty-nine new legends and was prefaced by an interesting Introduction. Among the new legends were a few told by Daddy Jack, a representative of the dialect spoken on the coastal rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. These two volumes represent the author's best work in the domain of negro dialect and folk-lore, and were accorded instant recognition as opening a new and deeply interesting field both to literature and ethnology. Among the later works that continue the Uncle Remus tradition may be mentioned Uncle Remus and his friends (1892), Mr. Rabbit at Home (1895), The Tar-Baby Story and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus (1904), Told by Uncle Remus (1905), Uncle Remus and Brer rabbit (1907), and Uncle Remus and the little boy (1910). There were also numerous stories of the War and of the Reconstruction period.

A year before his death Harris founded Uncle Remus's magazine, which survived him only a few years. Immediately after his death in 1908 the Uncle Remus Memorial Association was formed, the purpose of which was to purchase the home of the writer of the Uncle Remus stories, near Atlanta, and to convert it into a suitable memorial. This has now been done.

The significance of Uncle Remus as a study in negro character can best be understood by a comparison of Harris's work with that of others, especially his predecessors, in the same field. The negroes themselves, by the way, can show an [351] orator, two prose-writers, and one poet of merited eminence. These are Frederick Douglass (1817-95); Booker T. Washington (c. 1859-1915); W. E. Burghardt DuBois, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906). Up from slavery (1900) by Washington and The souls of black Folk (1903) by DuBois are works of almost diametrically opposite styles. The former makes its appeal by its simplicity and restraint; the latter by its emotionalism, its note of lyric intensity. Neither author, however, is of unmixed negro blood, and neither has come as close to the heart of his race as did Dunbar, a pure negro, in his Lyrics of lowly life (1896). He was the first American negro of pure African descent ‘to feel the negro life aesthetically and to express it lyrically.’7 His dialect poems, it may be added, are better than the poems that he wrote in standard English. Indeed, Dunbar's command of correct English was always somewhat meagre and uncertain.

Negro writers, however, were not the first to put their own race into literature or to realize the value of their own folk-lore.

‘The possibilities of negro folk-lore,’ says a recent negro writer,8 ‘have carried it across the line, so that it has had strong influence on the work of such Southern writers as Thomas Nelson Page and Frank L. Stanton, and on that of George W. Cable. Its chief monument so far has been in the Uncle Remus tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox told by Joel Chandler Harris.’

The chief writers who preceded Harris in the attempt to portray negro character were William Gilmore Simms,9 Edgar Allan Poe,10 Harriet Beecher Stowe,11 Stephen Collins Foster, and Irwin Russell. Hector, the negro slave in Simms's Yemassee (1835), and Jupiter in Poe's Gold-Bug (1843) are alike in many respects. Both belong to the type of faithful body servant,12 both are natives of the coastal region of South Carolina, both illustrate a primitive sort of humour, and both [352] speak an anglicized form of Gullah (Gulla) dialect. Of the two, Hector is the better portrayed. His refusal (in Chapter 51) to accept freedom when it is offered to him by his owner is by no means surprising; it is an evidence rather of Simms's familiarity with negro character and a reminder of the anomalous position in which a freedman in those days found himself.13 Neither Hector nor Jupiter, however, can be said to have any individuality of his own. They are mere types, not individuals. Apart from their masters they have no separate existence at all.

The best-known negro character in fiction is, of course, Uncle Tom, the hero of Uncle Tom's cabin (1852). The dramatic power shown in this book is undeniable. More than any other one book it hastened the Civil War and made necessary the emancipation of all slaves. But Uncle Tom is portrayed so plainly for a purpose, the scenes in the book are so skilfully arranged to excite public indignation, that one can hardly call it a great work of art or even a work of art at all. Mrs. Stowe knew the negro chiefly as she had seen him on the right bank of the Ohio River. Ohio was a free state and the negroes that Mrs. Stowe talked with in Cincinnati were those that had fled from Kentucky. Uncle Tom is the type of a good man, a man of sterling piety, subjected to bitter servitude and maltreatment; but there is little about him that is distinctively negro. There is no African background. The language that he speaks is a low grade of highly evangelized English but no more distinctive of the negro than of illiterate whites. Let one compare his language on any page with that of Uncle Remus and the difference will be at once felt. For instance, Uncle Remus is telling what he is going to do to the negro that steals his hogs:

‘Ana I bouna,’ continued Uncle Remus, driving the corncob stopper a little tighter in his deceitful jug and gathering up his bag, ‘ana I bouna dat my ole muskit'll go off 'tween me ana dat same nigger yit, ana he'll be at de bad eena, ana dis seetful jug'll 'fuse ter go ter de funer'l.’

The quaint indirectness of that is more distinctive of the old-time negro speech than anything ever said by Uncle Tom. [353]

If the novel with a purpose is not a suitable theatre for the display of negro character, neither is the comic minstrel show. The songs written by Stephen Collins Foster (1826-64) retain still their deserved popularity but they do not portray the negro from within. Old black Joe, Old Uncle Ned, My old Kentucky home, Old Folks at home, or Way down upon the Suwanee River are the best-known songs ever written by an American. Words, music, and sentiment are welded into perfect unity and harmony. ‘Old Folks at home,’ says Louis C. Elson,14 ‘is the chief American folk-song, and Stephen Collins Foster is as truly the folk-song genius of America as Weber or Silcher have been of Germany.’ On the contrary, Foster can hardly be called a writer of folk-songs at all. His songs are pure sentimentality. The old-time negro, however, was religious, musical, humorous, loyal, emotional, improvident, diplomatic, philosophical, almost everything in fact except sentimental. These songs are not folk-songs, therefore, because the dialect is purely artificial, because neither words nor music originated with the negroes, and because the sentiment they express is alien to the race by whom these songs are supposed to be sung. They are sung, in fact, so far as the writer's observation goes, only by white people, never by negroes, except in a minstrel show.

The man who really discovered the literary material latent in negro character and in negro dialect was Irwin Russell (1853-79), of Mississippi. The two men best qualified to pass judgment, Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, have both borne grateful testimony to Russell's genius and to their indebtedness to him. It is noteworthy also that the first marble bust that the State of Mississippi has placed in her Hall of Fame is that of Irwin Russell.

Russell's greatest poem is Christmas night in the quarters (1878). In its fidelity to the humble life that it seeks to portray, in the simplicity of its style, the genuineness of its feeling, the distinctness of its pictures, and the sympathy that inspires it, Christmas night belongs in the class with Burns's Cotter's Saturday night and Whittier's Snow-Bound. ‘Burs,’ said Russell, ‘is my idol. He seems to me the greatest man that God ever created, beside whom all other poets are utterly [354] insignificant.’ This poem differs from the works hitherto considered in three important respects: the negro is the central character, the poem being written not to exploit him but to portray him; the dialect, both in its grammar and its rhetoric, is an improvement on everything that had preceded it; and the mingling of humour and religion, though admirably true to life, had been hitherto unachieved.

It is evident, therefore, that Joel Chandler Harris came at a time when the interest in the negro was at its height. His value as literary material had been realized in part, but no satisfactory portrait of him had been drawn. The war, too, with its attendant saturnalia of Reconstruction, was over, and the negro was trying to fit himself into a new political and industrial regime. It will be seen also that Uncle Remus is a very different character from those by which the negro had hitherto found representation in literature. The character of Uncle Remus is noteworthy not only because it represents both a type and an individual, but because the type is now nearly extinct. Before the war every large plantation or group of plantations had its Uncle Remus; today he lingers here and there in a few villages of the South, but is regarded more as a curiosity, a specimen, a relic of the past than as a part of the present.

As portrayed by Harris, Uncle Remus sums up the past and dimly hints the future. The character was modelled in part after that of an old negro, Uncle George Terrell, whom Harris had learned to know intimately on the Turner plantation. The Uncle Remus of the stories is eighty years old, but still moves and speaks with the vigour of youth.

He had always exercised authority over his fellow-servants. He had been the captain of the corn-pile, the stoutest at the logrolling, the swiftest with the hoe, the neatest with the plough, and the plantation hands still looked upon him as their leader.15

His life spanned three distinct and widely divergent periods; he had looked out upon three worlds—the South before the war, the South during the war, and the South after the war. He is tenderly cared for by his former owners, ‘Mars John’ [355] and ‘Miss Sally’; he has his own little patch of ground around his cabin; and he is devotedly attached to Miss Sally's ‘little boy.’ In spite of their difference in years, the child and the old man have one point in common: they both look out upon the world with eager, wide-eyed interest. Uncle Remus expresses their common point of view in a conversation with Brer Ab. Brer Ab had been telling Uncle Remus of some of the miraculous things seen by a coloured woman in a trance:
‘She say she meet er angel in de road, and he pinted straight ter de mornina star, and tell her fer ter prepara. Hit look mighty cu'us, Brer Remus.’ ‘Cum down ter dat, Brer Ab,’ said Uncle Remus, wiping his spectacles carefully, and readjusting them—‘cum down ter dat, an' dey ain't nuffina dat ain't cu'us.’16

Acting on this Aristotelian maxim, Uncle Remus explains to the little boy the mysteries of animal life, especially as they embody themselves in the character of the rabbit and the fox. The humour is entirely unconscious. It is not that of the Uebermensch, for the humour of the Uebermensch springs from the consciousness of intellectual power, and is, moreover, direct, cynical, self-assertive, masterful. The humour of Uncle Remus represents the world of the Underman; it has no reasoned philosophy but springs from the universal desire to correlate the unknown with the known and to explain the most mysterious things by reference to the most obvious. If the rabbit lost his long tail on a certain historic occasion, then all the rabbits since born will have short tails. In fact, Uncle Remus's philosophy is perfectly consistent in one thing: all physical characteristics, whether native or acquired, find their explanation not in past conditions but in past events. The slow influence of environment yields place to a prompt and obliging heredity.

After all, however, the language of Uncle Remus is more interesting than his philosophy. In the picturesqueness of his phrases, in the unexpectedness of his comparisons, in the variety of his figures of speech, in the perfect harmony between the thing said and the way of saying it, the reader finds not only a keen aesthetic delight but even an intellectual satisfaction. [356] It is probable that Uncle Remus's vocabulary would be found, on investigation, to be narrowly limited. If so, he is a striking evidence of the varied effects that can be produced with but few words provided these words have been thoroughly assimilated. He leaves the impression not of weakness but of strength, not of contractedness but of freedom. What he says has not only been thought through but seen through and felt through.

It is only after repeated readings that one realizes how completely the character of Uncle Remus is revealed, or rather how completely he is made to reveal himself. There are not many subjects within his range, or beyond it, on which he has not somewhere registered an interesting opinion. If animals are his specialty, he is none the less willing to comment on negroes before and after the war, his favourite dishes, revivals, courtship, Christmas, witches, and religion. These are some of the elemental things about which his thoughts play and through which we come at last to know him and to revere him. Nowhere in American literature has an author succeeded better in harmonizing a typical character with an individual character than has been done in the character of Uncle Remus. What James Fenimore Cooper did for the Indian, Harris has in fact done for the negro. Just as Chingachgook is the last of the Mohicans, so Uncle Remus is the last of the old-time negroes. In literature he is also the first.

But Uncle Remus is interesting not merely in himself but also for the folk-tales of which he is the mouthpiece. These tales mark indeed the beginning of the scientific study of negro folk-lore in America. The author had, however, no ethnological purpose in publishing the Uncle Remus stories, and was greatly surprised to learn afterwards that variants of some of his tales had been found among the Indians of North and South America, and in the native literature of India and Siam. Variants of the Tar-Baby story, for example, have been found among the Natchez, Creek, and Yuchi Indians;17 among the West Indian islanders;18 in Brazil;19 in Cape Colony20; among the [357] Bushmen of South Africa;21 along the lower Congo;22 in West Central Africa;23 among the Hottentots;24 and among the Jatakas or ‘Birth-Stories’ of Buddha.25

As to the accuracy with which the Uncle Remus stories are reproduced, the author speaks as follows:26

With respect to the folk-lore series, my purpose has been to preserve the legends themselves in their original simplicity, and to wed them permanently to the quaint dialect—if, indeed it can be called a dialect—through the medium of which they have become a part of the domestic history of every Southern family; and I have endeavored to give the whole a genuine flavor of the old plantation. Each legend has its variants, but in every instance I have retained that particular version which seemed to me to be the most characteristic, and have given it without embellishment and without exaggeration.

The animals that figure in these stories are, in addition to the fox and the rabbit, the opossum, the cow, the bull, the terrapin, the turtle, the wolf, the frog, the bear, the lion, the tiger, the pig, the billy goat, the deer, the alligator, the snake, the wildcat, the ram, the mink, the weasel, and the dog; among their feathered friends are the buzzard, the partridge, the guinea-fowl, the hawk, the sparrow, the chicken, and the goose. Why the rabbit should be the hero rather than the fox has been differently explained. Harris's own view seems, however, most in accord with the facts:

The story of the rabbit and the fox, as told by the Southern negroes . . . seems to me to be to a certain extent allegorical, albeit such an interpretation may be unreasonable. At least it is a fable thoroughly characteristic of the negro; and it needs no scientific investigation to show why he selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice but mischievousness.


The origin of these tales is still in a measure unsettled, and there is urgent need of more scientific investigation of them. For a while it was thought that the negroes learned these stories from the Indians. It is at least certain that many of the Uncle Remus stories are current among the Indians of North and South America. It is equally certain that more is known of Indian folk-lore than of negro folk-lore. The present status of the question is overwhelmingly in favour of an African origin. The negro slaves, in other words, brought these stories with them from Africa to Brazil and the United States. The Indians in both countries learned them from the negroes.

Of the negro dialect in general as spoken in the United States today, there are four varieties:

(1) The dialect of Virginia, especially of Eastern or Tidewater Virginia. It is best represented in the works of Thomas Nelson Page. Broad a is retained in this dialect and there is a vanishing y sound (as in few) heard after c and g when broad a follows: larst (last), farst (fast), grahss (grass), pahsture (pasture), chahmber (chamber), pahf (path), cyarna (can't), kyars (cars), gyardin (garden). Broad a is also heard in cyar (carry) and dyah (there). Such forms as gyardin, seegyar, kyards, kyarvina knife are also used by Uncle Remus, but they are evidences of Virginia influence. Uncle Remus himself says, though he had dropped the broad a, that he ‘come from Ferginny.’

(2) The dialect of the Sea Islands of the South Atlantic States, known as the Gullah (or Gulla) dialect. The name is probably derived from Angola, as many of the rice-field negroes of South Carolina and Georgia are known to have come from the west coast of Africa. This diminishing dialect is spoken on the rice plantations of coastal South Carolina and Georgia as the Uncle Remus dialect is spoken on the cotton and tobacco plantations further inland. Gullah diverges widely from English and in its most primitive state is, as Harris says, ‘merely a confused and untranslatable mixture of English and African words.’ Though it was used in a diluted form here and there by Poe and Simms and though Harris employs it for some of the stories in his Nights with Uncle Remus, it can hardly be said to have found a place in literature. It has given us, however, the only pure African word still current in [359] negro speech, the word buckra, meaning boss or overseer. Tote, meaning to carry, which long claimed a place beside buckra, has been found in American writings of so early a date as to preclude the theory of African origin.

(3) The dialect spoken by the Creole negroes of Louisiana. This dialect is of course not English but French, and is best represented, though sparingly, in the works of George W. Cable. Its musical quality and the extent to which elision and contraction have been carried may be seen in the following love song of the Creole negro Bras-Coupe, one of the characters in Cable's Grandissimes. An interlinear translation is added:

En haut la montagne, zami,
On the mountain chain, my friends,
Mo pe coupe canne, zami,
I've been cutting cane, my friends,
Poua fe i'aa zena, zami,
Money for to gain, my friends,
Poua mo baille Palmyre.
For my fair Palmyre.
Ah! Palmyre, Palmyre, mo c'ere,
Ah! Palmyre, Palmyre, my dear,
Mo I'aime 'ou—mo I'aime 'ou.
I love you—I love you.

(4) The Uncle Remus dialect, or the dialect spoken by the negroes in the great inland sections of the South and South-west. Though there have been changes in vocabulary and a decline in vigour and picturesqueness of expression, due to the influence of negro schools and to the passing of the old plantation life, this is the dialect still spoken by the majority of the older negroes in the country districts of the South, especially of the far South. The characteristics of this dialect consist wholly in adaptation of existing English words and endings, not in the introduction of new words or new endings. The plurals of all nouns tend to become regular. Thus Uncle Remus says foots (feet), toofies (teeth), and gooses (geese), though the old plural year is retained. The relative pronoun who is not used, its place being taken by which (or w'ich), what (or w'at), dat, and the more interesting which he and which dey, corresponding to Chaucer's that he and that they. Thus: ‘She holler so loud dat [360] Brer Rabbit, which he wuz gwine by, got de idee dat she wuz callina him.’

Another interesting characteristic of the Uncle Remus speech is found in the present tense of verbs. Uncle Remus does not say, for example, I make, you make, he makes, we make, you make, they make, but I makes, you makes, he makes, we makes, you makes, dey makes. Negro dialect, like the dialect of all illiterate peoples, is an ear dialect. The eye has nothing to do with it. The law of analogy, therefore, which is nothing more than the rule of the majority, has unfettered operation. The illiterate man, whether black or white, hearing the third person singular with its invariable s-ending far more frequently than he hears any other form of the present tense, makes it his norm and uses it for all forms of both numbers. The same is true of the verb to be, though is has not in the language of Uncle Remus entirely succeeded in dispossessing am and are.

II. dialects of the whites

Why dialect should have been so sparingly used by American writers before the Civil War and why it should have become so constituent a part of American fiction immediately after the Civil War are questions not easily answered. A partial explanation would seem to lie in the increasing sectionalism from 1830 to 1860 which, culminating in 1865, gave place not only to an increasing sense of national solidarity but to a keener interest in how the other half lived. Sectionalism meant indifference and ignorance; union means reciprocal interest and understanding. There can at least be no doubt that the American short story27 has been the chief vehicle of dialect since the Civil War, and the American short story, by its fidelity to local usages, has done more during these years to acquaint or re-acquaint the North with the South and the East with the West than any other type of literature. Bret Harte, writing in 1899, mentioned as the leading short-story writers then living Joel Chandler Harris, George W. Cable, Mark Twain, Charles Egbert Craddock (Miss Murfree), and Mary E. Wilkins (now Mrs. Freeman). These names, together with that of Bret Harte himself, indicate that excellence [361] in dialect and excellence in the short story have been almost synonymous in American literature since the Civil War. They indicate also that dialect has been both an expression and a cause of the interstate knowledge and interstate sympathy that have linked the far separated sections of the United States into closer bonds of union and fellowship.

The resemblances, however, existing among the dialects of the different sections of the United States are so great, and the differences so slight, that one hesitates to call these speech peculiarities dialects at all. The reign of the newspaper, diffused educational facilities, increasing means of travel and transportation, together with the American passion for a standardized average of correctness, have checked the tendency to dialect that the colonists brought with them. The effort now making in England, through the Society for Pure English, to restore the old words and racy idioms that survive in the Cornish, Sussex, and Northumbrian dialects and thus to enrich and revitalize standard English, could hardly find imitation in this country, because there are no American dialects that offer corresponding rewards. The differences between the New England dialect, the Southern dialect, and the Western dialect, for example, are differences in pronunciation, in intonation, in stress, and slurring, not primarily in the loss or preservation of old words or old idioms. The speech of the mountain districts, especially that of the Southern Appalachian region, retains, it is true, a few words and locutions of old and honourable origin; but these are by no means numerous enough to be used for regenerative purposes on a large scale. Hit (it), holp (helped), ax (ask), afeard (afraid), fray (combat), fraction (as in Troilus and Cressida II, III, 107), antic (clown), humans (human beings), mought (might), Old Christmas (6 January), hone (yearn), tilth (agriculture), back a letter (address an envelope), and a few others may be heard in the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. But to affirm that in this dialect or in the dialect of any other part of the United States is to be found our best reservoir of fresh and vigorous English or our surest safeguard against slovenly pronunciation would be manifestly absurd.

While much remains to be done in accurately classifying American speech peculiarities, it needs no proof that the [362] strongest impetus to a fresh study and appraisal of American dialect was given by James Russell Lowell28 in his Biglow papers (1848, 1866) and in the Introductions with which he prefaced them. The early masters of the short story, Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, looked askance at dialect, as did Longfellow and Whittier in their abolition poems. But Bret Harte29 gave new force to Lowell's views by his effective use of dialect in the stories of the forty-niners, and from 1870 to the present time dialect has played a leading part in the attempt to portray and interpret American character against the background of social environment. Edward Eggleston,30 who brought a new dialect into literature in The Hoosier schoolmaster (1871), spoke for all his colleagues when he said:

If I were a dispassionate critic, and were set to judge my own novels as the writings of another, I should say that what distinguishes them from other works of fiction is the prominence which they give to social conditions; that the individual characters are here treated to a greater degree than elsewhere as parts of a study of a society—as in some sense the logical results of the environment. Whatever may be the rank assigned to these stories as works of literary art, they will always have a certain value as materials for the student of social history.

With the exception of the negro dialects and those that are more French or German than English, American dialects fall into three groups, those of New England, the South, and the West. The dialect employed by Bret Harte has often been criticized as belonging to no one of these groups. The charge is made that it is merely an importation of cockney English. The critics, however, when pressed for proof, have been able to cite only the use of which in such initial sentences as

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain.

This is undoubtedly cockney English, but it is American as well, though it has always been and still is rarely heard.31 [363] Bret Harte's dialect has also been subjected to criticism on the charge of being too clever. It seems at times to be the author's own creation rather than a transcript of speech actually current in California at the time. Much of this criticism turns on the failure to distinguish between dialect and slang, slang having a right to be original. The society, moreover, that Bret Harte portrays was unique in its compositeness. There were preachers, teachers, lawyers, and doctors among those who flocked to California as well as toughs, tramps, dead-beats, and illiterates. ‘The faith, courage, vigor, youth, and capacity for adventure necessary to this emigration,’ says Bret Harte, ‘produced a body of men as strongly distinctive as were the companions of Jason.’ William Grey32 describes the pioneers with whom he went to California as ‘a fine-looking and well educated body of men,— all young.’ That the language of these men should be picturesque and representative in its idiom and as intellectual as the occasion might demand, is not surprising. Investigation has shown that of Bret Harte's three hundred dialect words and phrases a mere handful remain unidentified as American.

The term Western, however, usually has reference not to the Pacific slope but to the Middle West and South-west. The Western dialect is currently understood to be the dialect found in the writings of Mark Twain,33 Edward Eggleston, Hamlin Garland,34 Owen Wister, and James Whitcomb Riley.35 But this dialect is also composite. The original sources are chiefly New England and the South, with a mingling here and there of German and Scandinavian elements. Thus the pioneer dialect of Southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois was mainly Southern, while the northern portions of these States reflect the New England influence. The speech of Nebraska shows the influence of Swedish and Pennsylvania German settlers. Western and Central New York was settled chiefly by New Englanders, but in the last few decades there are evidences of Irish, German, and Scandinavian influences. Eastern New York and Pennsylvania were intermediate in their speech habits between New England and the South, their dialect showing traces of both. [364]

Even cultivated Indianians, particularly those of Southern antecedents, have the habit of clinging to their words; they do not bite them off sharply. . . . In New England and in Virginia the Italian a finds recognition, whereas in the intermediate region the narrower sound of the vowel prevails; and likewise the softening of r is noted in New England and among the Virginians and other Southerners, while in the intermediate territory and at the West r receives its full sound. The shrill nasal tone is still marked in the back country folk of New England, while the Southern and Southwestern farmer's speech is fuller and more open-mouthed. . . . At the South and in New England, where there is less mingling of elements, the old usages will probably endure much longer; and it is a fair assumption that in the Mississippi Valley and in the Trans-Missouri country, a normal American speech free of local idiosyncrasies will appear first.36

This New England dialect which has spread so widely through the West and North-west was summarized by Lowell in the following seven general rules:37

1. The genuine Yankee never gives the rough sound to the r when he can help it, and often displays considerable ingenuity in avoiding it even before a vowel.

2. He seldom sounds the final g, a piece of self-denial, if we consider his partiality for nasals. The same of the final d, as hana; and stana; for hand and stand.

3. The h in such words as while, when, where, he omits altogether.

4. In regard to a, he shows some inconsistency, sometimes giving a close and obscure sound, as hev for have, hendy for handy, ez for as, thet for that, and again giving it the broad sound it has in father, as hansome for handsome.

5. To the sound ou he prefixes an e (hard to exemplify otherwise than orally). . . .

6. Au in such words as daughter and slaughter, he pronounces ah.

7. To the dish thus seasoned add a drawl ad libitum.

The New England dialect may perhaps best be studied in such later writers as Rose Terry Cooke,38 Sarah Orne Jewett,39 and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.40 [365]

What is known as the Southern dialect may be formulated also in seven general rules:

1. Like does duty for as if in such sentences as ‘He looks like he was sick.’ This construction, says Lowell, is ‘never found in New England.’

2. 'Low (allow), meaning think and say, though ‘never heard in New England’ (Lowell), is very common among white and black illiterates, as it is in the pages of Bret Harte. Guess in the New England sense is also used, but New England cal'late (calculate) is unknown.

3. Such words as tune, news, duty (but not true, rule, sue, dude) have the vanishing y-sound heard in few.41 This pronunciation, like the retention of broad a, can hardly be called dialectal; but it is almost a shibboleth of the Southerner to the manner born, and helps to differentiate him from the Westerner and Northerner.

4. The vanishing y-sound heard in gyarden, cyards, Cyarter, Gyarfield, is common in Virginia but less so in other parts of the South.

5. The same may be said of broad a, intermediate a (halfway between father and fat) being distinctively academic and acquired.

6. More, store, floor, four, door, and similar words are usually pronounced mo, sto, flo, fo, do by negroes. Among the white population the r is not pronounced but these words have two distinct syllables, the last syllable having the obscure uh sound heard in mower or stower. The tendency in the North and West to pronounce long o as au (in autumnal rather than in autumn) is not observable in the South. 7. The most distinctive idiom in the South is the use of you all, meaning not all of you but you folks, you people, you boys, you girls. It may be addressed to one person but always implies more than one. If a Southerner says to a clerk in a store, ‘Do you all keep shoes here?’ he means by you all not the single clerk but the entire firm or force that owns or operates the store.42

Notable writers of the Southern dialect besides Harris, Page, and Cable, are Richard Malcolm Johnston,43 Charles Egbert Craddock,44 and O. Henry.45 [366]

An analogy may be noted, by way of retrospect, between the three dialects of Chaucer's time and the three that, with many modifications, have survived in the United States. The Northern or Northumbrian dialect was spoken north of the Humber, the Midland between the Humber and Thames, and the Southern south of the Thames. The Midland gained the supremacy largely because it was a compromise between the other two. The situation a century ago in the United States was not dissimilar. New England, with Massachusetts as the speech centre, may be likened to Northumbria not only in relative position but in a corresponding preference for certain austerities of pronunciation. The South, with Virginia as the speech centre, differed from New England in pronunciation not as widely but in much the same way as Southern England differed from Northern England. The Middle States, with New York as the speech centre, was, like Midland England, intermediate in speech habits as well as in geographical position. Even today if a Bostonian and a Tidewater Virginian were to visit New York City for the first time they would observe less that would be arrestive in speech, barring foreign elements, than the Bostonian would find in Richmond or the Virginian in Boston. That New York, therefore, in spite of its unparalleled growth in population, has not influenced the dialect of the West as have New England and the South, is due partly to the lack of dialectal distinction in the speech of New York and partly to the more migratory habits of New Englanders and Southerners. If ‘in the Mississippi Valley and in the Trans-Missouri country a normal American speech free of local idiosyncrasies will first appear,’ as seems not unlikely, a compromise English dialect will have won its second and greatest victory.

1 See also Book II, Chap. XIX.

2 See also Book III. Chaos. IV and VI.

3 See also Book II, Chap. XIX.

4 See also Book III, Chap. III.

5 See also Book III. Chap. IV.

6 Stories of Georgia (1896), p. 24<*>

7 See Introduction by William Dean Howells to Lyrics of lowly life.

8 See Benjamin Griffith Brawley's The negro in literature and art (Atlanta, 1910), p. 5.

9 See also Book II, Chap. VII.

10 See also Book II, Chap. XIV.

11 See also Book III, Chap. XI.

12 For the body servant in later literature see The negro in Southern literature since the War, by B. M. Drake (Dissertation, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 1898), pp. 21-22.

13 See in this connection the powerful story by Joel Chandler Harris, Free Joe and the rest of the world (in Free Joe and other Georgian sketches).

14 History of American music (1904).

15 Nights with Uncle Remus, p. 400.

16 Uncle Remus: his Songs and his Sayings, p. 212.

17 Journal of American Folk-Lore, July-Sept., 1913, p. 194.

18 Andrew Lang's At the sign of the Ship (Longman's Magazine, Feb., 1889).

19 Romero's Contos do Brazil.

20 South African Folk-Lore Journal, vol. I.

21 James A. Honey's South African Folk-Tales (1910), p. 79.

22 The sun, New York, 17 March, 1912.

23 The times, New York, 24 Aug., 1913.

24 Toni von Held's Marchen und Sagen der afrikanischeu Neger (Jena, 1904), p. 72.

25 Indian fairy tales, selected and edited by Joseph Jacobs (1910), p. 251.

26 Uncle Remus: his Songs and his Sayings, Introduction, p. 3.

27 See Book III, Chap. VI.

28 See Book II, Chap. XXIV.

29 See Book III, Chap. VI.

30 See Book III, Chap. XI.

31 See Henry Childs Merwin's Life of Bret Harte (1911), pp. 325-327. Some of Mr. Merwin's citations, however, are not pertinent but belong to the which he construction noted in Uncle Remus.

32 Pioneer times in California.

33 See Book III, Chap. VIII.

34 See Book III, Chap. VI.

35 See Book III, Chap. X.

36 Meredith Nicholson, The Hoosiers (1900), pp. 58-60.

37 The Biglow papers, first series, Introduction.

38 See Book III, Chap. VI.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 See Some variant Pronunciations in the New South, by William A. Read, Dialect notes, Vol. III, Part VII, 1911 .

42 There is an interesting paragraph on this idiom in Jespersen's Modern English grammar, Part II, Syntax, First Volume (Heidelberg, 1914), pages 47-48. He compares it with East Anglian you together, ‘used as a kind of plural of you.’

43 See also Book III, Chaps. IV and VI.

44 Ibid., Chap. VI.

45 Ibid

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