Date: Mon, 6 Oct 1997 10:45:44 -0500

From: "Salikoko S. Mufwene" s-mufwene[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]UCHICAGO.EDU

Subject: Re: dialect in literature

This past summer, I taught a pilot course titled "Dialect Voices in

Literature." We covered authors such as Mark Tawin, William Faulkner, James

Baldwin, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Chinwa

Achebe. I got the idea for this from reading a book by Albert French,

titled "Billy", three summers ago and being shocked to notice that the

"dialect" attributed to White characters should have been associated with

Black characters and that what was put in the mouths of Black characters

was just fiction. Or at least Black and White characters in this book could

have been assigned very similar varieties.

In covering the literature this past summer, I was shocked by the

extent of stereotyping in the works of especially Twain and Faulkner, and

Richard Wright--often exarcerbated by the merciless use of eye dialect for

Black characters. I thought Morrison and Hurston are rightfully acclaimed

as excellent writers, not only for their outstanding skills as writers and

plot-builders, but also for their ability to codeswitch--and they capture

variation within the nonstandard dialect very well too. I found Chinwa

Achebe very impressive too, but I'll need the assistance of somebody that

is fluent in Nigerian Pidgin English (relative to stereotyping--which I

could not verify; but then I have this prejudice against too much basilect

in the mouth of any pidgin/creole speaker).

The purpose of the class was to figure out how knowledge gained from

studying AAVE and White nonstandard dialects could be used in literary

criticism. (I had training in literary criticism years back in college!) My

students and I enjoyed the class. I'd like to teach it again before I write

a syllabus or any academic paper on the subject matter. But there is a lot

of interesting research out there that graduate students may be encouraged

to do, especially if they are going to work in English Departments. I also

thought that people specializing in African-American literature should be

offered courses on AAVE and White nonstandard dialects (any kind of

introductory course)--excuse my patronizing.

Some of the students who took the course told me that the experience

was like learning to read a book twice, focusing once on the story/plot and

then focusing again on language, but the details gained from both readings

are mutually enriching. I tried to combine both techniques in my single

readings and often focused too much on language, missing some relevant

aspects of the story--shame on me.

Anyway, I have now forgotten what point I wanted to make--probably

just wanted to voice my raw impressions that pertain to the original query

on dialect in literature. There is an interesting book that John Rickford

brought to my attention, after I had started the class: "Down Home and

Uptown: The representation of Black speech in American fiction," by Sylvia

Wallace Horton, 1984, Associated University Presses. I have mixed feelings

about the parts of it that I read and did not finish reading it. I had a

problem with the direction some of her discussions take. Nonetheless, you

may find it worth checking.

Thanks for your attention.



Salikoko S. Mufwene s-mufwene[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

University of Chicago 773-702-8531; FAX 773-834-0924

Department of Linguistics

1010 East 59th Street

Chicago, IL 60637