An Examination of Southern Dialect as Seen in the Works of William Faulkner|An Examination of Southern Dialect

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In the writings of William Faulkner, the reader may sense that the author has created an entire world, which directly reflects his own personal experience. Faulkner writes about the area in and around Mississippi, where he is from, during the post-Civil War period. It is most frequently Northern Mississippi that Faulkner uses for his literary territory, changing Oxford to “Jefferson” and Lafayette County to “Yoknapatawpha County,” because it is here that he lived most of his life and wrote of the people he knew.

Faulkner’s stories focus on the Southeastern United States at a time period when old traditions began to clash with new ideals. This is an era in American history with which most people can quickly identify, whether they are Southern or not. The South in Faulkner’s works are complete with all the expected features: an agricultural society, Southern belles and gentlemen, racial tensions, and especially the common characteristics of Southern speech. Faulkner strays from the normal customs of Northern literature to present a realistic portrait of the South that he grew up in. In doing so, he comes up with an excellent sample of the Southern language, including linguistic qualities of both black and white speech. Faulkner establishes a unique literary voice which is recognizable due to variances from standard English in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammatical form, while juxtaposing speech elements foreign to anyone not familiar with Southern heritage.

The works of William Faulkner succeed in creating a literary dialect which is relatively consistent throughout all of his stories. A literary dialect is best defined as an “author’s attempt to represent in writing a speech that is restricted regionally, socially, or both” (Ives 146). In Faulkner’s writing, this can be described by such traits as an intentional misspelling, like “marster” for master, or in the use of “Miss” along with the given first name of a female, as in “Miss Corrie.” These, amongst countless other examples, are distinctly Southern speech traditions. Anyone not from the South may need explanations of much of Faulkner’s pronunciations, words, usages, and language customs which the author himself takes for granted. Because Faulkner has employed such a vast and complex Southern dialect in his stories, the language he uses has become a microcosm of Southern language as a whole. As one critic has noted, “local forms of speech maintain one’s individual dignity in a homogenizing world” (Burkett vii).

In Faulkner, this local speech is a mixture of “Southern American and Negro dialogue with all the folklore from Virginia to Louisiana, Florida to Texas” (Brown 2). Faulkner’s dialect is effective both as a literary device and as a link between the American English language and American culture and history, specifically in the Southeast.

The South is probably the most linguistically diversified part of the nation. Blacks and whites from Atlanta to Charleston to Nashville speak a different form of standard English in a different version of the Southern accent. Part of this linguistic diversity is reflected in the way that the Southern aristocracy can “shift not only vocabulary and pronunciation, but even grammar, according to the audience” ((1)McDavid 219). This technique is very much alive in Faulkner’s work. For example, in The Reivers, the upper-class grandfather character Boss is an educated man of high social standing in the community. Yet, when he is in the company of only his grandson Lucius, as part of a lecture, he says “the safe things ain’t always the best things” ((2)Faulkner 117). Throughout the book, Boss’s speech moves from the formal to the informal, largely depending on the intimacy he feels with the person or persons to whom he is speaking. Such a case illustrates that Faulkner is well aware of the prestige norms that exist in Southern speech, and he takes advantage of this knowledge. As Feagin points out, in the Southeast, the way in which “nonstandard English is employed demonstrates a symbol of intimacy and local loyalty, as well as a gauge of the level of integration into a close-knit network” (Feagin 222).

Faulkner’s characters reveal a tendency to speak in a slang-like or non-prescriptive grammar when they converse with other characters that they know well, often apparent in the form of jokes and metaphorical language. Similarly to the aristocratic speaker, the less educated Southern speaker often attempts to improve his or her speech when in a formal setting. McDavid asserts that the common way to do so is by “using bigger words and longer sentences, sometimes resulting in the ridiculous” ((2)McDavid 265). A good example of such in Faulkner occurs in As I Lay Dying when Anse, a rural, farming man, attempts to sound eloquent at a time of utmost solemnity. During a funeral speech, Anse states the following: The somebody you was young with and you growed old in her and she growed old in you, seeing the old coming on and it was the one somebody you could hear say it don’t matter and know it was the truth outen the hard world and all a man’s grief and trials ((1)Faulkner 511).

It is obvious that Anse intends to speak formally in this situation, thus Faulkner follows McDavid’s rule of Southern speech about the elongation of sentences and its irregular result. This passage is successful in two ways. First, it reveals a realistic trait common in the Southeast, reflecting the solidarity norm based on local non-standard speech (Feagin 219). Second, it serves as a very powerful literary technique because the oration captures the high level of sincerity in the speaking character.

Another highly common form of Southern dialect which is often seen in Faulkner’s writing is the presence of African American speech features. There are numerous examples of black speech in Faulkner that follow linguistic patterns. However, it is the purpose of this essay to view only a few of the most common. Alphonso Smith defines the most general rule of Southern Negro speech as the tendency to pronounce words like more, store, four, and floor without the /r/ sound, as in mo, sto, fo, and flo (Smith 365). Faulkner holds true to this generalization by narrating similar speech from the black characters in his books. For instance, in As I Lay Dying, the character Cash offers a statement which proves Faulkner’s conformity to this black English norm when he says, “I ain’t so sho that ere a man has the right to say what is crazy and what ain’t” ((1)Faulkner 221).

Further, linguists such as Raven and Virginia McDavid have gathered that the oldest and least educated, as well as many Negro informants in their Southern language studies have demonstrated dominant usage of such ungrammatical verb past tenses as div for dive, growed for grow, and riz for rise ((3)McDavid 264-280). Accordingly, in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, there is an immense sign on the Negro Second Baptist Church which reads “He Is Ris.”

Faulkner also depicts the vernacular of Southern blacks in his opulent use of repetition and Biblical allusion. It has been noted by researchers of Southern linguistics that a strong relationship exists between the rituals of black churches and everyday black speech customs. Examples of this relationship include religious reference, long pauses, swaying and gesturing, and repetition (Jones-Jackson 115-124). Although it is impossible to identify with many of these aspects of black speech while reading words on a page, it is clear that Faulkner takes advantage of those aspects that the readers can detect. For instance, all of his works display abundant uses of the words Jesus, heaven, and crucifixion, and sometimes choir hymns such as “all folks talkin’ bout heaven ain’t gwine dar” appear in the speech of black characters (Brown 19-222). Other Negro language features common in Faulkner are loss of /r/ at the end of words as in “betta” for better, use of be substituted for all tenses of the word be, as well as the “zero copula, or possession indicated without a possessive morpheme” (Stewart 57).

Much of Faulkner’s writing has viewed blacks humanely, giving them a significant voice in the Southern American culture. However, for the most part, the literature reflects the general social attitude towards blacks at the time, which renders their language substandard and basically inferior to that of most whites. In the stories of Faulkner, the author writes in his natural language which he learned growing up in Mississippi. This language, obviously, is what constitutes his literary dialect. Nevertheless, a closer observation of the linguistic style of his writing reveals exactly how he establishes this unconventional dialect. Primarily, Faulkner utilizes the technique of intentional variation of words from standard English orthography or, to be more specific, he purposefully spells words incorrectly.

The examples of this in his works occur on a page by page basis. Some of the more common and peculiar, occurring in more than just one of his stories, are “Ferginny” for Virginia, “ricklick” for recollect or remember, and “gwine” or “ghy” for going to (Brown 19-222). Another similar pronunciation feature of Faulkner’s work is the combining of two like words to create a new word with a new spelling. Two examples of this action are “aggravoke,” a blend of aggravate and provoke, and “agoment,” used as a combination of agony and torment (Brown 19). In addition to these, Faulkner also plays on language variation by exhibiting words or expressions to which the average English speaker cannot possibly know the meaning. Words like “jumper” for denim jacket and pants or “dragon” for a Ku Klux Klansman, and expressions such as “struck and jumped” to signify picking up the scent of and then killing a deer, fall into this category (Brown 19-222).

Finally, to establish his literary dialect, Faulkner ensures that “grammatical forms are used that do not appear in the textbooks – except as awful warnings” (Ives 147). Many of these have already been discussed above, but several others appear in the writing as in the multiple cases of double negatives, eliminating the /g/ from words ending in -ing, and placing the word “like” at the end of adjectives for emphasis (as in “proper-like,” and “quick-like”). In short, most of these features, and the local dialect as a whole, can be seen in such passages as the following from As I Lay Dying: “I know that Old Marster will care for me as for ere a sparrow that falls” ((1)Faulkner 440). This quotation is grammatically unsound, it contains unusual word spelling and pronunciation, and it also makes use of a seemingly foreign phrase or saying. From the start, what almost all of these characteristics have in common is that they are chiefly reflections of the Southern Lowland dialect, and therefore they make Faulkner’s literature a symbol of that geographical region and culture as a whole.

Some important questions arise when examining the language of Faulkner or any similarly dialect-oriented author. These questions surround the actual nature of a dialect, and the way in which it is manifested by the writer on to the page. Dialects are patterns of communication by which all people in an exclusive region recognize. People, even without a written language, understand “these speech conventions, or patterns to which actual noises conform” even though they may not be “systematically analyzed and recorded in a grammar” (Ives 150). A group of people who speaks a dialect will commonly have uniform variations from other dialects that are noticeable by people outside their speaking class, as in the differences between black and white Southern English. A writer like Faulkner, then, presents a very special affinity with his own dialect because he writes in it without having to rely on research or background study. His storytelling language is pure, “when he needs something, he searches the lumber room of his head for something to serve his purpose” (Brown 4).

The literary dialect in the works of William Faulkner is almost a carbon-copy of the Southern dialect he truly speaks. Moreover, although Faulkner is not commonly regarded as a great historian, his writing reveals a great deal of Southern history and culture.Though probably not all of these accounts are entirely accurate, it is quite possible that Faulkner’s descriptions of historical events alight directly from his own experience with the Southern tradition of oral storytelling. Faulkner’s representation of Southern speech in his writing, follows the actual linguistic parameters of the Southern Lowland dialect very closely, or Southern Proper by Raven McDavid’s classification. Faulkner makes a strong effort to display the various facets of this dialect even though many of them cannot really be sensed through writing alone. For instance, the only true aspects of language that are excluded in writing are facial and bodily expressions accompanying speech, pauses and changes in pitch or volume, and speed of articulation. Generally speaking, however, these features are secondary in comparison with pronunciation, grammar, and word usage.

Faulkner’s literary dialect is consistent with several of the prevailing trends of Southern speech. For one, it supports the theory of Southern language diversity due to the fact that Faulkner’s is a distinctly Southern dialect, yet has many differences from other Southern dialects, including the use of phrases like “trade days” (days set aside for auctioning) only used in the immediate area (Brown 202). Also, Faulkner’s writing presents the large quantity of archaic and folk utterances in the Negro dialect, which are the result of years of insufficient educational opportunity. One other trait of Faulkner’s language that is common to the popular conception of Southern dialects is the occasional loss of postvocalic /r/, as in the words “baun” for born, and “bastud” for bastard. These words, along with dozens of others appearing in many of Faulkner’s stories.

Faulkner, quite simply, delineates a place rich in the tradition and pride of the average Southerner. Consequently, the speech in his text also carries some of the stigmas attached to Southern life itself. First and foremost of these blemishes is the pervading tone of racism, automated by the appearance of the word “nigger” in practically all of Faulkner’s works. Although the word does represent the authenticity of Faulkner’s dialect, it will always carry with it an arresting level of shame and disgrace. The feeling of racism is perpetuated by the fact that most of the Negro speech in Faulkner is slightly less standard than white speech, giving it a hint of inferiority. Although Faulkner explores the issue of racism with an open mind and even attempts to repudiate some of the negative connotations associated with blacks, his genuine Southern tongue cannot completely detach from the very real evils of racial injustice in Southern American history.

Finally, the dialect in these stories, in all of its originality, continues to uphold the popular belief that Southern English is, in many instances, bad English employed by less intelligent speakers. This setback is mainly attributable in Faulkner’s writing to the double negatives, use of ain’t, and use of third person don’t. Contrary to these negative opinions however, most of the cases of bad grammar here are actually remnants of archaic proper English rather than unintelligent corruptions of modern English. Thus Faulkner’s storytelling dialect creates a lasting impression of his Southern world, encompassing both the common and unique, the positive and the negative. In demonstrating his ability to author such a realistic, yet original world, drawing on his own natural dialect, “Faulkner insists that life is narrative, based on the preeminence of language in our lives” (Lockyer xii).

Works Cited

Brown, Calvin S. A Glossary of Faulkner’s South. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Burkett, Eva M. American English Dialects in Literature. London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1978.

(1)Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. New York: The Modern Library, 1966.

(2)Faulkner, William. The Reivers. New York: Random House, 1982.

Feagin, Crawford. “Competing Norms in the White Speech of Anniston, Alabama.” Montgomery and Bailey, 1986. 216-234.

Ives, Sumner. “A Theory of Literary Dialect.” A Various Language. Ed. Williamson and Burke. New York: Hold, Rhinehart, Winston, 1971. 145-177.

Lockyer, Judith. Ordered By Words: Language and Narration in the Novels of William Faulkner. Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

(1)McDavid, Raven I., Jr. “Dialectology: Where Linguistics Meets the People.” The Emory University Quarterly XXIII (Winter, 1967), 219.

(2)McDavid, Raven I., Jr. “Go Slow in Ethnic Attribution: Geographic Mobility and Dialect Prejudices.” Varieties of Present-Day English. Ed. Richard W. Bailey and Jay L. Robinson. New York: Macmillan Company, 1973. 258-270.

(3)McDavid, Raven I., Jr., and Virginia McDavid. “Kentucky Verb Forms.” Montgomery and Bailey, 1986. 264-293. Smith, Alphonso. Cambridge History of American Literature. New York: Macmillan Company, 1951.

Stewart, William A. “Observations on the Problem of Defining Negro Dialect.” The Florida FL Reporter IX, Nos. 1 and 2 (Spring/Fall, 1971), 47-57.

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