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[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81

Dialects and Idiom

John Lomax, a Federal Writers Project official in Washington, provided guidelines for interviewers in capturing the speech of the ex-slaves being interviewed:

Simplicity in recording the dialect is to be desired in order to hold the interest and attention of the readers. It seems to me that readers are repelled by pages sprinkled with misspellings, commas and apostrophes. The value of exact phonetic transcription is, of course, a great one. But few artists attempt this completely. Thomas Nelson Page was meticulous in his dialect; Joel Chandler Harris less meticulous but in my opinion even more accurate... Present day readers are less ready for the overstress of phonetic spelling than in the days of local color...

Truth to idiom is more important, I believe, than truth to pronunciation.  Erskine Caldwell in his stories of Georgia, Ruth Suckow in stories of Iowa, and Zora Neale Hurston in stories of Florida Negroes get a truth to the manner of speaking without excessive misspellings. In order to make this volume of slave narratives more appealing and less difficult for the average reader, I recommend that truth to idiom be paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary...

I would like to recommend that the stories be told in the language of the ex-slave, without excessive editorializing and “artistic” introductions on the part of the interviewer. The contrast between the directness of the ex-slave speech and the roundabout and at times pompous comments of the interviewer is frequently glaring.

From “Administrative File,” images 28-30

  • Which appears to have been of most importance to Lomax—accuracy in capturing the speech of the ex-slaves or the readers’ response? Give evidence to support your answer.
  • Use a dictionary or other reference to find definitions of the terms dialect and idiom. What are the similarities between these two terms? The differences? Based on these definitions, do you think Lomax’s directions might have been confusing to the interviewers?
  • Who are the specific people referenced in Lomax’s letter? Choose one of these writers and find out more about their use of dialect and idiom. How did it serve their literary purposes? Was it controversial in any way? How did readers respond?

Read “A Note on the Language of the Narratives.” Then read all or parts of the interviews with the following people:

Describe how each of the interviewers handled the issue of the interviewee’s language. Which do you think would be most in line with the directions provided by John Lomax? Which would be most likely to reflect “preconceptions and stereotypes”? Can you determine if any of the interviewers were African American? How might that influence your reading of the interview?

From one of the narratives listed above, choose a paragraph in which the interviewer attempted to capture the former slave’s dialect. Closely study the language in the paragraph. What pronunciations are characteristic of the dialect as represented by the interviewer? What vocabulary is unfamiliar or unusual? What aspects of the language seem most important in terms of conveying the speaker’s thoughts and feelings?