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Dialect Differences

Marina Gallo's picture

Marina Gallo

Emerging Genres

Professor Dalke

Paper 2

March 25, 2008



                                                            Dialect Differences



When we read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, we can see the use of different dialects is central in the telling of her tale. It helps to aid hermission of promoting the abolition of slavery. It seems to be something that Stowe found very important to add to her story even if it made it more difficult for the reader to understand. Would the story have been different without the use of what has been called “negro dialect”?  My answer would be that the effectStowe was searching for was found through dialect and without it the story would have been different. This effect was to help create change.

The reader can see the different dialects of the characters. This creates a question in the reader’s mind, did Stowe just use dialect to make the characters seem more authentic to the time or was there a higher purpose? I have decided that there was a higher purpose Stowe was aiming at when writing in different dialects. If close attention is paid to who is speaking in what dialect one can see that it changes depending on race. The white characters speak in clear and correct English. The half-black, half-white characters speak with less of a dialect than the fully black characters. This division of speech generates an apparent demarcation among the characters.

The division of speech allows the reader to see the sort of rank that was thought of at the time. White people spoke in clear, correct English because they were thought of as the higher or better race. The half-black, half-white people spoke with a bit better speech than the all black characters to show that they were thought of as somewhat better than the all black people. In an article on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” called, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; A Satire,” an explanation of half-black,half-white people was given as, “Since these characters are of mixed blood,they are described as more beautiful than pure black slaves, and certainly portrayed as more articulate and intelligent.” Clearly any mix of “white” blood was presented as a good thing. Stowe was representing a common thought about race in her use of different dialects in the book. At the time Stowe was arguing for abolition of slavery and she used her book to do that. The rights of black people were horrible and the fact that one race was thought of as better than another was equally bad. By showing how badly black people were being treated, Stowe was hoping to aid in the abolition effort.  If she had not used dialect in her book she would have had to work a lot harder at describing how many people saw theblack race and how there were thoughts about the differences between black people.

Stowe’s creative use of language made her storytelling easier in one way, but harder for the modern reader. Trying to understand what the black people are saying when Stowe uses “negro” dialect is near impossible for some. It also makes the modern reader feel guilty because the dialect Stowe uses for black people makes them seem less intelligent. In an article by Melissa Howard the novel is described as something that, “doesn’t appeal to everyone and certainly offends many”.  It was most likely not meant to be offensive or guilt inducing, but rather realistic.  She was trying to compel Americans to change and her literary device of using dialect was meant to help. When this book was published the reader would have read the dialect in a different light because it was more commonly heard. That is what brought realism to her story.

 Today the novel is not realistic to what black Americans are like or sound like. This lack of realism relating to today’s society creates a less effective book in fighting for black rights. Though we can use this as a historical novel it no longer has the impact that it once did. It did indeed fulfill Stowe’s goal in that it influenced many people. It was a great success, but should we still read this out of date book today? Yes we should read it. It tells us about our past. It is not a story that people can relate to because of the lack of understanding in the speech, but it still is a story of our collective past.  If the novel did not use“negro” dialect it probably would not have been as successful. That way of representing people, though at times hard to read, was successful in giving a clearer picture of the people and how they were seen.

The politics of the novel are clear; slavery is bad and it needs to stop. Today that idea can be seen as inequality is bad and needs to stop. It doesn’t have to be about black people as it once was. To make it more universal teachers could present how this book can be effective in today’s society. This presentation could include discussions about race, class, and religion. Those three things are ever-present in society and especially present today. The different races sometimes divide up into class if there is some sort of inequality. This is how one might look at “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The divisions of race lead to a feeling of class differences because blacks are seen as a lower class. Today money is the main division amongst classes. Religion can also be seen as a divider because some religions believe they are superior to others.  This feeling or thought of superiority is always felt when people divide into groups.

The same feeling of divisions can be seem through a modern lense in the novel “Native Son” by Richard Wright. The novel can be viewed as a contemporary interpretation of the struggles black people face just like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a representation of it’s own times interpretation of struggles black people faced. The main character, Bigger, can be seen as an Uncle Tom figure in the way he is faced with racism, violence, and humiliation. There is no need to use the language Stowe used because this is a novel that people can relate to. People can better relate to this novel because it happened in a much more recent time period. We still deal with racism and inequality as portrayed in the book, unlike slavery in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  Also, now people rarely speak the way Stowe portrayed her black characters and “Native Son” does a good job of presenting similar issues without the confusion of language. The Wikipedia article on “Native Son”describes the novel as, “a powerful statement about racial inequality and social injustices so deep that it becomes nearly impossible to determine where societal expectations/conditioning end and free will begins. […] there isno escape from this destiny for his client or any other black American, since they are the necessary product of the society that formed them and told them since birth who exactly they were supposed to be.” This descriptions echoes themes in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, so it can be used in the same way as that novel. Both books are fighting injustice and racism. Without the use of certain dialects we can still gain from the story and it’s relevance in the world. Hopefully this theme of inequality will not be ever present in our world, but by having books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Native Son” we are able to show and spread opposition to this horrible predicament. Language is ever changing and books reflect that, but certain themes remain the same. Dialect was just an element Stowe used to effectively tell her story; that specific dialect does not need to be used anymore. Today authors would most likely imitate different dialects that are commonly heard so as to lend strength to their stories. It is a type of writing that will most likely continue to be seen in books forever.






Howard, Melissa. "DiscussingUncle Tom's Cabin." Suite101.Com. 26 July 2007. 25

 Mar. 2008 <http://classic-american->.


“Native Son." Wikipedia.25 Mar. 2008. 25 Mar. 2008



"Uncle Tom's Cabin: aSatire." Epinions.Com. 11 Dec. 2001. 24 Mar. 2008



Frank Simpkins's picture

The only tested and proven Black dialect reading program.

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Frank's picture

Dialect readers

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Anne Dalke's picture

reporting the real (or dreaming an alternative?)


I see you doing here what you have done in other essays you've written for me: started with your own puzzlement or confusion or dislike of a text, and tried to write out of and through those responses, to make sense of them and of the text that produced them. It's a great way to motivate a paper...

...and there are many more steps that you can take in that process, steps that lead way beyond your own experience. Do you realize that you actually enter, in this essay, into a long debate in African American literary criticism about the appropriateness of dialect as a literary language? In his 1988 book,  The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates traces the critique back to James Weldon Johnson's introductions to the collections of American Negro Poetry he published in the 1920s and 1930s, when Johnson defined the urgent task for the new black writer as breaking away from "the limitations of Negro dialect imposed by the fixing effects of long is an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos."

Gates argues that, when this debate about the use of Negro dialect turned its attention to fiction, it took the form of a long argument about mimetic principles, about whether black fiction should literally try to "report the real," to be referential (as in the naturalistic fiction of Richard Wright, whom you cite) or rather try to model an alternative reality, a dream (as in the lyricism of Zora Neale Hurston; do you know Her Eyes Were Watching God? Now, that novel would form a really interesting contrast to Uncle Tom's Cabin!).

The history of black rhetorical strategies, as Gates traces them, involves an evolution from using the black oral voices as a counterpoint to a standard English voice (what you show happening in Stowe's novel) to what Gates calls "the speakerly text," which tries to produce the illusion of oral narration (and which is what Hurston tried to do).

So my big question for you, and the one I'd be delighted to have you explore further in future work, if you are so inclined, has to do with this notion of representing the 'real,' and whether conventional Negro dialect--which is so difficult to read--actually does that.

I have a couple of smaller questions for you, too: it's not quite clear to me why Stowe's attempt to be 'realistic' should make the modern reader feel guilty; nor is it quite clear to me why an "attempt to create change" would not be guilt inducing in a reader who prefers the status quo. Finally, I'm puzzled that you end by saying that dialect is an 'effective way to tell a story,' when you've gone to such lengths to show that readers like yourself find it so difficult to understand.