Dialect and dichotomy: Literary representations of African American speech

Dialect and dichotomy: Literary representations of African American speech. By Lisa Cohen Minnick. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004. Pp. xxii, 194. ISBN 0817313990. $39.95 (Hb).

Reviewed by Charlotte Brammer, Samford University

In Dialect and dichotomy: Literary representations of African American speech, Lisa Cohen Minnick combines qualitative criticism with quantitative corpus-linguistics methods to analyze the use of African American dialects in literary texts or ‘literary dialect’. M justifies this dual approach by arguing that ‘in order to give a thorough evaluation of an artist’s work with respect to literary dialect, neither exclusively linguistic nor exclusively literary approaches can do justice to literature that incorporates imaginative recreation of the sounds of language along with the social themes surrounding the places in time that are recreated’ (149). The first two chapters of the text provide rich background on, including criticism of, literary dialect and its analysis. Combined, the chapters present a strong case for adding corpus approaches to literary analysis for understanding authorial use of literary dialects.

M uses two well-known text-analysis programs (the Summer Institute of Linguistics’s LinguaLinks and Oxford University Press’s WordSmith Tools) to examine select phonological and grammatical features of direct speech from four important American texts: Mark Twain’s The adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Charles W. Chesnutt’s ‘Dave’s Neckliss’ (1889), William Faulkner’s The sound and the fury (1929), and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their eyes were watching God (1937). For each text, she analyzes between 4,000 and 6,000 words and reports statistically significant quantitative results that enhance the qualitative discussion. While she cannot definitively assert that Twain either was or was not racist in his depiction of Jim, she can demonstrate that Twain ‘incorporated features that have been identified with African American speakers in the scholarship, and he did so in a way that reveals his understanding of how these features functioned in real speech’ (67). Similarly, she asserts that Chesnutt’s ‘exacting depiction of [phonological and grammatical] features contributes substantially to an image of Chesnutt as a conscientious and definitive recorder of late-nineteenth-century black speech in North Carolina’ (94).

In her analysis of literary dialect use in each text, M tries to reframe the most salient debates, not to resolve them. For example, one critical and persistent debate about Faulkner’s use of dialect in The sound and the fury centers around race: specifically, was he a racist? Though troubled by some of Faulkner’s recorded comments, M does not seem to accept an unqualified view of the author as racist and concludes ‘that Faulkner’s use of dialectal grammatical features probably indicates a sincere attempt to represent them realistically rather than stereotypically’ (101). The sheer quantity of direct speech in Hurston’s text creates space for interesting corpus analysis. As M points out, ‘substantial portions of the novel consist not of narration or presentation of actual events but in fact are related second-hand in conversation’ (138). Importantly, M’s discussion of this text focuses more on gender conflicts than racism.

In her conclusion, M restates her justification for engaging such challenging and unconventional methods: ‘using interdisciplinary methods to access literary texts helps to offer fresh insight not only into the texts themselves but also into issues of language variation and attitudes surrounding it’ (152–53). Both literature scholars and linguists can appreciate that.