kaigou: this is what I do, darling (5 bookstack)
[personal profile] kaigou
A bit ago I posted a link to an author's advice on Trying to Write the Southern Accent, and one of the comments reminded me of one of my favorite childhood stories... and its problematic representation of Southern Black American (and former-slave) speech. I quote, from the original:
"Didn't the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?" asked the little boy the next evening.

"He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho's you born--Brer Fox did. One day atter Brer Rabbit fool 'im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got 'im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun wat he call a Tar-baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby and he sot 'er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwineter be. En he didn't hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin' down de road--lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity--dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin' 'long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wus 'stonished. De Tar-Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"Mawin'!" sez Brer Rabbit, sezee--"nice wedder dis mawnin'," sezee.

Tar-Baby ain't sayin' nothing', en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"How duz yo' sym'tums seem ter segashuate?" sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.

Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin'.

It's much easier to find revisions of this text than the original. One of those revisions posted online has a forward that says, "Harris retold the fables in the dialect used by the African slaves. Later retellings, such as the version of the story given here, have been in standard English, which makes the tales easier to read but takes away the charm of the original."

If you read the revised versions (behind the cut), you'll see what I mean: I don't think they realize where the so-called charm comes from. I do think it's true that the original exoticizes the slave dialect a great deal. It's so extreme, it alienates the reader, like it's letting you in on mysterious (getting near on Magical Negro territory, here) Other-stories, and your ticket to play is paid by the time you spend parsing out this unfamiliar not-English... but the exotic is not the source of the story's charm.

[That said, I should also note that while Harris may've propagated the image of the former slave as somewhere between lyrical and illiterate, he did also do a great service for later linguists, in putting so much effort into authentically and faithfully recording the actual speech. Even if he did do it via phonetic spellings, some of which are just plain baffling (I never have figured out what 'segashuate' means, but I think it might be 'suggest') -- he still managed to notate historical and actual speech patterns. Before him, most had discounted slave-speech as just Bad English, instead of understanding it as a communicative and evocative language in its own right. Some of the linguists even imply that had Harris not set the precedent, it might not've been until the WPA Historical Records Survey that anyone would've captured a contemporary speech record. In that sense, as difficult as the text is to read, to linguists and historians looking for long-standing patterns in the African-American creole, it does have value as a kind of historical record.]

Edited variation #1:
But Brer Wolf said, 'I have to catch him!' He took some straw and made it into a baby with a head, arms, legs, a body, and he covered it with sticky black tar till the tar baby looked just like a real human baby. Then he sat Tar Baby right next to the well and went away.

By and by, Brer Rabbit came along. He saw Tar Baby and stopped. He thought it was a real person sitting there. But he needed the water, so he said politely as he could, 'Good evening, sir. Fine weather we are having, sir!' But the Tar Baby made no reply.

Edited variation #2:
Well now, that rascal Brer Fox hated Brer Rabbit on account of he was always cutting capers and bossing everyone around. So Brer Fox decided to capture and kill Brer Rabbit if it was the last thing he ever did! He thought and he thought until he came up with a plan. He would make a tar baby! Brer Fox went and got some tar and he mixed it with some turpentine and he sculpted it into the figure of a cute little baby. Then he stuck a hat on the Tar Baby and sat her in the middle of the road.

You ask me, both versions suck.

Yes, for non-history and non-linguist readers, the original is damn hard to read (and of course there's that whole issue with the exoticization). But I think the real charm lies not from the accent; it lies in the cadence, and that cadence is in the verbs and the repetition and the specific words.

If I ran the world, this is how I might rewrite this passage.

"He come mighty nigh it, honey, sure's you born--Brer Fox did. One day after Brer Rabbit fool him with that calamus root, Brer Fox went to work and got him some tar, and mix it with some turpentime, and fix up a contraption what he call a Tar-baby, and he took this here Tar-Baby and he set her in the big road, and then he lay off in the bushes for to see what the news was going to be. And he didn't have to wait long, neither, 'cause by-in-by here come Brer Rabbit pacing down the road--lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity--just as sassy as a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancing along till he spy the Tar-Baby, and then he fetch up on his behind legs like he was astonished. The Tar-Baby, she sat there, she did, and Brer Fox, he lay low.

A few notes:

...Didn't the fox never catch the rabbit: This sounds awkward (and archaic, now) but there's intention in the way it's phrased. If you say, "did the fox ever catch the rabbit," then the answer you don't want (that the fox did) is your positive answer. That's a negative result in the listener's perspective. Posing the question in negatives basically means a positive answer (no the fox didn't) is actually phrased as a positive (yes, the rabbit wasn't caught). It's how to ask a question so as to receive both the answer you want in a positive tone.

From what I'm told of Japanese, it seems a similar game gets played in that language, too.

mighty nigh -- Very very close but just shy of: like ninety-nine percent. As opposed to "near to", which just means within spitting distance. Or "well on", which means about the same thing but not quite, and sometimes means going past and into it a bit, like "well on midnight" which would be maybe a half-hour past, compared to "well on near midnight" which means maybe a quarter-hour before. Getting close enough that you probably won't be able to scoot in before curfew.

went ter wuk en got 'im some tar -- it's the "him" in there: "got him some tar". I think this is called self-reflective, something like that, where you add the pronoun after the verb to indicate who received/performed, something like that. I just recall 5th grade English, being lectured endlessly about how This Is Not Proper and Only Stupid People Talk Like That (yes, really). I look back now and can see more underneath that, considering the teacher was white and city, and most of my classmates were black and children of sharecroppers. (I had classmates who didn't come to school on rainy days, because the buses wouldn't come down their dirt roads and their parents weren't keen on kids walking two miles of Alabama mud to the nearest paved road.)

Anyway, the same thing's going on when you see/hear something like "the girl, she ___". It's adding a beat, but it's also emphasizing the direction of things. If I say, "I'm building a cabinet," that has a different implication than "I'm building me a cabinet." In the second, I'm the explicit recipient of the building-action. Using the first implies that I'm building it for someone else, but not specifying who.

fix up a contrapshun wat he call -- it's the 'what' in there. I find myself doing this even in semi-formal postings, and I've gotten to the point I leave the random 'what' in there, because to my ears/eyes it's adding an extra necessary beat. It acts sort of like "that" (as in, "a contraption that he calls...") but it's emphasizing the noun that goes before. In a way, it's emphasizing the what-ness of the noun; when I think of when I've used it, or heard it used, it's usually in some way implying a novelty to whatever is the noun. A kind of shorthand "whatsahoosie"-implied tone.

wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby -- 'neither' ('nudder') is an emphatic word that'll get thrown in when retelling a tale, and it's another beat like the "what" addition. You take anything where it's assumed that A will be true (you'll get dumped, you'll get fired, etc), and assert the opposite. Then you use 'neither' to re-affirm that the asserted opposite really is true, while extending the beat of that contrast (between assumed -- waiting long -- and actual -- not waiting long after all). It's similar to what's going on when you say, "I didn't have to wait long, no, really."

The last word in there -- bimeby -- would formally be probably "by-and-by" (as in, not too long but not right away) -- but I chose "by-in-by", because that's how I always heard it as a child. The 'and' sound really is, especially in Georgia, more of an 'en' sound. Then again, maybe it's not. I can't hear any difference between "pen" and "pin" (though I can hear a difference in "aunt" and "ant", or "merry" and "marry")... though the most recent shocker was seeing a linguistic map and the dividing line of "don" and "dawn". According to that map, outside the Inland South, the two words are different. I sat here for a half-hour repeating both, out loud, over and over. Hell if I know, because they sound identical to me. I couldn't even figure out how not to say them the same.

he fotch up on his behime legs -- fetching up is what you do when you stop short and are brought up sharply. Not the same as fetching something, which means to get; fetching up is sort of like being tripped up, but without the falling. Just the abrupt stop. Behime -- or 'behind' -- legs is a phrase I heard plenty as a kid, like when the grandparents would talk about the dogs -- "got himself plenty of mud on his behind legs" -- and it just sounds better to my ears than "back legs". I dunno. "Back legs" just sounds... very flat. I think it's the long-e sound in /'beee-hine/.

Note also that "got himself" means the dog did it to himself, that is, got into trouble on his own. To just say "got plenty of mud" means someone else might've been the culprit. As in, when your Mamaw says, "your littlest sister's covered in mud," it means you're in for a world of hurt. If your Mamaw says, "your littlest sister's got herself covered in mud," it just means you'll get scolded for not taking better care of your sibling, instead of getting whipped for actually being the one to push her into the creek.

(Not that I ever pushed my sister into the creek. I didn't need to, not when I had boy-cousins around, because they're way more fun to push. Besides, tain't no one'll believe they didn't fall in the creek on purpose.)

The last thing the two standardized versions lack is the repetition. That repetition is really the biggest part of the story, for me. I mean, all the ghost stories where the ghost is coming, through the front door, then up the stairs, then down the hall, it's all repetition to build things up. Brer Fox, he lay low, and Tar-Baby, she's saying nothing. The child/listener knows Fox is there, and wonders if this time, Br'er Rabbit isn't going to make it out, and the repetition is reinforcing that growing worry/anticipation. It's the same thing as cut-shots in suspense movies.

When I was a child, every summer the local theater in Atlanta had some kind of theater events for kids. Not sure what or why, now, but I do know that one of the storytellers my mom'd take us to see was an elderly black man who'd been telling stories since before there was dirt. And he had the art of storytelling, with that amazing rolling voice that could thunder in one line and whisper like rain on the roof in the next. He could hold an entire theater of children and adults absolutely spell-bound. And the summer he did the Br'er Rabbit stories, his renditions made Br'er Rabbit into one of my absolute favorite childhood story-creatures.

Thing is, he didn't speak like what Harris was writing on the page. Well, he probably did, or maybe it didn't sound like an exaggerated passel of apostrophes and dropped g's and d-for-th and "sezee" for "says he"... because that's how plenty of people I knew talked, so it was normal to me. Relatives, neighbors, some of our family friends. My parents didn't talk like that (mostly), but I wasn't unaware, and it didn't sound wrong or alien or ill-educated to me. In fact, in the mouth of that amazing storyteller, the language sounded far more beautiful and musical than anything I'd heard in school.

I can't write musical notation, but I think that's what it'd take to try and express the distant memories of that storyteller's voice. The way I remember him lingering on certain sounds -- especially the long 'oh' sounds, like 'low'. Or the way that Brer (or Br'er) really does have two vowels. Or the way that the extra "says he / sezee" at the end is almost like an underline. Those repetitions somehow add formality to things, to make sure you know who-said-what. It's part of the patter, and the patter itself is a formal thing. It's like a part of the magical spell.

And the patter isn't purely in the accent, but in the way the words string together, and the extra beats... and I can't hear any of that in the so-called 'standardized' English versions. Sure, both versions have gotten rid of the horribly Othering extra apostrophes and ridiculous, near-parodic mispellings, but the versions also got rid of the grammar and the swing of the lines. Even the simple repetition! Do they have tin ears?

If that sanitized version is all that you'd hear from a storyteller these days, no wonder Br'er Rabbit is slowly being forgotten. I wouldn't want to remember his revised versions, either. I liked him much better when he introduced himself all polite-like, while Br'er Fox lay low in the bushes and the tarbaby, she said nothing.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 07:06 am (UTC)
nagasvoice: lj default (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagasvoice
I would love to see (or hear) your take on things you remember from your childhood, like your description here of the storyteller. Or fantastical versions of it, too.
Too many of us have just fragments of the real thing, scraps leftover from grandparents. The conventional versions do have a tin ear. That beat rhythm, the way it emphasizes actions (like the jerking short, and sitting up on those behime legs) and the clarification of using me after a phrase, to clarify who the thing is being made for, or who's doing it.
There's a subtlety to it, as well as a musical rhythm.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 09:20 am (UTC)
tyger: Yuuko, burning a feather.  Coloured manga scan. (Yuuko - fire)
From: [personal profile] tyger
...wow, those edited variations are so bad. The first one is worse, to my ear, but still. Baaad.

And I'm really not sure what the problem is with the original - sure, some non-'standard' pronunciations/spellings, but I heard them as a child myself - or at least I vaguely remember hearing them, I might have just read them - and I understood them just fine. And I'm not even American, didn't know anyone that was 'till I was in my late teens; if they think that kids can't figure out that sorta thing I think they're really underestimating them.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 07:44 pm (UTC)
tyger: Entei, Suicine, and Raioku sprites (pokémon - legendary beasts)
From: [personal profile] tyger
...yeah, wow. That's really kind of sad.

=/ That's a really difficult problem, because the dialect does have an effect on the flow, which is where the stories get a lot of their strength.

Yeah, I can see how that would be a problem! *facepalm*

Date: 23 Feb 2011 04:15 pm (UTC)
soukup: Quentin Crisp is my personal hero (qc)
From: [personal profile] soukup
Have you ever read anything by Zora Neale Hurston? She was an interesting one for dialect-writing. I'm still not sure I agree with or even understand all of what she was trying to do, but her work is fascinating and it gets my brain storming about this stuff.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 06:32 pm (UTC)
hokuton_punch: (bodleian library books)
From: [personal profile] hokuton_punch
Yeah, a repeated pronoun like that is called a reflexive pronoun, they show up as complements to certain Greek verbs.

... I like this post a lot. D:

Date: 23 Feb 2011 11:56 pm (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
Now I wish the original translator had gone for the High Epic style and translated that name as "He Whose Very Horses Strike Fear into the Hearts of Beholders" or similar.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 11:27 pm (UTC)
ivoryandhorn: A man with a peddler's box on his back and holding an umbrella, standing in the rain. (kusuri-uri: omen)
From: [personal profile] ivoryandhorn
Yes, agreeing, I like your version the best. You're absolutely right, it's the cadence that sells it.

...Tangentially your version reminds me a little of some fanfic I read where the author tried to stick close to the cadence of the scanlation, which made the fic feel more...canonical I guess. It feels like kind of the same thing as you did here -- capturing not just the meaning of the words, but their texture.

Date: 24 Feb 2011 02:36 am (UTC)
ivoryandhorn: An ornate wrought iron gate silhouetted against a cloudy sky. (kusuri-uri: henohenomoheji)
From: [personal profile] ivoryandhorn
I definitely think there's something to that -- translating something from oral form to written means that something is lost in terms of vocal inflection and detail, no matter how faithfully the written version is transcribed. Shifts in word choice, grammar, and cadence are definitely ways to try and make up for that loss.

Date: 24 Feb 2011 03:55 am (UTC)
ivoryandhorn: The ornate nib of a fountain pen against a sheet of paper. (gen: fountain of words)
From: [personal profile] ivoryandhorn
There is that! And I think it's kind of an artifact of writing with detail in general -- everything detail that gets emphasized and stressed only shows up areas that lack it, so you end up kitchen-sinking detail in order to cover all the bases and it just does not end well.

Date: 24 Feb 2011 12:06 am (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
As for 'don' vs. 'dawn', in my part of the country 'don' has the ah sound, as in "Ah, so!". 'Dawn' has the aw sound, as in "Awwww, aren't you the cutest thing!"

Date: 24 Feb 2011 02:50 am (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
If you don't automatically hear a difference, it may not exist in your regional speech. I was going on the hypothesis that maybe only those two words sounded the same but that you had the distinction in other words; if it's like not having a difference between tin/ten or pin/pen then there may be no point in pushing yourself. I mean, unless you'd really want to spend months or years on it; I'm not a linguist so I have no idea how long it takes to learn the distinctions not part of one's mother tongue.

Date: 24 Feb 2011 02:51 am (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
What I meant to say was, sorry if the comparison didn't help, and I didn't mean to set you up for unnecessary sweating-it.

Date: 24 Feb 2011 02:38 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I LOVE hearing those stories! They're even more fabulous without text to get in the way. Thanks for those links!
Around here we say "dahn" (don) "dun" (done) and "daw-un" (dawn). Your comment reminded me of how much I hated spelling class as a kid, because all the teachers in the little parochial school I was sent to came from the Frozen North (everywhere north of the Red River that I-45 goes through). No matter how much we insisted, they never accepted that "fork" has two syllables.