Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 11. The Negro Dialects in the United States: (1) Virginia; (2) Sea Islands; (3) Louisiana; (4) Inland or Uncle Remus Dialect

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

V. Dialect Writers

§ 11. The Negro Dialects in the United States: (1) Virginia; (2) Sea Islands; (3) Louisiana; (4) Inland or Uncle Remus Dialect

Of the negro dialect in general as spoken in the United States today, there are four varieties:

(1) The dialect of Virginia, especially of Eastern or Tide-water Virginia. It is best represented in the works of Thomas Nelson Page. Broad a is retained in this dialect and there is a vanishing y sound (as in few) heard after c and g when broad a follows: larst (last), farst (fast), grahss (grass), pahsture (pasture), chahmber (chamber), pahf (path), cyarn’ (can’t), kyars (cars), gyardin (garden). Broad a is also heard in cyar (carry) and dyah (there). Such forms as gyardin, seegyar, kyards, kyarvin’ knife are also used by Uncle Remus, but they are evidences of Virginia influence. Uncle Remus himself says, though he had dropped the broad a, that he “come from Ferginny.”

(2) The dialect of the Sea Islands of the South Atlantic States, known as the Gullah (or Gulla) dialect. The name is probably derived from Angola, as many of the rice-field negroes of South Carolina and Georgia are known to have come from the west coast of Africa. This diminishing dialect is spoken on the rice plantations of coastal South Carolina and Georgia as the Uncle Remus dialect is spoken on the cotton and tobacco plantations further inland. Gullah diverges widely from English and in its most primitive state is, as Harris says, “merely a confused and untranslatable mixture of English and African words.” Though it was used in a diluted form here and there by Poe and Simms and though Harris employs it for some of the stories in his Nights with Uncle Remus, it can hardly be said to have found a place in literature. It has given us, however, the only pure African word still current in negro speech, the word buckra, meaning boss or overseer. Tote, meaning to carry, which long claimed a place beside buckra, has been found in American writings of so early a date as to preclude the theory of African origin.

(3) The dialect spoken by the Creole negroes of Louisiana. This dialect is of course not English but French, and is best represented, though sparingly, in the works of George W. Cable. Its musical quality and the extent to which elision and contraction have been carried may be seen in the following love song of the Creole negro Bras-Coupé, one of the characters in Cable’s Grandissimes. An interlinear translation is added:

  • En haut la montagne, zami,
  • On the mountain chain, my friends,
  • Mo pé coupé canne, zami,
  • I’ve been cutting cane, my friends,
  • Pou’ fé i’a’ zen’, zami,
  • Money for to gain, my friends,
  • Pou’ mo baille Palmyre.
  • For my fair Palmyre.
  • Ah! Palmyre, Palmyre, mo c’ere,
  • Ah! Palmyre, Palmyre, my dear,
  • Mo l’aimé ’ou —mo l’aimé ’ou.
  • I love you—I love you.
  • (4) The Uncle Remus dialect, or the dialect spoken by the negroes in the great inland sections of the South and South-west. Though there have been changes in vocabulary and a decline in vigour and picturesqueness of expression, due to the influence of negro schools and to the passing of the old plantation life, this is the dialect still spoken by the majority of the older negroes in the country districts of the South, especially of the far South. The characteristics of this dialect consist wholly in adaptation of existing English words and endings, not in the introduction of new words or new endings. The plurals of all nouns tend to become regular. Thus Uncle Remus says foots (feet), toofies (teeth), and gooses (geese), though the old plural year is retained. The relative pronoun who is not used, its place being taken by which (or w’ich), what (or w’at), dat, and the more interesting which he and which dey, corresponding to Chaucer’s that he and that they. Thus: “She holler so loud dat Brer Rabbit, which he wuz gwine by, got de idee dat she wuz callin’ him.”

    Another interesting characteristic of the Uncle Remus speech is found in the present tense of verbs. Uncle Remus does not say, for example, I make, you make, he makes, we make, you make, they make, but I makes, you makes, he makes, we makes, you makes, dey makes. Negro dialect, like the dialect of all illiterate peoples, is an ear dialect. The eye has nothing to do with it. The law of analogy, therefore, which is nothing more than the rule of the majority, has unfettered operation. The illiterate man, whether black or white, hearing the third person singular with its invariable s-ending far more frequently than he hears any other form of the present tense, makes it his norm and uses it for all forms of both numbers. The same is true of the verb to be, though is has not in the language of Uncle Remus entirely succeeded in dispossessing am and are.