Presenter Information

Alex Rickert, University of Wyoming

Department

Department of English

First Advisor

Dr. Erin Forbes

Description

The literary representation of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) can trace its roots back to early American slave narratives. In this case, the narrator often writes in what we might consider “Standard English” while other slaves are typically characterized by their vernacular. From this period until well into the 20th century, spoken dialect was phonetically transcribed into literature often as an indicator of literacy, lower-class or, under white authorship, caricaturized representations of African Americans. Until very recently, the relationship between Standard English and African American English has been binarized, thus leading to generally negative considerations of what it means for characters to speak non-standard dialects in literature. The aim of this thesis is to look at representations of AAVE in more modern African American works, such as Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler, The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker, and Beloved (1988) by Toni Morrison. Because all writers previously mentioned are women, and write on both racial and women’s issues, this thesis takes a gendered approached to the discussion of literary dialect. What I have found is a rich experimentation with dialect alongside representations of Standard English. What I see is not a dichotomous opposition of two registers of English. Instead I find linguistically dynamic black female characters who fluidly interact with English along a dialectic spectrum. Literary AAVE and Standard English are put in a dialogue with one another, resulting in the sophistication of meaning and expression. This thesis ultimately serves to complicate binarized considerations of literary dialect, displaying instead how vernacular English has and can continue to bolster the standard, and ultimately improve upon future literary expressions of the English language.

Comments

Oral Presentation, Honors Program

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The Role of Dialect in Contemporary African American Literature

The literary representation of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) can trace its roots back to early American slave narratives. In this case, the narrator often writes in what we might consider “Standard English” while other slaves are typically characterized by their vernacular. From this period until well into the 20th century, spoken dialect was phonetically transcribed into literature often as an indicator of literacy, lower-class or, under white authorship, caricaturized representations of African Americans. Until very recently, the relationship between Standard English and African American English has been binarized, thus leading to generally negative considerations of what it means for characters to speak non-standard dialects in literature. The aim of this thesis is to look at representations of AAVE in more modern African American works, such as Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler, The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker, and Beloved (1988) by Toni Morrison. Because all writers previously mentioned are women, and write on both racial and women’s issues, this thesis takes a gendered approached to the discussion of literary dialect. What I have found is a rich experimentation with dialect alongside representations of Standard English. What I see is not a dichotomous opposition of two registers of English. Instead I find linguistically dynamic black female characters who fluidly interact with English along a dialectic spectrum. Literary AAVE and Standard English are put in a dialogue with one another, resulting in the sophistication of meaning and expression. This thesis ultimately serves to complicate binarized considerations of literary dialect, displaying instead how vernacular English has and can continue to bolster the standard, and ultimately improve upon future literary expressions of the English language.