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Monday, August 13, 2012

... Watching God

I've been looking at a passage from the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, one of my favorite books.

"Now, Phoeby, don't be too mean wid de rest of 'em 'cause dey's parched up from not knowin' things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they's alive. Let 'em consolate theyselves wid talk. 'Course, talkin' don't amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can't do nothin' else. And listenin' tuh dat kind uh talk is jus' lak openin' yo' mouth and lettin' de moon shine down yo' throat. It's uh known fact, Phoeby, you got tuh go there to know there. Yo' papa and yo' mama and nobody else can't tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves." (page 192)

In it, of course, Hurston is using black American vernacular, specifically a regional dialect of the south (Florida). A spoken English she knew well, and could contrast with standard written English in other parts of the novel.The vernacular is characterized mostly by nonstandard syntax through the dropping of sounds (especially -g sound at the end of adverbs) and nonstandard pronunciation through the substitution of some sounds (dem and dat for them and that).

That it is authentic and accurate is not why it is important. It's brilliance is in how it is used as a literary device. It is a masterful use of vernacular writing for specific effect. This passage communicates, through just the use of dialect(showing, not telling), that the speaker, Janie, though she speaks only a version of English considered substandard, can and does speak that English poetically, and manages to use it to convey profound compassion and intellect. I marvel at her accomplishment in conveying that message so eloquently, even elegantly, through her writing. It still solidly stands today as powerful and persuasive writing 75 years later.


Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 1937. Print.

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