The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Dialect as Poetry

Washington, DC


"Zora Plaque in Eatonville" by mcclaurin solutions via flickr

While writing dialogue can be tricky business, scripting dialect is an art form all its own. At its worst, it can seem stilted and condescending. At its best, it can read like poetry, carrying a story along on the unique rhythms and phrases of the culture it narrates.

Zora Neale Hurston was a master of writing dialect, which becomes quickly apparent within the first few pages of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Published in 1937, the novel largely takes place in Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston spent her youth. Her descriptions allow you to see the town, but her use of dialect allows you to distinctly hear its people as well. Not only does this create a powerful sensory experience that?s fairly unique in literature, but it offers a dynamic look at Florida?s black culture in the early 20th century. Below, Hurston verbalizes a popular local activity: teasing Eatonville resident Matt Bonner about his mistreated, underfed mule.

?Hello, Matt.?

?Evenin?, Sam.?

?Mighty glad you come ?long right now, Matt. Me and some others wuz jus? about tuh come hunt yuh.?

?What fuh, Sam??

?Mighty serious matter, man. Serious!!?

?Yeah man,? Lige would cut in, dolefully. ?It needs yo? strict attention. You ought not tuh lose no time.?

?Whut is it then? You oughta hurry up and tell me.?

?Reckon we better not tell yuh heah at de store. It?s too fur off tuh do any good. We better all walk on down by Lake Sabelia.?

?Whut?s wrong, man? Ah ain?t after none uh y?alls foolishness now.?

?Dat mule uh yourn, Matt. You better go see ?bout him. He?s bad off.?

?Where ?bouts? Did he wade in de lake and uh alligator ketch him??

?Worser?n dat. De womenfolks got yo? mule. When Ah come round de lake ?bout noontime mah wife and some others had ?im flat on de ground usin? his sides fuh uh wash board.?

For more about Their Eyes Were Watching God, please visit The Big Read website.

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