How I learned to stop worrying and love ‘bad English’

When it comes to the English language, I turn into a purist — and I don’t just mean cringing at the odd misplaced apostrophe, but full-on, wretched ‘grammar-OCD’. I probably wouldn’t resort to text-speak even if I had life-or-death-determining seconds to contact friends and family, and any conversation in which a participant offhandedly punctuates their sentence with “innit” ends with me shunning them as if they had committed theft in an Oxfam store. So, it’s really just an accident (namely, a movie adaptation starring Halle Berry; curse you beautiful Hollywood goddess) that I ended up reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Already, from page one onwards, you learn that you are definitely not in for one of those mushy, curling-up-on-a-sofa-while-munching-a-bar-of-Galaxy-type reading experiences, and coincidentally, that Halle Barry starring in a movie is no suitable barometer for literary enjoyment. And to be honest, there were plenty of times while reading it that the temptation to put it down and never to pick it up again was almost overwhelming. It was simply out of die-hard bibliophilia (let the stereotypes ensue; if you guessed that I wear glasses, you are correct) that I could not leave the novel unfinished.

Now, let’s get to the plot, because you’ve probably been wondering for quite a while. Essentially, Their Eyes Were Watching God introduces us to early 20th century America through the eyes of its black protagonist, Janie Crawford. The book starts where it also ends, with a childless, thrice-married Janie facing an onslaught of gossip about the circumstances of her third husband’s death. Most of her story is told through flashbacks, and though very pointedly deprived in its descriptions of the racial tensions that gripped America at that time, Neale weaves a colourful and entertaining narrative around the three strange marriages that define Janie’s life.

But where the true peculiarity of this novel lies is not in the plot, or Neale’s staunch refusal to embroil herself in ‘black and white issues’. No, it’s the language, or rather, her unconventional use of phonetics, with which she conveys the African-American vernacular characteristic of that time.

For example, “Ah knowed you’d be hongry. No time to be huntin’ stove wood after dark. Mah mullato rice ain’t so good this time. Not enough bacon grease, but Ah reckon it’ll kill hongry.”

Considering that this was written and released during the 1930s, which were the heydays of a ‘thinking Black man’ movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, it should come as a surprise to no one that Neale’s portrayal of the ‘linguistically challenged’ African-American caused quite a stir amongst her own community. The likes of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, prominent black literati at the time, dismissed her novel as a farce that reaffirmed the negative stereotypes of black people. Admittedly, next to these wider, socio-political concerns, my own vexation at the eyesores that were Neale’s phonetic spellings looked thoroughly trivial.

Nevertheless, just as Neale only received acknowledgment for her poetic masterpiece posthumously, I only began to appreciate the beauty of her phonetic heresy years after I had first thumbed through the pages of her novel. It’s like one of those Fridge-logic epiphanies (© TVTropes), when you finally understand what that movie that you watched and harangued for its illogicality two months ago was really all about. It took me quite some time, but I finally realized that Neale wasn’t denigrating her fellow black people by using phonetics. Quite the contrary: she was celebrating African-Americans, and their lackadaisical, at times even musical, command of the English language, in a way other black writers before her would never have dared for fear of being accused of colluding with the white man. That fear, sadly, might have been a roadblock to the black cause. With her defiance and by not worrying too much about ‘what the white man thinks’, Neale triumphed where other black authors seemed to have miserably failed.

I have now made it my life’s purpose to seek out more books that abuse the grammar and spelling I once so fiercely cherished. Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison continuously does away with the tired, old conventions of the standard novel, and for this very reason is amongst one of my favourite authors. In Small Island, the four main characters truly leap off the pages as Andrea Levy fuses patois with storytelling. And my most recent conquest happens to be DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, one of the most crude, foul-mouthed pieces of literary genius I have ever come upon.

Of course, these books are unlikely to rank highly amongst a generation of culturally malnourished Twilight fans, but if you ever want to read something that does a bit more than just align the words in neat little sentences, then I suggest you give them a go. Who knows? If you persevere, just as I did with Their Eyes Were Watching God, you might find yourself stumbling upon a whole new world of wonderful literature.

Eric John

ArtsExploring Arts
5 Comments on this post.
  • Hannah
    20 August 2011 at 18:55
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    Lovely article. Nice work.

  • dan
    20 August 2011 at 23:58
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    Nice piece. Not a lot on literature on here.

    Joyce is maybe the most famous abuser of grammar and syntax. James Kelman writes this way too using the Glasgow dialect.

    Its a way of creating effect as well as reflective of lived culture. Previously only high culture got printed while bawdy lived culture was considered ignorant or even illegitimate.

    I thought Vernon God Little was pretty forgettable 🙁 If you want rudeness Boroughs or Henry Miller are still up there for me.

    If you want to read brutal and rude prose, I turn to the great Raymond Carver. No one writes so starkly prose with such emotion and clarity. His short stories are so ordinary yet their very ordinariness laden with connective power.

    And yeah Toni Morrison is very talented. Its a bit sad she got Oprah-ed.

  • dan
    23 August 2011 at 14:57
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    Ahh man, it looks like its me who needs to take care of my grammar as well! Shouldn’t reply when I’m distracted.

  • How to embrace bad grammar | Ones to Watch
    24 August 2011 at 11:46
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    […] article here. Share this: Tagged as: Eric John, Impact, Their Eyes Were Watching God, University of Nottingham, […]

  • Oscar
    25 August 2011 at 00:32
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    Will Self’s ‘The Book of Dave’ is worth a read for some good phonetic mockney.

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