An Examination of Southern Dialect

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An Examination of Southern Dialect
as Seen in the Works of William Faulkner
In the writings of William Faulkner, the reader may sense that the author has created an entire world, which directly reflects his own personal experience. Faulkner writes about the area in and around Mississippi, where he is from, during the post-Civil War period. It is most frequently Northern Mississippi that Faulkner uses for his literary territory, changing Oxford to "Jefferson" and Lafayette County to "Yoknapatawpha County," because it is here that he lived most of his life and wrote of the people he knew.

Faulkner's stories focus on the Southeastern United States at a time period when old traditions began to clash with new ideals. This is an era in American history with which most people can quickly identify, whether they are Southern or not. The South in Faulkner's works are complete with all the expected features: an agricultural society, Southern belles and gentlemen, racial tensions, and especially the common characteristics of Southern speech. Faulkner strays from the normal customs of Northern literature to present a realistic portrait of the South that he grew up in. In doing so, he comes up with an excellent sample of the Southern language, including linguistic qualities of both black and white speech. Faulkner establishes a unique literary voice which is recognizable due to variances from standard English in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammatical form, while juxtaposing speech elements foreign to anyone not familiar with Southern heritage.

The works of William Faulkner succeed in creating a literary dialect which is relatively consistent throughout all of his stories. A literary dialect is best defined as an "author's attempt to represent in writing a speech that is restricted regionally, socially, or both" (Ives 146). In Faulkner's writing, this can be described by such traits as an intentional misspelling, like "marster" for master, or in the use of "Miss" along with the given first name of a female, as in "Miss Corrie." These, amongst countless other examples, are distinctly Southern speech traditions. Anyone not from the South may need explanations of much of Faulkner's pronunciations, words, usages, and language customs which the author himself takes for granted. Because Faulkner has employed such a vast and complex Southern dialect in his stories, the language he uses has become a microcosm of Southern language as a whole. As one critic has noted, "local forms of speech maintain one's individual dignity in a homogenizing world" (Burkett vii).

In Faulkner, this local speech is a mixture of "Southern American and Negro dialogue with all the folklore from Virginia to Louisiana, Florida to Texas" (Brown 2). Faulkner's dialect is effective both as a literary device and as a link between the American English language and American culture and history, specifically in the Southeast.

The South is probably the most linguistically diversified part of the nation. Blacks and whites from Atlanta to Charleston to Nashville speak a different form of standard English in a different version of the Southern accent. Part of this linguistic diversity is reflected in the way that the Southern aristocracy can "shift not only vocabulary and pronunciation, but even grammar, according to the audience" ((1)McDavid 219). This technique is very much alive in Faulkner's work. For example, in The Reivers, the upper-class grandfather character Boss is an educated man of high social standing in the community. Yet, when he is in the company of only his grandson Lucius, as part of a lecture, he says "the safe things ain't always the best things" ((2)Faulkner 117). Throughout the book, Boss's speech moves from the formal to the informal, largely depending on the intimacy he feels with the person or persons to whom he is speaking. Such a case illustrates that Faulkner is well aware of the prestige norms that exist in Southern speech, and he...
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