What ‘The Color Purple’ taught me about reading dialects

dialect in the color purple

At school, I absolutely hated reading anything written in a dialect. Anyone else have to struggle through Wuthering Heights for coursework? I feel your pain. I hated that book. But this Diverse December, I’ve learnt something about dialects in books: they can be pretty important. Like Celie’s dialect in The Color Purple, which I’ve just finished: it’s definitely not Standard English, and that’s kinda crucial.

dialect in the color purple book coverCelie’s dialect in The Color Purple is what Alice Walker called “black folk language”. The emphasis is on the way the words sound out loud, and what they mean to her, rather than any formal way to communicate. This dialect accurately reflects Celie’s low level of education; she would never have been taught Standard English.

But couldn’t Alice Walker have written Celie’s words out “properly” to make them easier to read, and just left Celie’s accent and dialect to our imagination? Well, the first question we need to ask ourselves is: Why are we assuming that Standard English is the “proper” way to write? Isn’t that a little bit self-important? After all, to Celie, Standard English is the strange one.

So we have to concede that any form of written dialect is equally valid—though that doesn’t make it any easier to read. But if we don’t try, we’re missing out on a chance to open our minds.

Did you know that the language we speak actually affects the way we see the world? It’s crazy. Here’s an example I learnt at uni and always drag out to try and impress people:

In the Yucatec Mayan language, just like in English, you pluralise animals (“one pig, two pigs”), but you don’t pluralise substances (so you wouldn’t say “two muds”). The difference is that in English we do pluralise tools, but in Yucatec they don’t—so they wouldn’t say “two rakes”. Now here comes the amazing part. When native Yucatec speakers and native English speakers were shown the same spot-the-difference pictures, everyone noticed pretty quickly the difference in the number of pigs, and nobody noticed so quickly the difference in the amount of mud. But when it came to the number of rakes, the English speakers noticed the difference quickly, and the Yucatec speakers didn’t. Their language doesn’t account for the number of rakes, so they literally don’t see it. That’s how powerful language is to your life.

So what does that mean for reading dialect in The Color Purple? It means that by reading Celie’s thoughts in her own words, we’re learning a whole new way of thinking that we’ve never been able to access before—because our language literally doesn’t have the words for it.

OK, so in my refusal to read dialects I was being presumptuous, and I was being self-limiting. But beyond that, I was also being oppressive.

the color purple lettersIn The Color Purple, one of Celie’s friends tries to teach her to talk more formally by forbidding her from using phrasing like saying “us” instead of “we”—and it confuses her so much she doesn’t know how to think. (Which makes a lot of sense, once you understand how central your language is to your processing of the world.) By expecting Celie to speak in the dialect that society deems proper, rather than the one in which she has learned to think, Celie is prevented from communicating, or even being able to think for herself. Which, now that we know what an intelligent and fascinating woman she is, is pretty terrible.

And here’s where we need to take a bit of responsibility, because if we don’t give any respect to books written in non-Standard English, then we’re doing exactly the same thing to many writers. We’re forcing strong, intelligent voices to stifle themselves, and speak in a language that doesn’t truly represent them.

Ugh, does this mean I have to read Wuthering Heights now?