May 23, 2017

By Sallie Bingham:

This is for you, Keesha, laboring away in a windowless cubicle in Nashville to enable my new cell phone to work in France. This required two hours of ceaseless effort that included translating the questions of a higher-up male with an impenetrable East Indian accent, leaving me wrung out but never denting Keesha’s humor and calm competence.

Verizon, do you know that you have an angel in Nashville?

Already on the verge of losing my patience after only ten minutes—why should anything in this world require me to answer that I have never worked at MacDonald’s?—I suddenly caught Keesha’s soft southern accent, the accent of the women who raised me.

My humor immediately restored, I joked with Keesha about being two southern girls, taught manners by our mothers. I could even assure her that at some day in the future, she too would be going to Paris.

Suddenly, everything, even this unlikely outcome, seemed possible, and I leaned back in short memory on David Whyte’s presentation two days ago. One of his many books of poetry is called, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, like the words Keesha was using to guide me through the Verizon labyrinth.

David often refers to Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially the first lines: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood where the direct way was lost.” I hadn’t known that Dante’s most original act was to write the Comedy in the Tuscan vernacular of his time, rather than Latin, the language of literature and of the upper classes. This transformed dialect eventually became Italian. David quoted Noam Chomsky defining a national language as “a dialect plus an army.” In this case, Italian came from a dialect plus a poet.

It seems safe to assume that the dialect in which Dante wrote the Comedy was his mother’s. Most babies learn their first words from their mothers who are caring for them, or from the women who are caring for them in place of their mothers, which was my situation.

Keesha’s accent was the one I heard with my first words, and the comfort of that memory astonished me. Later, when I was an undergraduate at Radcliffe College, my accent caused me to be laughed at, resulting in several years of near-total silence. But its nourishment and reassurance were still there under the parochial New England scorn.

Now that writers are abjured not to write in dialect, we may be losing a connection to an older source than standard English (which is changed by so many accents it can hardly be called standard in any form). The only novel I’ve read in many years that was written largely in dialect is Zora Neale Hurston’s astonishing Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937.

I wasn’t sure when I first opened the worn paperback that I would read the whole thing, but after a few pages, I realized that the pungent words Hurston used created a vivid reality.

After Hurston’s heroine, Pearl, endures a miserable marriage with the man her mother chose for her, she falls in love with Tea Cake, a charming younger man her community considers beneath her. Explaining her choice to her friend Phoeby—friendship between women is the touchstone in this novel—Pearl says, “In the beginnin’ new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. After Ah got used tuh dat, we gets ‘long jus’ fine. He done taught me de maiden language all over.”

It has become difficult if not impossible to celebrate dialect without being accused of condescension, based on the assumption that dialect is proof of ignorance. But what if dialect, in all its many forms, is action “de maiden language,” unpolluted by politics, religion, or the academy?

Thank you, Keesha, for your humor and patience, and especially for your accent, so comforting in the midst of one of our century’s technical maelstroms.

To learn more about Sallie Bingham’s books and writing, please visit her website: SallieBingham.com.