A Book Review of Charles Foster's The Phonology of The Conjure Tales of Charles W. Chesnutt

Charles William Foster, The Phonology of The Conjure Tales
Of Charles W. Chesnutt (University, Ala.: Published for the Society by University of Alabama Press, 1971. 43p. 11 maps)

    The Phonology of The Conjure Tales of Charles W. Chesnutt by Charles Foster is a book that analyzes the phonology of the literary dialect of The Conjure Tales, specifically the dialect of Uncle Julius. Foster divides his analysis into four areas of study (1) substitution of phonemes; (2) loss of phonemes; (3) addition of phonemes; and (4) transposition of phonemes, devoting the most analysis to the substitution of phonemes. He systematically goes through each phoneme substitution that occurs in The Conjure Tales and uses the field records to see if the dialect is actually used in the region that The Conjure Tales are supposed to have occurred in.

    Foster's thesis for the book is that through analyzing the phonology of the language of Uncle Julius and comparing it with field records compiled by Guy S. Lowman for the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States one will be able to see that Chesnutt is accurate in writing dialect of the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. Although there is no clear thesis statement in the Introduction to the text, this is Foster's thesis as extracted from his various statements within the Introduction.

    Foster proves his thesis well in this book. Though it is a rather short book Foster devotes almost the entire book to demonstrating, through the use of the field records, that that real life citizens of the Cape Fear region in North Carolina use the same dialect that Chesnutt writes for Uncle Julius. Over half of the text is focused on specific ways in which Chesnutt plays with phonemes to create the dialect of Uncle Julius followed by an account to the records. An example reads:

    1. /i/ for /e/ appears in stiddy, trimble, 'stidder (instead of), Jinnie, hilt (held), git, chist, agin (again or against), and -milyum (for -melon in watermelon). The spelling formula for eliciting the /i/ phoneme in these words is that of conventional orthography: i followed by a double consonant, a consonant cluster, or a single final consonant. Records I, II, IV, and V show /i/ in instead, get; II, III, and IV show /i/ in against; all five records show /i/ for /e/ in again and -melon. The words Jenny and held do not occur in the field records consulted (Foster, 6).

    Although this is not the most stimulating reading it is extremely thorough. Foster has accounted for every phoneme change within the text. He states in the opening that "any word appearing in The Conjure Woman which is spelled in any way differently form its conventional spelling has been considered important, and has been recorded for analysis" (Foster, 3). This statement is supported excellently by the text, because Foster includes every phoneme adjustment that occurs in The Conjure Woman in his book, and there are seventy-two different forms of phoneme substitution alone, only one of his four categories of phoneme analysis. It is clear that Foster did record and study each word spelled differently.

    This book is a meticulous account of factual information. There is very little theorizing in the text at all. Foster presents a phoneme that Chesnutt uses, sometimes offers why Chesnutt opted to use a particular phoneme, and then presents the field records in reference to the phoneme. All of Foster's opinions are based around these facts, although he does offer opinions it is hard to call them theories because they are based so strongly on the facts that he offers to you. The only flaw that I find in the presentation of these facts is that Foster opted to use only five field records to prove that the dialect of Uncle Julius is true to life. If Foster had used even twenty records, which is still a low number, his argument would be much more convincing. The argument is convincing and the way in which Foster presents the information is effective in convincing the reader of his argument, but a larger sample size would have been even more effective in convincing a skeptical reader.

    Foster concludes in his book that Chesnutt is accurate in writing the dialect of those of the Cape Fear region. Foster draws this conclusion from the field records and by limiting the area that he uses to prove his argument. It is obvious that Uncle Julius has a southern accent, but Foster proves that Uncle Julius has a dialect distinct to his specific region of North Carolina and specific to his race and generation. Foster has proven his thesis, that Chesnutt wrote the dialect of Uncle Julius accurately for the region that he hails from.

    This book has given me a greater appreciation for Chesnutt as an accomplished and gifted author. Though I never thought that he was not these things, to know that he wrote the dialect so precisely reaffirms these beliefs for me. The book also showed how difficult it is for an author to not only write in dialect, but to write in dialect well. I would recommend this book to whom ever reads this essay. Although a large bulk of it is very tedious and extremely factual and dull, the conclusion that is drawn at the end of the text makes up for a few pages of dull phoneme facts.

This page is the work of Erin Fadden.

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