Origin of Words

    In Fosterís book, The Phonology of the Conjure Tales of Charles W. Chesnutt, he attempts to analyze in depth the specific dialect used in the novel. This book is ideal for students of dialect writings, but not suggested for someone looking to learn about The Conjure Tales.

    The thesis Foster presents is clearly spelled out at the end of the first paragraph; "In this study I shall present the phonology of the literary dialect of the Conjure Woman, which may be said to be the dialect of Uncle Julius, the narrator of the conjure tales. This phonology has been derived through analysis and interpretation of the spellings chosen by Chesnutt to represent the speech of Uncle Julius"(1 Foster, Charles William). Foster states the purpose of his work to be analytical and interpretive of Chesnutt's specific spellings. Foster gives credit to Chesnutt's accuracy based on his social and cultural background being visibly white, but socially black and successful, well respected educator. Foster's audience is aimed at students, and observers of dialect and dialect tales, specifically "repositories of nineteenth-century folk speech in the Cape Fear- Peedee Valley area" (1).

    Fosters reasoning behind Chesnutt's accuracy is based on Chesnutt's Negro ancestry. Being socially, and physically black due to the one-drop rule, Chesnutt had first hand observations of plantation life and interactions with ex-slaves. Chesnutt was born and lived his influential youth in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the Cape Fear region. This region is the basis of Chesnutt's dialect. Chesnutt's training in phonology "developed his sensitivity to the nuances of dialectal speech, for he was about this time, making entries in his journal concerning his opportunities to observe speech in the Negro community under conditions not possible for a white man" (2). Chesnutt had the resources to make his dialect writing accurate to the time and area of Uncle Julius.

    Foster supplies the reader with useful background information on cultural, educational and professional influences on Chesnutt's writing. Uncle Julius is a product of Chesnutt's life experiences with the ex-slaves, drawn to create a very believable character. I have a stronger understanding and belief of Uncle Julius as the main voice of The Conjure Tales after learning further of Chesnutt's influences. The background information is presented in a descriptive manner. This information is quite different from the rest of the book. The foreground information was easy to read and interesting. The life of the author is always important no matter how familiar the reader is with the subject. The analytical information in the whole of the book is not as easily understood as the descriptive information.

    Foster's thesis statement clearly presents an analytical and interpretive explanation of Chesnutt's dialect. The whole of the book is very analytical, but it lacks specific reference to Chesnutt's text. There are 20 pages of topics surrounding the break down of Chesnutt's dialects. These subject groupings are followed by examples of words, spellings, and minimal explanations. The words are supposed to be drawn from the text, The Conjure Tales as specific dialect of the character, but Foster does not give the direct source of the examples. "In keer, keerless, and skeered, Chesnutt apparently had in mind the /i/ of such words as deer, queer, cheer and peer, in which the original /i y/ phoneme is lowered to a slightly raised /i/ before specifically where these words can be found in Chesnutt's text. Foster interprets what "Chesnutt apparently had in mind, " (6) the meaning behind the dialect used. The same words are spelled differently in other parts of the text, but Fosters omission of citations lessens the validity of his interpretation.

    The organization of the detailed information is based on "Chesnutt's respellings are grouped according to the features he sought to represent(5)". Foster organizes his information around the groups Chesnutt believed on which to focus. The interpretive information Foster drew from Chesnutt "on the basis of his manipulation of graphemes" are based on four categories: "1. The occurrence in a word of a phoneme other than that which Chesnutt had in it... 2. The absence of a given phoneme in a word where Chesnutt pronounced that phoneme... 3. The presence of a given phoneme in a word when Chesnutt's pronunciation might not have it... 4. A different order of phoneme in a word... (5)".

    After reading The Conjure Tales in an analytical manner Foster believed that these four areas were the main focus of Chesnutt's dialects. He then broke these four groups down into four sub-groups. It is from these four sub-groups that Foster organizes his exposition. "within each group that data is divided as to phoneme or position. The major divisions of the analysis are (1) substitution of phonemes; (2) loss of phonemes; (3) addition of phonemes; and (4) transposition of phonemes (5)". This outline is easy to read, but the information under these groups is confusing. One needs to have prior knowledge of these groups to understand the content of the information.

    Being a student of literature and not linguistics or dialects, I found the focus of Fosters book confusing. The reader needs a strong background on dialect knowledge. This isn't the type of book where you learn about dialect writing, it is based on in depth detailing of Chesnutt's use, success in dialect writing. Without prior information in the subject area of dialect writing I had a hard time appreciating the detailed examples Foster provides. If Foster cited his examples I would have been able to go to the text and apply the information, but Foster left out specific details in relation to The Conjure Tales.

    Foster's conclusion ties in with his introduction of Chesnutt's social and cultural background. Foster states that, "the work done to date on dialect writing and writers has shown clearly that analysis of a writer's literary dialect can be valid only when based on a phonemic reconstruction of the speech of the author (25)". Each writer and work is based on the author, his background and the specifics of the work. Foster proves that Chesnutt's dialect through Uncle Julius and other characters are creations of Chesnuttís own standard dialect. Chesnutt;s use of dialect is different from anyone elseís because it is unique as Chesnutt and his roots in Fayetteville. One can not read dialect writing without knowledge of the writers background and influences; "knowledge of the writers dialect is important because the writer of dialect will hear the dialect of his characters filtered through his own variety of "standard" English, and he will manipulate spelling to indicate dialectal pronunciations on the basis of this standard" (25). Foster's interpretive conclusion is well stated and drawn from his book. As a reader I don't need to read the middle analytical part of the book to understand the thesis and conclusion that Foster presents. Dialect writings need background information of the culture, author and local to better understanding and appreciate all the work has to offer. His conclusion is not directly related to the thesis, but it pulls into the beginning introduction of Chesnutt to prove another valid, easily understood point- of- view.

    I would not recommend this book to someone looking to learn more about The Conjure Tales or Chesnutt. This book has very specific intentions and prior knowledge of dialect writings is needed to understand and enjoy all Foster has to offer. After reading this book I not have an understanding on each word use as a specific choice. Chesnutt had a purpose behind every letter he omitted, changed, and added to his dialects.

This page is the work of Theresa Smiles.

Read more about Chesnutt's critiques.

Return to CHesnutt Literary Web Home Page.

About the Chesnutt Literary Web.