Stories told in the Language of the Ex-Slaves

Notes by an editor on dialect usage in accounts by interviews with ex-slaves. (To be used in conjunction with Supplementary Instructions 9E.)

Simplicity in recording the dialect is to be desired in order to hold the interest and attention of the readers. It seems to me that readers are repelled by pages sprinkled with misspellings, commas and apostrophes. The value of exact phonetic transcription is, of course, a great one. But few artists attempt this completely. Thomas Nelson Page was meticulous in his dialect; Joel Chandler Harris less meticulous but in my opinion even more accurate. But the values they sought are different from the values that I believe this book of slave narratives should have. Present day readers are less ready for the over-stress of phonetic spelling than in the days of local color. Authors realize this: Julia Peterkin uses a modified Gullah instead of Gonzales’ carefully spelled out Gullah. Howard Odum has questioned the use of goin’ for going since the g is seldom pronounced even by the educated.

Truth to idiom is more important, I believe, than truth to pronunciation. Erskine Caldwell in his stories of Georgia, Ruth Suckow in stories of Iowa, and Nora Neale Hurston in stories of Florida Negroes get a truth to the manner of speaking without excessive misspellings. In order to make this volume of slave narratives more appealing and less difficult for the average reader, I recommend that truth to idiom be paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary.

I appreciate the fact that many of the writers have recorded sensitively. The writer who wrote “ret” for right is probably as accurate as the one who spelled it “raght.” But in a single publication, not devoted to a study of local speech, the reader may conceivably be puzzled by different spellings of the same word. The words “whafolks,” “whufolks,” “whi’foiks,” etc., can all be heard in the South. But “whitefolks” is easier for the reader, and the word itself is suggestive of the setting and the attitude.

Words that definitely have a notably different pronunciation from the usual should be recorded as heard. More important is the recording of words with a different local meaning. Most important, however, are the turns of phrase that have flavor and vividness. Examples occurring in the copy I read are:

durin’ of de war
outmen my daddy (good, but unnecessarily put into quotes)
piddled in de fields
skit of woods
kinder chillish

There are, of course, questionable words, for which it may be hard to set up a single standard. Such words are:

paddyrollers, padrollers, pattyrollers for patrollers
missis, mistess for mistress
marsa, massa, maussa, mastuh for master
ter, tuh, teh for to

I believe that there should be, for this book, a uniform word for each of these.

The following list is composed of words which I think should not be used. These are merely samples of certain faults:

1. ah for I
2. bawn for born
3. capper for caper
4. com’ for come
5. do for dough
6. ebry, ev’ry for every
7. hawd for hard
8. muh for my
9. nekid for naked
10. ole, ol’ for old
11. ret, raght for right
12. sneik for snake
13. sowd for sword
14. sto’ for store
15. teh for tell
16. twon’t for twan’t
17. useter, useta for used to
18. uv for of
19. waggin for wagon
20. whi’ for white
21. wuz for was

I should like to recommend that the stories be told in the language of the ex-slave, without excessive editorializing and “artistic” introductions on the part of the interviewer. The contrast between the directness of the ex-slave speech and the roundabout and at times pompous comments of the interviewer is frequently glaring. Care should be taken lest expressions such as the following creep in: “inflicting wounds from which he never fully recovered” (supposed to be spoken by an ex-slave).

Finally, I should like to recommend that the words darky and nigger and such expressions as “a comical little old black woman” be omitted from the editorial writing. Where the ex-slave himself uses these, they should be retained.


Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007-2024. The WPA Slave Narratives must be used with care. There is, of course, the problem of confusion in memory resulting from (73+ years) of the participants. In addition, inexperienced interviewers sometimes pursued question lines related to their own interests and perspectives and attempted to capture the colloquialism of the informant's speech. The interviews provide fascinating insight and surprisingly candid information, however.

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