Language style and register

Black English (BE) and Standard American English (SAE)

Walker creates a remarkably expressive style for Celie’s letters, which draw heavily upon dialect features of Black English. The rules of grammar in Black English (BE) (sometimes also called AAE - African-American English) are very different to those of Standard American English (SAE).

Verbal expression is different in American Black English, which has its own lexicon (vocabulary, terms, codes and word sets), grammar (inflections, syntax and rules) and phonology (speech sounds and pronunciation patterns). In SAE, for example, a sentence like: ‘She goes to the market’, might become: ‘She go to the market,’ in BE.

In BE, a sentence like ‘She be dress to kill,’ might become: ‘She was dressed up,’ in SAE.

While vocabulary might change depending on current trends and events, or the geographic location of the speaker, the underlying rules of BE tend to be common to all speakers.

Celie’s language

Celie’s letters are consistently marked by features of BE dialect

  • The conjugation of the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, for example are often jumbled
  • Plural forms of nouns and verb forms often have irregular endings; ‘two men’ becomes ‘two mens’; ‘she says’ becomes ‘she say’
  • Double negatives are common, as well as the use of the form ain’t for ‘isn’t/is not’ (‘She ain’t never no good!’)
  • Pronouns are used in a non-standard way: ‘us’ is used for ‘we’ as well as ‘us’; ‘they’ is used for both ‘they’ and ‘their’
  • Phonetic spellings are used to mimic the sound of speech: ‘asked’ becomes ‘ast’ and ‘tuberculosis’ becomes ‘two berkulosis’

Walker makes extensive use of idioms and vocabulary that are particularly found in the rural South of the United States:

  • Ghosts are referred to as ‘hants’
  • Hair styles are ‘cornrowed’ or hair is described as ‘nappy’
  • Food items such as ‘grits’, ‘clabber’ and ‘chitlins’ appear on African-American tables
  • Skin colour is never plain black or white, but ‘yellow’ like Mary Agnes, ‘black’ like Shug Avery or ‘bright’ like Sofia.

Tone and voice

Celie’s earliest letters immediately establish her as a sympathetic character. The tone of the early letters to God often resembles the naiveté of a small child. The letters are short and contain graphic descriptions of Celie’s sexual experiences at the hands of her stepfather Fonso. The tone of these early letters resembles the kind of expression that might come from an ignorant child, although the reader realises very soon that Celie is far from ignorant about the kind of household she and her sister inhabit.

Celie’s descriptions of the horrible world she grows up in are often shocking and her occasional use of obscene vocabulary, for example in Letter 47, when she tells Shug about being raped by her stepfather, caused the novel to be banned for study in some American schools. She describes the murder of Harpo’s mother with a childish brevity that makes the killing appear more of an everyday unremarkable incident than it later turns out to have been. The violence of Harpo’s mother’s death establishes the theme of gratuitous violence which dominates Celie’s world. Celie’s blunt descriptions establish her as an innocent narrator in the tradition of classic American fiction, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

Celie’s narrative voice does not change throughout the novel, but her expression and style become more sophisticated as she grows up and broadens her experience. Later in the narrative, her sentence structures become more complex and the paragraphs become longer, although in comparison with Nettie’s style of writing they are short.

Celie’s letters make extensive use of direct speech, which makes the account of her experiences dramatic and immediate. As the narrative progresses, she adds touches of descriptive detail which are often quite lyrical. When she and Shug Avery visit Alphonso, for example, the description of their journey to Celie’s childhood home combines sharp humour as the birds sing ‘they little cans off’, with vivid descriptions of the landscape that suggest ideas of Easter and resurrection.

Nettie’s language

In contrast to Celie’s letters, those from her sister Nettie adopt a totally different style, with a significant lack of Celie’s BE (African-American English). This creates a contrast between the two characters:

  • Nettie is the sister who is better educated and much more earnest
  • Celie is less educated, but expresses herself with more spontaneity and flashes of wit.

Educated language

From the beginning of the narrative, Nettie is anxious to emphasise the importance of education, speaking even as a young teenager in a style that resembles that of a schoolteacher. Her letters are written with sentences and paragraphs that are longer than Celie’s and the lengthy accounts of her missionary work in Africa resemble the style of travel writing. Generally her letters are factual and written in a SAE (Standard American English).

Nettie’s formal style is particularly evident in Letter 88, which uses Latinate vocabulary such as ‘announced’, ‘desire’, ‘scarification’ and ‘paramount’. There is a self-conscious pattern where sentences parallel one another; sentence rhythms are measured and complex and the events that Nettie recounts (the return of Adam and Tashi, their subsequent marriage and Nettie’s announcement that the family are returning to America) follow a concisely logical sequence.

Different worlds

Nettie’s letters capture the style and tone of missionary magazines of the early twentieth century, being careful, earnest and scholarly in tone. Celie’s letters, in contrast, have an urgency that resembles the rhythms of speech. Nettie’s writing is dignified and illustrates a disciplined, regular way of life that is very different to that which is experienced by Celie.

By incorporating Nettie’s letters with Celie’s text, Walker creates a contrast between African-American vernacular language and the rigid linguistic style of Standard English. Ironically both styles are written by black characters but Celie’s flexibility of language, supposedly an inferior form of speech, seems much more expressive than the rigid ‘white’ code which Nettie uses. Set alongside one another, Celie’s character appears more dynamic, with a vitality that is more attractive than Nettie’s careful correctness.

Language and power

The written word as a means of self-expression has long been associated with power:

  • Fonso refuses to allow Nettie to marry Albert because he wants her to get more ‘schooling’, but is happy to offer Celie as a substitute because he considers her to be ignorant
  • Celie vows to protect her sister from her stepfather and Albert by encouraging Nettie to keep at her books
  • When Nettie goes to Africa, the Standard English that she uses to record her experiences among the Olinka tribe can also be seen as a way of preserving the culture of an endangered people
  • Nettie’s letters also connect African and African-American culture, which is one of the themes that has preoccupied Alice Walker for many years.

Language and self-expression

Walker, as a womanist writer, uses the epistolary form to examine both how African-American women are silenced and also how the discovery of a voice allows them to achieve freedom from oppression.

The letters that Celie writes to God when she is bound to silence by her stepfather, as well as the hidden letters that Nettie sends to Celie from Africa, follow a well-established female literary tradition that used diaries and letters as a dominant mode of expression for women in Western literature. Celie writes letters to God as an imaginary listener because she has no other means of telling her story or revealing her distress. Since her speaking voice is silenced by the men around her, Celie uses writing as a verbal outlet instead. In effect, through her letters, Celie literally writes herself into being as she changes from being a young, confused teenager into an older, self-confident adult.

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