Critical Essays Use of Dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God


Hurston uses dialect to bring the story as well as the characters to life. The use of dialect makes the characters seem real; they are believable. After making some initial adjustments as a reader to become familiar with the language, readers feel as if they were actually a part of the action.

It is worth noting that the dialect used in the novel is closer to a Southern dialect, rather than an African-American dialect. Not only do Janie, Tea Cake, and their friends have similar speech patterns, but also the guards who command Tea Cake after the hurricane speak in a comparable dialect. Hurston's familiarity with the language of the South enables her to accurately depict the dialect of the region.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is rich in dialect, known as the spoken version of a language. Dialect is regional, and it has distinctive features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Early in the novel, Hurston tells her readers what to expect in the language of her characters. She states that Janie will tell her story to Pheoby in "soft, easy phrases." Readers unfamiliar with such phrases often see Hurston's language as a strange dialect and a barrier to enjoying the novel. Once readers understand the dialect and its common features, the text becomes familiar and easy to read.

The reader approaches both Eatonville and the muck as an outsider and soon discovers patterns in the language of the characters. Initial and final consonants are frequently dropped. "You" becomes "yuh," occasionally "y'all," a plural. "I" is invariably "Ah." Vowel shifts also occur often. For example, "get" becomes "git." The final "r" is "ah." "Us" may occur as the nominative, and verbs, especially auxiliary verbs, are generally left out. A double negative such as "Nobody don't know" gives emphasis. Distortions of the past tense also occur. For example, "knew" becomes "knowed." Because "–ed" is a sign of the simple past, it is logical in dialect to add "-ed" to make a past tense verb. The reflexive pronoun "himself" becomes "hisself." A final "th" is spoken as "f," and although the final "r" is softened in some words, it is added to others. In addition to patterns of dialect, Janie and her friends speak a language rich in a vocabulary of localisms and folklore references. These features are also characteristic of regional speech and help make dialects distinctive.

The character of Tea Cake is to some extent characterized by his language. He is the only character who consistently uses "us" as a nominative; perhaps it is Hurston's subtle way of suggesting that Tea Cake is of a lower class than Joe or the porch sitters.