WPA Slave Narratives and spelling

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 10 22:20:01 UTC 2006


For most of my life, I believed that the supposedly stereotypical use
of "gwine" was nothing but another lying, racist characterization of
black people. My reason was that I had never heard "gwine" fall
trippingly from the tongue of any black person, regardless of his or
her age, social class, or educational background. E.g., I knew a
teacher with degrees from Columbia University whose speech,
nevertheless, was only trivially distinct from that of a field. But he
did not use "gwine."  Down home in Texas, I knew actual field hands
who "woiked oan dih foam choppin cone (yes, one can "chop" corn just
as one "chops" cotton) and none of them used "gwine." I often had
occasion to talk to visiting "home folk," the kinfolk of friends in
St. Louis, from all over the Deep South, and I never heard a single
use of "gwine." Likewise, I never heard "gwine" on blues phonograph
records or on Lomax TV specials on Southern black music and dance.

However, ca.1977, I heard the bluesman, Hubert Sumlin, who was being
interviewed on a local university's radio station, say, as plain as he
could speak, "They was _gwine_ broke." It was a defining moment. The
scales fell from my ears, so to speak. Since then, I've heard
thousands of examples of "gwine." The use of "gwine" is _extremely_
rare nowadays, but I am, nevertheless. now fully persuaded that, at
one time, its use really was common enough to provide the basis for a
stereotyping of black speech.

Finally, I've noticed that the use of "gwine" can't be predicted on
the basis of other features of a person's speech. That is, I've found
that there are black people with rural accents so thick that even
other (citified) black people can barely understand them. Yet, they
use "goin'." And there are black people who speak with clear, urban
accents who, that fact notwithstanding, use "gwine."

-Wilson


On 2/10/06, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: WPA Slave Narratives and spelling
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>
> A caution here:  the narratives were transcribed
> by whites, probably mainly middle-class and at
> least some from the North (in addition to the
> obvious problems of constructing spelling from
> utterances).  A very interesting chapter on the
> issues posed to historians who use these
> narratives is in "After the Fact: The Art of
> Historical Detection", by James West Davidson and
> Mark Hamilton Lytle (McGraw Hill, 1992), Chapter
> Seven, "The View from the Bottom Rail".
>
> Joel
>
> At 2/10/2006 09:39 AM, you wrote:
> >---------------------- Information from the mail
> >header -----------------------
> >Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> >Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM>
> >Subject:      Re: Not quite, but quite close
> >-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> >A quick search of the WPA Slave Narratives here:
> >
> >   http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/mesnquery.html
> >
> >   reveals 100 interviews featuring the spelling
> > "gwine."  The interviews were carried out in
> > most of the Southern states, but the majority
> > of the "gwines" seem to be from South Carolina and Arkansas.
> >
> >   Yeah, yeah, the spelling may have been
> > influenced by literary stereotypes, but the
> > continued exisence of [gwOin] as documented by
> > Wilson (and maybe DARE - I haven't had a chance
> > to look) strongly suggests that at least some
> > of the former slaves really did say "gwine" or something like it.
> >
> >   JL
> >
> >Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> >   ---------------------- Information from the
> > mail header -----------------------
> >Sender: American Dialect Society
> >Poster: Wilson Gray
> >Subject: Not quite, but quite close
> >-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> >A black woman on this morning's Springer:
> >
> >"We _[gwOin]_ through the same thing."
> >
> >This woman also pronounced the second syllable of "confuse" as though
> >it was the second syllable of French "confuse." I.e. she pronounced
> >[yu] as front rounded [ΓΌ] or as German umlaut "ue." I've also heard
> >many, many, many instances of [Cyu] > [Cru], e.g. [k at nfyuz] >
> >[k at nfruz], in BE.
> >
> >This is quite interesting, given Portuguese "frasco" vs. Italian
> >"fiasco." Although there's no reason to doubt that Late Latin (or
> >Proto-Romance, etc.) /ClV/ went directly to Portuguese [CrV], /ClV/ >
> >/CyV] > [CrV] is now seen as a possibility.
> >
> >-Wilson Gray
> >
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