Language on TV, Storytelling

Dialects in “The Help” or Why Viola Davis’ Voice is Worth a Thousand Words

I recently (finally) read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I’ve seen the movie several times, but everyone knows the book is always better than the movie version, so here we are.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that there is a difference in the voice given to Aibileen and Minny, versus Skeeter, Hilly, Elizabeth and Ceclia.

If you haven’t read the book, what I’m describing is a use of a non-standard English dialect for the chapters written from the African-American maids’ point of views.

Although I’m not able to give a thorough description of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), the phonological and syntactic structures of the Aibileen and Minny chapters appear to contain some aspects of AAVE. I found a few blog posts discussing this dialectal choice, and I encourage you to check them out here, for more detail:

dialectblog’s “You is Smart:” Dialect Gripes About “The Help”

pagelady’s Analyzing “The Help” Dialogue

My post today isn’t going to go into the more specific linguistic details. Instead I want to ask a question and raise a few ideas to debate.

When my mom read the book, she mentioned that she occasionally had a hard time understanding the Aibileen and Minny chapters, because they were written in a non-standard dialect. When I read it, I didn’t experience the same problem, and I have two possible reasons why:

a. Since I saw the movie first, when I read these chapters, in my head I hear the voices of the actors who portrayed them onscreen, particularly Viola Davis who played Aibileen. Since I have a definitive voice other than my own reading the lines, with a reference to how they would sound when spoken aloud, it was easier for me to look beyond the non-standard structure.

b. Having learned about how non-standard dialects can affect the perception of the speaker (meaning non-standard dialects, when written, can make the speaker appear unintelligent or uneducated), I am more conscious of this effect and less prone to this assumption.

Frankly, I’m inclined towards the first one, only because when I read the book, not only did I hear the actors’ voices, I also couldn’t picture the characters any other way, despite the book’s description of Skeeter being blonde and Emma Stone being a redhead. The movie version had a huge influence on how I viewed the characters, because it was my first introduction to the story.

But here’s my other thought: With a book, an author has only words to develop a cohesive narrative with complex, realistic characters that we care about. Rather than falling into the Lil’ Abner trap* where non-standard representations are meant to make someone appear less intelligent or educated, I would argue that Ms. Stockett is using one more tool to show how different the lives of these women are, while also showing how they are completely intertwined, often co-dependent, and similar in so many ways.

When reading, I never got the sense that Aibileen and Minny were less intelligent than college-educated Skeeter. On the contrary, in many ways it was Aibileen and Minny who had to educate Skeeter on the way her world actually functioned. But because in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, the African-American race and culture was under such pressure, and holding onto their history and their way of speaking was a way to take control, a way to show that they were individuals with rich lives, worthy of respect and consideration.

 

*This is a reference to a work I was first introduced to in my Discourse Analysis: Conversation course. Here’s the full citation:

Preston, Dennis R. “The Li’l Abner syndrome: Written representations of speech.” American Speech 60, no. 4 (1985): 328-336.

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