May 20, 2013

A Dash of Dis and a Dash of Dat

By Kittie Howard

South Louisiana is a gumbo of ethnicities, languages, dialects, colonial histories, and varied landscapes. I didn’t know dat, me, growin’ up dere, no.

Ah, Cajun English, the sound of home: a pot of gumbo on the stove; sweet corn dripping down the chin; collard greens with—shhh, our secret—a dash of sugar. Mo chagren. I’m sorry. What am I saying? The sound of home is in my mind, a recording only I hear.

When I roughed out my latest novella, Rings of Trust, I dove into the keyboard with the sound of home. Pleased with my Cajun English dialogue, I printed a copy for my husband. Minutes later, he frowned. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

My New Hampshire husband hesitated. “Maybe you should tone down this Cajun dialect.”

We exchanged blank looks: New Hampshire’s boiled potatoes and South Louisiana deep-fried shoestring potatoes; New Hampshire’s clam chowder and South Louisiana’s gumbo. As if I were a character in one of my books, I perused my lips. “Okay,” I said.

I returned to the keyboard and sat there, staring at the screen and tapping my finger on the desk. My husband spoke conversational French, but with a Canadian English foundation his mother’s first language. Tap. Tap. This dialogue is so normal. Tap. Tap. What’s wrong with him? He’s been to South Louisiana countless times without a problem talking sports. Tap. Tap. He wasn’t paying atten—whoa!

I’d forgotten about body language and eye contact, the other aspects of hearing. Of course hub didn’t get it. He wasn’t born into Cajun English, a dialect that had evolved from Cajun French out of economic necessity in the 1800s. When one’s sitting in an un-air conditioned mom and pop diner in August, one understands Da day’s hot, hot. It’s easy to pick up that the lack of the plosive /th/ sound in Cajun French has turned the into da. Just as easy, the brain hears hot. But to read hot, hot in a dialogue? Neither listener nor reader knows the first hot means very. When Cajuns end sentences with no or yeah, there’s no rule, only a sensing.

I then did what I should have done in the first place: I devised a list of Cajun accented words (dôn for don’t) and fractured English (Id dôn matta, no.) to season the straight English. Once I had a consistency, the fingers flew. My husband turned page after printed page. “What’s Broussard going to do next? he’d ask.

I’d smile and return to the keyboard. However, I’d learned an important lesson about assuming. The author and the reader have to hear each other. In a way, we’re like cicadas calling each other. If one doesn’t hear, the evening is too quiet.

Much of the dialogue in Southern literature reflects the South’s drawl. But it differs. We hear who’s from Mississippi or Northern Louisiana. We know who’s who. How do you handle this drawl in your dialogue?
Kittie Howard was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and graduated from Louisiana State University with a Bachelor of Science degree. She has worked for the U. S. Department of Defense. The United States Marine Corps presented her with a citation for her contributions to its Family Readiness Program. She has served as an advisor to local Red Cross, Navy Relief Boards, the national Armed Services YMCA Board and has coordinated various projects for local chapters of the USO. Kittie Howard’s Christmas novella with Remy chararacter in Remy Broussard's ChristmasSouthern Writers Magazine showcased her Louisiana heritage on its blog in July 2012. In association with a Louisiana historical society, her grandmother’s family will be one of three families featured in a book about South Central Louisiana’s pioneers. Kittie and her husband, Dick Vercauteren, presently divide their time between Northern Virginia and Louisiana.

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