Linguistic Elements of Toni Morrison


The five present tenses of Ebonics phonics interested Toni Morrison and wanted to capture it in her writing before the language was lost forever. “Ebonics is one of the most distinctive varieties of American English, differing from Standard English” (Rickford, 2). The five present tenses change a sentence such as, “he is running,” to “he runnin” (Rickford, 2). By removing is and dropping the g on the end of running, it changes how the sentence is pronounced. Morrison uses this stylistic diction to model a particular genre of speaking within the African American community. Much in the way a southern accent easily marks the diction of a specific geography, Morrison’s linguistic elements mark the informal language spoken in the African American community during 1977, 1981, and 2003 when Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Love was published. The stylistic diction of Toni Morrison illustrates a culture in its honest, unapologetic, natural state without fear of prejudice or judgments from an outside class.

Morrison chooses words “for calculated effect” to convey “ideas, attitudes, perspectives, and feelings” of the characters she is writing about (Curzan, 292). In order to effectively address “the oppression afflicting African people,” Morrison uses diction as a tool to be accurate. Morrison writes her characters taking into consideration the idea that “style is the expressive function of language.” (Genette, ix). Morrison wrote about “class contradictions within the race,” while using diction and style that is true to life and honest in a way that was not standard in the literary canon of fiction writing (MBalia, 9). This dialogue between two characters in Song of Solomon demonstrate the fluidity of prose that can occur when Morrison’s style is applied:

“You used to like it.”

“I never liked it! I went with you, but I never liked it. Never.”

“What’s wrong with Negroes owning beach houses? What do you want, Guitar? You mad at every Negro who ain’t scrubbing floors and picking cotton. This ain’t Montgomery Alabama” (Morrison, Song of Solomon, 104).

Morrison’s characters struggle with being themselves in a postbellum south where African American culture was forced to redefine itself as owning property instead of being owned as property. Her style conveys emotion while trying to hold onto the cultural stylistic diction that given enough time would be lost forever. All of this essentially makes Morrison a fiction historian, documenting the languages of a people who are not easily identified in society as needing to be heard. The source of this style of cultural diction is not cited to a particular source, but “most afrocentrists” refer to “West African Language” as the common source (Rickford, 3). “Yoruba,” was the dominant language spoken by the West Africans that were “sold into slavery” and noted to have a missing linking verb, a dropped final consonant, which influenced the diction style of Toni Morrison’s writing (Rickford, 3). Dialect borrowing over time lead to a blend of American English and Yoruba Language to create the vernacular used in African American culture then captures in Morrison’s novels. It is because of authors such as Toni Morrison that readers can gain insight into a culture that would not be as candid in front of others and permits readers to understand in a way that was not achievable before the words were written.

Words are social factors. “Language marks identity and community, and communities may adopt or retain (usually below the level of consciousness) specific features in relation to their social significance” (Curzan, 387).

Digesting his potato and sipping wine, he was rewarded for his serenity by an

expansive “Howdy” followed by the entrance of the stranger wrapped in a

woman’s kimono, barefoot with gleaming wrought-iron hair (Morrison, Tar Baby, 146).

Morrison remarks on several key cultural factors in language, as well as environment that subconsciously speak to the reader about what elements are going on in the story besides the narration. On the surface the character is enjoying a snack when a woman walks in and greets him. What is below that narrative is the key elements of social factors that are going on, such as the snack itself, an odd pairing, but probably what was available to him, which is followed by the remark that this is a reward, but for what the reader does not know. As this is going on a woman wearing a typically Japanese housecoat enters, but by the looks of her no shoes and displaced southern greeting the man knows he is somewhere unfamiliar. It is the social factors that Morrison weaves in and out of her prose that creates a quilt for readers to look at and then take a second look at each individual square to gain a better understanding of what is really being said in between the lines. It is in these spaces Morrison shines stylistically.

Morrison’s novel Love, written a few decades later than her earlier novels makes a leap forward into the African American culture and so does her style. One of the biggest cultural inquiries into African American culture is about hair. Caucasian hair, Japanese hair, Chinese hair, Native American hair, all share a common straight to wavy element that does not necessarily require too much in terms of basic style or maintenance. However, Latin and African American hair require a significant amount of preparing, caring, and maintaining that other cultures do not. Morrison takes this inquiry to challenge by including it into her narrative for the novel Love and in her traditional stylistic diction she explains just how cumbersome the whole thing can be for the individuals she is writing about. “Correctional girls knew better than to trust a label. ‘Let set for five minutes, then rinse thoroughly’ was suggested, not an order” (Morrison, Love, 124). Directions on how to change an African American woman’s hair from natural to “white” straight was something not talked about, but just like the character Heed, who was going places she would raise eyebrows in being “the first colored family in Silk,” the situation needed to be addressed so eyebrows could return to rest (Morrison, Love, 124). That is what Morrison does best. Putting a spotlight on the areas that people feel uncomfortable talking about in a respectful, consistent manner permits her to be raw and honest. If Morrison was writing about African American culture in a way that was dishonest or crass she could not get away with discussing the topics she brings up, but it is the distinctive variety of American English, specifically used by African Americans that enables her the keys to discuss these topics without backlash or hesitation.

Morrison’s stylistic choices throughout her narration grants her permission to write freely about African American culture, all while creating a genre of American Literature that was not quite perfected before she came to print her first words. Preserving a language is a large task to undertake, but Morrison documents it with care through narrative that hosts a model by which all others must follow in order to be granted the same or similar access. English language is forever changing, but it is historian documentary fiction writers, like Morrison who forge the path for change to occur by teaching the past.


Works Cited

Curzan, Anne, and Michael P. Adams. How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction.

3rd ed.   Glenview: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Genette, Gerard. Fiction and Diction. Cornell University Press, 1993.

Mbalia, Doreatha D. Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness. Susquehanna

University Press, 2004.

Morrison, Toni. Love. Vintage Press. New York, NY. 2005

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. Vintage Press. New York, NY. 2004.

Morrison, Toni. Tar Baby. Vintage Press. New York, NY. 2004.

Rickford, John R. Suite for Ebony and Phonics. Mind and Brain Discovery Magazine.

Published December 1, 1997.


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