August 20, 2007

#01-008: Understanding an English Dialect

Edgar A. Guest

Note: Some great writers--notably Mark Twain--write in English dialects that make their works difficult to read. Here are some tips on understanding their works.

Get Ready: In your language, is the spoken language different from the written language? Do people ever try to write as they speak, like English "wanna" for "want to" or "doin'" for "doing"?

Edgar Guest was a poet born in England on August 20, 1881.

His family moved to America ten years later, where "Eddie" became one of the most popular poets of the early 20th century. He was known as "The People's Poet" because he chose subjects which were loved by everyone, such as "home" or "mother." People were also attracted by his unusual style.

Guest often tried to copy the pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar, of the common people. As a result, he didn't usually write in what is known as Standard American English, or "SAE." He wrote in a "folksy" style.

People who have learned English as a second language often have trouble understanding such dialects (the different ways people speak English in different places). Even native speakers can sometimes find it difficult!

So here, as a challenge to all, is the first stanza of one of Guest's most famous poems, called simply "Home," published in 1916. See if you can understand what Guest is saying.

It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home,
A heap o' sun an' shadder, an' ye sometimes have t' roam
Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind,
An' hunger fer 'em somehow, with 'em allus on yer mind.

One of the problems you might have is the unusual spelling, which tries to imitate the sound of "natural" speech. Notice these: o' livin' - t' - shadder - 'preciate - fer – allus. Reading the words out loud might help.

The next problem is the vocabulary. Guest wanted the expressions to sound more like they are spoken by a person from the country than the city, so he chose "country" words, like "heap," afore," and "hunger for."

"Heap" usually means "pile," but informally can mean "a lot of something." Likewise, "afore" is a kind of uneducated way of saying "before." And "hunger for" means (in this case) "miss" or "want to be with."

So here's a paraphrase of this first stanza.

It takes a lot of living in a house to make it home,
A lot of sun and shadow, and you sometimes have to roam
Before you really appreciate the things you left behind,
And really miss them somehow, with them always on your mind.

Learning to paraphrase things written in dialect is a good way to build your skills in using natural English!


Read more poems by Edgar A. Guest:

Practice: Can you guess which sound from the poem is which word?

  1. an'
  2. 'em
  3. fer
  4. lef'
  5. o'
  6. 'preciate
  7. shadder
  8. t'
  9. ye
  10.  yer

  1. to
  2. and
  3. appreciate
  4. you
  5. them
  6. your
  7. left
  8. for
  9. of
  10. shadow

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for August 20, 2007

This lesson received 843 visits on my old site between December, 2011, and June, 2021.

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. e; 3. h; 4. g; 5. i; 6. c; 7. j; 8. a; 9. d; 10. f