“You is Smart:” Dialect Gripes About “The Help”

Plantation House

Photo: Historical American Buildings Survey

The other day, a Twitter pal mentioned a certain discomfort while reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Apropos of this blog, it seems there are a number of complaints about the author’s (arguably) shaky command of African American Vernacular English, a dialect in which a large chunk of the book is written.

I must confess to not reading the novel in its entirety (despite a few aborted attempts; it’s just not my cup of tea). But I’ve read enough to offer a few general thoughts on some of the controversy surrounding the book’s language.

Before getting into that, however, I feel the need to defend Stockett on one point. Several critiques of her writing take issue with one of the novel’s most famous lines: “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.” Here’s a typical gripe, from a blog titled (appropriately) A Critical Review of the novel The Help:

You is kind, you is smart, you is-” … Could there be anything as vile and contrived as that dialogue? Or as condescending? How about the uneasy closeness it has to something written for an episode of Amos n Andy…

I was going to devote this post explaining why this line doesn’t work, but Pagelady, a linguist who blogs about literature, beat me to the punch about a year ago:

[You is smart, you is kind, you is important] doesn’t fit with either the be-deletion rule or the Habitual “Be” usage. Since this is a construction where SAE could contract the copula, (“you’re kind,” etc.), it is likewise a construction where be-deletion is possible in AAVE, (“you kind.”)

But to be clear, this criticism actually applies to the movie, not the book.  Stockett herself does not in fact attribute these words to an African-American character. Rather, it’s a child who utters “you is smart, etc,” attempting to repeat what her nanny has told her. The film adaptation passes this line off to an adult, but I think we can acquit the novelist of this individual charge*.

That doesn’t mean one may not have other linguistic quibbles, however. For one thing, there seems to be little code-switching in The Help. Some of Stockett’s African-American characters speak in the broadest vernacular in every context they speak, even in this discussion of Sigmund Freud from Chapter 12:

“Oh, people crazy … I love reading about how the head work. You ever dream you fall in a lake? He say you dreaming about your own self being born. Miss Frances, who I work for in 1957, she had all them books.”

Keep in mind this character spends her days moving between the world of the Southern gentry and the segregated poor communities nearby. I have a hard time believing that nimble code-switching wouldn’t be a part of her everyday discourse, and that she wouldn’t change her register somewhat when discussing psychoanalysis with her college-educated, standard-English-speaking friend. (But of course, I really can’t speak from personal experience how anyone in 1960s Mississippi spoke.)

Beyond this sociolinguistic qualm, the book’s detractors more likely wince at jarring passages like this:

You’d never know it living here, but Jackson, Mississippi, be filled with two hundred thousand peoples. I see them numbers in the paper and I got to wonder, where do them peoples live? Underground?

This kind of language, whether it’s accurate or not, is going to stick out like a sore thumb in a novel written in 2009. The question is whether or not it’s historically justifiable. And more importantly, whether or not this character would choose these particular words to express this point.

Again, though, I don’t want to judge Stockett too harshly given that I haven’t read the whole book. Do any of the novel’s fans (or detractors) have thoughts on the use of dialects in the novel?

*In the novel, Aibileen (one of the narrators) says “you smart, you kind, you important,” which is more consistent with AAVE grammar.

About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in American English and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to “You is Smart:” Dialect Gripes About “The Help”

  1. Sam Huddy says:

    Another reason to make Millennials uncomfortable that their parents and professors seem to love this book?

  2. boynamedsue says:

    I wonder what the ratio of right/wrong is in the book? I doubt I could write a whole book in my own dialect without mistakes, it’s actually really hard to write down a variety you never see written.

    It seems that “is” must have been a feature of some AAVE varieties in th 19th century, it is recorded too often not to have some basis in reality. Does the fact it doesn’t appear in grammars of AAVE mean it was definitely absent in the ’60s?

    Anyhow, the worrying thing here is the reason that this is a big scandal. How many books are published every year with grammatically inaccurate hillbilllies or Texans? Hundreds, yet they don’t cause internet kerfuffles. The problem is the white author using a black voice, America has this terrible phobia of racial impersonation. The book presses all kinds of cultural buttons in terms of the topics it chooses to deal with, and a white writer doing so is just too much for some people.

    • I had a bit about this in an earlier draft of the post. My impression is that “you is” would be plausible if an AAVE speaker were attempting to speak standard English and overgeneralizing. That would probably explain why it’s more common in 19th-Century texts (like “Pudd’nhead Wilson”). It’s also probable that some of the grammar in varieties of “proto-AAVE” was quite different from the dialect as it is spoken today.

      However, Stockett’s AAVE-speaking characters pretty consistently deletes the copula: “she skinny,” “she pretty good,” “he in third grade,” etc. Hence I would find “you is” rather implausible. Of course, it’s something of a moot point since the line isn’t really Stockett’s!

  3. Marc Leavitt says:

    I haven’t read the book, nor do I intend to. However, I’ve always winced when reading purported “proper” representations of another group’s dialect, whether it be AAVE or what always ends up as heavy-handed and failed attempts at Hiberno-English of the “Sure, and begorra!” variety. That’s not to say that a person outside the dialect group should be barred from the attempt, but they damned well better do more than 100 percent if they want to have an authentic voice. The willing suspension of disbelief only goes so far.

  4. Patrycja says:

    I was wondering – many rappers use ‘is’ with ‘you’, like in ‘iz u iz or iz u ain’t’, or ‘iz you happy?’. So maybe ‘you is kind’ is also a possibility?

  5. Jimbo says:

    As someone who grew up in the deep south, in an area of town where more than 70 percent of the population was African American living below the poverty line, I have very few problems with the movie’s dialogue. The line “you is” was, and is quite common, mainly when attempting to add more emphasis to a statement. “You crazy!” is similar to “You is crazy!” where the latter phrase is merely more emphatic. Similar to saying “You ARE crazy!” as opposed to “You’re crazy!”

  6. David says:

    I’m white. I started to get angry. Then I began to want to use terms about the comments like “retarded”. But then I just realized you don’t understand. I remember when I was a child being raised in the early sixties by a wonderful black woman who was in many ways my mother. I grew up in Kentucky. I was raised by a wonderful woman named Alma. I choked up realizing the great gifts she gave me. The movie The Help, whatever innacuracies or Hollywoodisms were put in to help those who never experienced what we did, was a force for good. I was there. I was blessed. I remember how it felt to be cherished and adored by a great soul when it could not be given by my real white mother. God bless those great mothers who were there, who saved our souls by giving of themselves. I don’t care an iota if the dialect was “off” a bit. Don’t detract from the spiritual value because of a technicality. It was a powerful story the movie told which contained a truth. Open your hearts to it. With love, David

  7. 通販 靴 says:

    サンダル アウトドア

  8. Pingback: Dialects in “The Help” or Why Viola Davis’ Voice is Worth a Thousand Words | plainspokenlinguist

  9. Ade Pane says:

    is there possibility of using “you is” or “I is” in engslih grammar?