The Color of Water

by James McBride

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What kind of diction dominates in The Color of Water by McBride?

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There are two different diction styles/sources in The Color of Water. One is of McBride's, who speaks in formal and literate terms. The second is his mother, whose language reflects her upbringing as a Jew and her acculturation into the African American community.

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McBride's The Color of Water is actually dominated by two separate types of diction, as it is written from the point of view of two separate characters, interchanging based on odd and even chapters. McBride interweaves his own autobiography with a tribute to the life of his mother, spoken from her point of view.

The chapters narrated by McBride are indicative of his education and skill. He speaks very formally with a practiced command of the literal and figurative. He strays away from use of colloquialisms and any regional dialect in favor of an adept use of literary techniques in clear, engaging storytelling.

The chapters narrated by McBride's mother, Ruth, fall more so under the umbrella of employing regional dialect. Ruth uses slang and terminology from her Jewish upbringing, such as "Mameh" and "Tateh," when hesitantly referring to her parents. Furthermore, in accordance with moving on from her old life and into her new, she shows language that reflects her becoming a part of the black community.

The weaving of these two diction styles in the narrative allows McBride to show the side by side influence of the personal and the cultural in not only his own life and that of his mother, but that of his family and community at large as well.

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The diction, or word choices, used in the memoir The Color of Water by James McBride clearly reflect the backgrounds and points of view of the two different speakers. In the odd chapters, McBride writes from the point of view of his white Jewish mother, Ruth. She uses a very direct, conversational tone and structure and colloquial language in her speech. She introduces the reader to many words from Judaism, such as sitting “shiva” and calling your parents “Mameh” and “Tateh”, and from her era, such as being “ready as a radio.” This reflects her childhood living in the south in a working-class Jewish family in the 1920s and 30s and then as an adult living in a black neighborhood in Queens, New York in the 1940s and 50s. She did not grow up privileged and was forced to work at a young age instead of getting a formal education. Her frank, sometimes humorous, sometimes vulgar words reflect her unapologetic, no nonsense attitude.

In the even chapters, McBride chooses to describe his life from his point of view, using very formal, descriptive language that reflects his strong education and observant nature, even as a young boy. He describes scenes and people for the reader in a very vivid way by using descriptive words and figurative language. For example, when describing a homeless man that he used to hang out with he wrote:

“Chicken Man was a small man with deep, rich, almost copper-toned skin, a wrinkled face, and laughing eyes…You could see him coming from a distance, appearing out of nowhere like an angel, his silhouette seeming to rise from the ground in the simmering heat” (p. 146).

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Diction is the language and vocabulary an author uses. In the case of The Color of Water, by James Mc Bride, there are two distinctly different voices which tell the story. That means there are also two distinct dictions used in the book.

Half of the chapters are written in the voice of Ruth, and her diction is indicative of who she is. Though she is white, she chose to assimilate herself and her family into the black community and her language reflects that. Even when she tells the story of growing up as a white Jewish girl, she speaks in the dialect of a grown Negro woman of her time--lots of contractions, colloquialisms, and informal language, such as "do right by."

The other half of the chapters are in the voice of Ruth's son, James. His mother worked hard (and craftily) to see that he had a proper education, and his diction is different from his mother's. He is more educated and speaks with less of a dialect. He uses effective figurative language and his voice is more formal; it stands in sharp contrast to some of the other characters with whom he interacts. (For example, the man who lives in his mother's family home describes the woman James's grandfather ran off with as “one of the sorriest, trashiest, poor-as-Job’s-turkey white women you ever did see.”)

In a book like this one in which the storytelling alternates, diction is one way for readers to clearly know which chapters are told from which point of view. Ruth's voice is quite different from James's voice.

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