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I'm currently trying to understand E.E. Cummings Poem "YgUDuh":

ygUDuh
ydoan
yunnuhstan
ydoan o
yunnuhstand dem
yguduh ged
yunnuhstan dem doidee
yguduh ged riduh
ydoan o nudn
LISN bud LISN
dem
gud
am
lidl yelluh bas
tuds weer goin
duhSIVILEYEzum

Supposedly, the trick lies in listening to the stuff. So I tried to read it out aloud. Suffice to say, as a non-native, this proves to be impossible unless you already seem to know what the poem is about.

I also tried to listen to videos reading this. Pretty much every video I found reading this out is also total gibberish, with some words popping up here and there, but not enough to discern any meaning.

Making this even more complicated is the fact that this seems to be some form of atrocious butchering of the english language dialect.

Attempts to find a translation on the web yields very different interpretations.

So, what does this poem actually mean, and how it is intended to be read out? What rules about english phonemes can a non-native speaker follow to be able to read this out loud without a-priori knowledge of what each word is supposed to mean? I'm mostly interested in the process of how to make sense of this all, with a transcription of the text into intelligible english only as a tangential concern.

For example on the first line, assuming that this actually means something like "You've got to / You gotta / Ya gotta", how do you go from the written "y" to "you" or "ya" when spelling? "y" is spelled out like "Why", how do you go from "U" to "O" for "got" / "gotta" etc. I know that "Duh" is spoken more like "Da", but "gUDuh" for me comes out more like "gudda", not "godda/gotta", and I certainly can't imagine it coming out in two syllables like in "got to".

So yeah. I Think I need some more rules on how english-speaking people go about pronouncing seemingly non-sensical words.

Side note: I'm still recovering from the stroke I got trying to correctly read out The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité. I had thought after reading that that there are no rules to pronunciation, that you just have to learn how each word is pronounced. Since english speakers supposedly can read Cummings work without a-priori knowledge of the pronunciation, some rules must obviously exist how to pronounce stuff not seen before..

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  • As a native English speaker, I can’t translate all of that myself. But I can offer you some assistance, which is that vowel sounds are quite mutable, and words with the right consonants but different vowel sounds are usually comprehensible. – Mike Scott Sep 4 '20 at 13:22
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    This seems to be an attempt to transcribe the slurred speech of a belligerent drunk. This particular drunk is ranting about how we have to go to war with “them yellow bastards” so we can “civilize” them. Even as a native speaker, I find this extremely difficult to read, and I can’t decipher enough of it to provide a complete answer. – StephenS Sep 4 '20 at 13:29
  • What rules about english phonemes can a non-native speaker follow to be able to read this out loud without a-priori knowledge of what each word is supposed to mean? /// Phonemes are completely different from spelling. This is spelling and you can't know the pronunciation of a word from spelling. – Void Sep 4 '20 at 13:38
  • @Wistful I don’t think that’s true. I read new words every day and, as a native speaker, can nearly always guess the correct way to pronounce them; ditto for spelling new words I hear. But I can’t explain how I do that in a way that would make sense to a non-native. – StephenS Sep 4 '20 at 17:42
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    @StephenS: That's true for some words, but not for all. And certainly not in English because English is not a phonetic language. – Void Sep 4 '20 at 17:44
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New York accent, with accent transcribed:

ygUDuh ygUDuh (Y'godda: you've got to)

ydoan (Ya doan: You don't)

yunnuhstan (You unnerstand; for understand)

ydoan o (You doan owe)

yunnuhstand dem (Yunnerstand 'em: you understand them)

yguduh ged (Ya godda get; for you've got to get)

yunnuhstan dem doidee (Yunner stand 'em doity, for you understand them [as] dirty)

yguduh ged riduh (You gotta get ridda for You've got to get rid of)

ydoan o nudn (Ya' doan owe nuthin for You don't owe nothing)

LISN bud LISN (Lissen, bud, for listen)

o in the poem is owe, as in owe money.

Then it goes on:

dem =them gud =god am [them goddamn] lidl yelluh bas = little yellow bas- tuds weer goin =tards we're goingda [going to] duhSIVILEYEzum = civilize'em

He is saying: goddamn those little yellow bastards we're going to civilize them.

I have not looked into this in depth, however, the Lower East Side of New York at the time late 19th and early 20th century had both Chinese and Jewish immigrants. The New York accent originated with Yiddish speakers who then learned English. The most salient feature of their speech was making ir into oi: a shirt, a shoit. There were others, too.

In any case, E.E. Cummings who wrote some of the the most memorable poems of the 20th century certainly outdid himself here. Later, manipulating spelling and words would become his hallmark. The only redeeming grace I can think of here is that he was imitating a a racist drunkard. By making the speech so horrible (in a sense), he is also putting down the racist speaker in the poem.

Here's one of his most charming poems: [in Just-]

[in Just-] BY E. E. CUMMINGS

in Just
-spring     when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles   far   and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far    and     wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

it's
spring
and
      the
        goat-footed

balloonMan     whistles
far
and
wee

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As a native English speaker who was able to decipher this poem with some effort, I think I can take you through my process.

I never considered spelling out the letters, since they are presented as words. If I were to see "y gUDuh", I would say Y like "why". But since it was presented without a space, I tried to sound it out as a word.

When you have two consonants next to each other (y acts like a consonant at the start of a word, which is why it is often referred to as "sometimes" being a vowel), you often need to add some sort of sound to put them together, or else it won't sound right. In English, the generic vowel sound is the "schwa" sound, pronounced like the "a" in "alone" (kinda like "uh")

So when I first saw it, I pronounced it like "yuh guduh". Additionally, because the first u is capitalized and the second one isn't, it told me which syllable to emphasize (if it wasn't for the capitalization, I may have put the emphasis on "duh", since it's already a word, and I would've gotten confused.)

With this emphasis, it became clear to me it was supposed to be "you gotta" (t's in American English surrounded by vowels are often said like d's - [better, water]). I would definitely never say this is "you got to." I assume the sites that translated as such were just putting it into more formal English to make it clearer, but ironically it looks like this made the procedure harder for you.

After having the "you" thing, the following lines became pretty self explanatory, using the most common words that sound like that, especially ones that a drunkard would use.

After "you don't understand", it becomes clear that "ydoan o" means "you don't know" as opposed to "you don't owe", which is definitely a possibility by sound alone, but I personally don't believe makes as much sense within the context of what we've already found out.

"dem" is already a commonly used spelling for "them" in the AAVE community, so I was familiar with it and it came clearly.

for yguduh ged, we already have "you gotta", and we know t's are often being written as d's, so it becomes "you gotta get"

I think "doidee" was the hardest word in the whole thing for me. I only got it after reading the rest of the poem, getting the context, and having an idea of what it might be. This comes from knowing many different accents of english, many of which don't say r's at the end of syllables and round out their i's. That's how you get dirty from doidee.

"riduh" comes naturally from the fact that "of" is often pronounced as "a" as a schwa vowel in slang english. (Think of "kind of" -> "kinda") So this is "rid of".

"nudn" you can get if you're used to books writing dialects, because they almost always write "nothing" as "nuttin'" (and then t->d as we've been doing). Also, "you don't know nothing" is an incredibly common double negative in slang english, so it feels pretty natural.

All the lines after lisn bud lisn (which I think is self-explanatory) are very difficult because the words begin to cross lines. The only way I figured this out was reading it a little faszter and seeing that the words make more sense if you put them together like that.

"gud am" doesn't mean anything, but "gudam" sounds like "godddamn", which is also a word that would make a lot of sense n this type of speech.

When you put the lines together "lidl yelluh bastuds" pops out as "little yellow bastards" with the same t->d, smoothing of vowels, and removal of r's we've been using. This especially makes sense because it's racist! It used to be quite common to refer to asians as being "yellow", especially back in this time. Racism would make sense with the uneducated character that has been created by dialect so far.

"weer goin" is almost exactly spelled as "we're going", so that one is straightforward.

duhSIVILEYEzum -> "to civilize 'em". Knowing the t->d thing and that "them" is often shortened to "'em" in spoken english gives this one, since civilize is almost entirely spelled out and capitalized.

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  • This is actually quite helpful. I'll have to work through this a bit, but it looks great. +1 – Polygnome Feb 10 at 8:31
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As StephenS says this seems to be an attempt to transcribe the slurred speech of a belligerent drunk - I agree with them.

I found it's translation on The Novel Bunch blog:

Basically, this poem imitates a New Jersey – or even New York – accent, with the dialogue consisting of the men often interrupting each other, giving their takes on America’s involvement in World War II.

Here’s the translated version.

ygUDuh
ygUDuh (You’ve got to)

ydoan (You don’t)

yunnuhstan (You understand)

ydoan o (You don’t know)

yunnuhstand dem (You don’t understand them)

yguduh ged (You’ve got to get)

yunnuhstan dem doidee (You understand those dirty)

yguduh ged riduh (You’ve got to get rid of)

ydoan o nudn (You don’t know anything)

LISN bud LISN (Listen, bud, listen!)

Head over to The Novel Bunch for more explanation, I can't add anything to this explanation and I don't like excessive quotes in my answers, so I can't copy-paste the whole blog here.

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  • I know that blog. It is quite unhelpful in helping me decipher it. How do you go from ygUDuh to "You've got to"? The other answer explains it as "Y'gotta", which is something I can readily understand and from there translate to "You've got to". Just dropping the end result is not really helping me understand. – Polygnome Sep 4 '20 at 18:11
  • @Polygnome: EE Cummings has transcribed "speech" so he's written what he pronounced. You can say anything and make up spelling for it. – Void Sep 4 '20 at 18:12
  • @Polygnome There is no transcription. Transcription is when I speak and you write it down. Here the poet has invented his own writing rules based on his own creativity. – Lambie Sep 5 '20 at 16:37

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