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The Uses and Abuses
of Dialect:
Y'all Be Sayin' Wha'?

      

Lori Lake
By Lori L. Lake


Wherever you go in the U.S., wherever you go in the world, people speak with different accents, inflections, and vocabulary. People who belong to different regions, classes, racial or social groups-even neighborhoods-often speak distinctive varieties of the very same language. It's in their speech patterns, their diction, pronunciation, and grammar. Those variations are called dialect. Even the ubiquitous "proper" English, which is often argued over and is traditionally considered to be the standard from which English comes, is itself a dialect. Every version of a particular language is a dialect.

Dialectologists, those who study dialects, have discovered that the writing errors that tend to irritate readers the most are what the experts call "dialect difference." Four out of five readers report that reading representations of heavy dialect is extremely bothersome. But almost all readers report that they want characters to sound individual-unique and specific-not like cardboard cutouts.

We can't just stick to the "King's English" and call it good, but we cannot lapse into heavy dialect if we want to keep our readers reading. Since people tend to speak differently in so many places and situations, and also because fiction is best when it conjures up verisimilitude, using dialect in your writing can lend color, accuracy, and liveliness. Use of proper dialect helps to vividly express a character's identity and to spark readers' interest in both narrative and characterization. At the same time, writers must pay careful attention to the words they put in characters' mouths and the way that dialogue sounds and reads.

Dialogue v. Dialect

In writing, the purposes of both dialogue and dialect are similar. Both reveal and define characters in a multitude of ways as well as give much-needed information to the reader. While well-written dialogue advances plot, shapes and interprets the fictional events, and makes important and complicated story development understandable, badly written dialect will tear down a story. Conversely, ignoring the dialectal aspects of a character's speech is also problematic.

For instance, say you are telling a prison story and two big bruisers, Hulk and Chump, accidentally bump into one another.

Hulk stopped and glared at the other man. "Excuse me, mister! Watch where you're going!"

"Oh, dear me," Chump said. "I apologize profusely. It won't happen again."
I don't know what kind of prison these two are in—one for criminal Caspar Milquetoasts? Or could they be upper class time travelers from 17th century England?

More than likely the exchange would go like this:
Hulk stopped and glared at the other man. "Do that again, asshole, and you'll lose an arm."

"Yeah, yeah," Chump said. "You know I ain't spoiling for a fight. Stay the hell away from me, and I'll keep clear of you."
Now they sound more like we'd expect two suspicious and angry prisoners to sound. In this case, it's all in the word choice and delivery. The same holds true with a lot of current slang. Because of TV and the movies, the California Valley Girl dialect has invaded our consciousness:
Niki stood in the dressing room and watched her best friend Leanna try on prom dresses. "I'm, like, so totally grossed out! That dress is fer sure grody, but like omigod, that one there is wicked! Like, it's so bad!"

Translation:
"I'm not impressed with that one at all. It's surely an awful selection, but that one there is great! Really quite wonderful."
And then there is the slangy urban hip hop which, for many Baby Boomers, is nearly incomprehensible. It's almost like its own separate language:
While waiting on the corner for his brother, Latrelle saw JZ running toward his car. He said, "JZ, homeboy! What tha dilly yo?"

"Mofo dissed me, and we scrapped in his ho's crib. I kick his ass, but now he lunchin'. I'm gonna get my gat and busta cap on his fugly head!"

Translation:
While waiting on the corner for his brother, Latrelle saw JZ running toward his car. He said, "JZ, my friend! What's going on?"

"That motherf__er was rude and disrespectful, and we had a skirmish there in his girlfriend's place. I won the fight, but now he's behaving erratically and threatening me. I'm getting my gun and blowing off his f__ing ugly head!"
The Quandary of Dialect

Dialogue is a contrived element of fiction-perhaps the most contrived of all. Any kind of dialogue (with or without dialect) must be economical and give the sense and tone of real conversation, while not actually mimicking real-life dialogue in scope and exactness. Using "standard" English in your character's conversations is hard enough; adding dialect to it complicates things substantially.

There is no way to accurately convey exact speech patterns and accents without boring or confusing the reader. An example:

Whachu say'n y'all wanna do wi' dit now dat dem be catched? Yay-uh, 'm a-t'inkin' we-um oughta jess run."
That may be an exact transcription of the way someone has spoken, but does it tell you anything? Does it further character explication? Can you understand what sort of person might say that or where he might be from? Phonetically reproducing speech usually does nothing more than turn your character into a stereotype, an ignoramus, or a laughing-stock, which is effective at times in comedic writing, but not helpful in any other sort of writing.

Bizarre misspellings and made-up contractions, especially if they are used in abundance, make reading any dialect an awful slog. As Janet Burroway tells us in her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft: "There is no point in spelling phonetically any word as it is ordinarily pronounced; almost all of us say things like 'fur' for for, 'uv' for of, 'wuz' for was, 'an' for and, 'sez' for says. Nearly everyone drops the g in words ending in ing, at least now and then. When you misspell these words in dialogue, you indicate that the speaker is ignorant enough to spell them that way when writing."

Dialect is "heard" though the reading of it, and if reading it is a slow, laborious nightmare, you'll lose your reader. Who wants to read an entire book where you have to creep along trying to translate every word, every contraction, every misspelling into something understandable?

Here is a published example of what I call "Old-Fashioned Really Bad Southern/Black Dialect" from Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Tom is talking with Aunt Chloe who says to him:
"S'pose we must be resigned; but oh Lord! how ken I? If I know'd anything whar you's goin', or how they'd sarve you! Missis says she'll try and 'deem ye, in a year or two; but Lor! nobody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills 'em! I've hearn 'em tell how dey works 'em up on dem ar plantations."

"There'll be the same God there, Chloe, that there is here."

"Well," said Aunt Chloe, "s'pose dere will; but de Lord lets drefful things happen, sometimes. I don't seem to get no comfort dat way."
Speaking of "drefful"! Try reading that passage out loud. Granted, it was written in 1852, but still, it sounds ridiculous to the modern ear and to the modern sense of proportion regarding those who are "Other." Besides, 150 years ago readers had time to soldier through long, convoluted dialogue like this; nowadays, people have many media vying for their time. Few people want to spend any more time than necessary trying to decipher language.

Dialect read from the page must sound lyrical. It's got to have a music to it. If the reader has never ever heard a particular accent or speaking style, that makes it all the more difficult. It's hard enough for the eye to translate the words to the melody of speech; it's even harder to "hear" a particular character's voice if the author has used a mess of contractions and misspellings. And to complicate matters, if the reader has never actually heard an English or Cajun or Spanish or Black Urban accent, can you help her "hear" it by the way you write the dialogue on the page? Many teachers and writers would say no. It is a Catch-22: if you've never heard a southern accent, the way it is written might not evoke how it really sounds; but if you have heard a southern accent, how can the writer evoke that without it coming off as unreadable?

Two Major Ways of Using Dialectic Accent Effectively

On the surface, I believe that you only need two things to get basic dialect right: 1) a few key phrases, words, and/or unusual turns of speech, and 2) probably as few as four or perhaps as many as ten dialectical conventions (usually carefully chosen spellings or contractions) that you use somewhat regularly for that particular character's voice.

First Example
Diana Gabaldon did a great job laying out the rhythm of a Scottish brogue in her novel Outlander. She did it basically using just a few conventions:

  • aye (for yes)
  • nay (for no)
  • ye (for you)
  • dinnae (for didn't)
  • canna (for cannot)
  • as (instead of that---as in "not as I heard" or "It's something as he needs")
"There was nae doubt, ye see, of Colum's courage, nor yet of his mind, but only of his body. 'Twas clear he'd never be able to lead his men into battle again. But there was Dougal, sound and whole, if a bit reckless and hot-headed. And he stood behind his brother's chair and vowed to follow Colum's word and be his legs and his sword-arm in the field. So a suggestion was made that Colum be allowed to become laird, as he should in the ordinary way, and Dougal be made war chieftain, to lead the clan in time of battle." Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
I could hear the rolling R's in the country speech. I thought Liam Neeson had invaded my head, and I walked around speaking with a Scottish accent for days! And it was all 100% readable and understandable. In Gabaldon's books, whenever a character used a term or a phrase the heroine didn't comprehend, the protagonist asked or she puzzled it out, so that was a real advantage to the reader, too, since we were probably in the same place of puzzlement that the character was most of the time as she was becoming accustomed to the sound of a new dialect.

The most important thing, though, is even if the reader cannot conjure up the sound of a Scottish brogue, all of the dialogue still makes complete and total sense.

Second Example
In my own novel, Ricochet In Time, a secondary character, Estelline, grew up in South Carolina where they have a "southern" accent that's a little slangy and loose. I specifically told the reader early on that Estelline possessed a southern accent, and I immediately followed that up with an "ain't" and a "y'all" in her speech—or something along those lines. I also gave her a phrase here or there that was unusual. (For instance: "She don't know whether to whittle or wind her watch.") In this example, Estelline's lover Ruth says:

"Just what are you gaping at?"

"Your cute little tush," Estelline said in her inimitable southern twang.

"Very funny."

"Cain't help myself. I was just thinking what a good-looking woman you turned out to be."
Estelline doesn't always use "proper" English, but she's not an uneducated woman. She's intelligent and well-read, so I had no desire to make her sound like an ignoramus. I put in just enough dialect using contractions and cadence that I hope led the reader to hear her accent. But I purposely made sure I didn't overdo it.

Third Example
Here is how Paula Woods handles an instance of dialect in one of her mysteries. The main character, Charlotte Justice, is a black Los Angeles homicide detective who speaks "proper" English at work and whenever it's called for, but just as easily slips into a spicier or more southern vernacular. While conducting an interview, the witness says to her:
"Now Trudy's people was from Three Notch, outside of Montgom'ry. Mine was from Perdido, a li'l dent in the road named after the river what runs through the place. Town used to be so small and so poor there wudn't even colored and white drinkin' fountains when I lived there. Ev'body just drank from the river." Inner City Blues by Paula L. Woods.
If you read that out loud, it flows well. In fact, if you've ever heard a southern accent-and perhaps even if you haven't-you'll find yourself lapsing into a slower, differently accented voice than you'd hear in the northern parts of the U.S. The idea, then, is instead of trying to imitate the exact speech, give the reader a FLAVOR of it. Create words and sounds that convey a character's speech patterns, without burdening your readers with "sounds" that are hard to read. Those of us who have never heard a particular slang or accent may not get it anyway, but we'll know when your character speaks that he is a bit different. Those who do know the sound of the accent will fill in the blanks. And everyone can make complete sense of the dialogue without struggling.

Using Grammar and Word Choice for Rhythm in Dialect

You can do a great deal to convey distinctive styles of speaking by the words you choose for your character and the order you put them in. Your Canadian characters may say "Ay?" periodically or a military soldier might say, "Ma'am?" instead of "Excuse me, what did you say?" Your New Jersey guy might pronounce some words with a broader accent ("Thoity poiple boids for thirty purple birds), and your French flight attendant's use of the word "the" may always sound like "zee."

Inserting "foreign" words into dialogue also can help to define a character's background and his or her speaking cadence. For instance, a Jewish character might say:

"Reuven! What kind of schlemiel are you anyway? The old proverb-you know it. 'What you don't see with your eyes, don't witness with your mouth.' Good words, those. I suggest you follow it!"
The reader might not know what schlemiel means (a bumbling loser who can't do anything right), but from the context, it's clear the speaker is upbraiding Reuven for gossiping, and you get a sense of a little different speaking cadence.

It's important to distinguish vocal styles between characters. You don't want them all to sound exactly alike. It's also very helpful if the language naturally gives clues to age, gender, race, etc. Consider this bit of advice to Luke Skywalker from the aged Jedi Master, Yoda, in George Lucas's movie, "The Return of The Jedi":
"Remember, a Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Luke... Luke... do not... do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor or suffer your father's fate you will. Luke, when gone am I... the last of the Jedi will you be. Luke, the Force runs strong in your family. Pass on what you have learned, Luke. There is... another... Sky... walker."
Even if you've never heard Yoda's raspy little Germanic-sounding voice at the movies, the reader can't help but hear an ancient-sounding, old-fashioned way of speaking that seems right for a 600-year-old sci-fi/fantasy character.

The words you use matter and they signify a great deal. I love this cockney English example from a talented British mystery writer who focuses on a lower-class main character, Eva Wylie:

"My ma is such a bad ma she couldn't keep a home together for more than a couple of weeks at a time, and she didn't give goolies for her own kids. So we got took off of her. And did she care? Did she-bollocks. Out of sight, out of mind-that's Ma's motto. Never mind we was sleeping eight to a room. Never mind we was getting our legs strapped, never mind the food was cat vomit, never mind it was so cold you could see your breath indoors. No, never mind all that, so long as she could suck on a bottle and score a few quid off of man-trash." Musclebound by Liza Cody, 1997, (p.23)
Read that aloud and read it fast. There's a rhythm to it, a cadence that lends itself to you hearing a cockney accent—Liza Doolittle before Professor Higgins teaches her upper class manners in My Fair Lady. The best dialogue writers use a combination of appropriate slang, a few misspellings and/or contractions, and careful attention to word rhythm and cadence. In my mind, Alice Walker shows that she is the master of this in her wonderful epistolary novel, The Color Purple:
"Dear God,
He beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church. I may have got something in my eye bit I didn't wink. I don't even look at mens. That's the truth. I look at women, tho, cause I'm not scared of them. Maybe cause my mama cuss me you think I kept mad at her. But I ain't. I felt sorry for mama. Trying to believe his story kilt her."
Celie's description of her life and of the abuses that rain down upon her is not at all difficult to read. It's easy to see that the girl is young and undereducated, but as the book progresses and Celie learns more, her diction, sentence length, and word choice become more sophisticated. Alice Walker grows and expands Celie's character not just through her experiences, but by the very way her character writes down her thoughts and feelings.

Your Final Goal: Avoid Abusing Dialect

When it comes to dialect, I recommend moderation in all ways. Unless you have a very good ear and are well-acquainted with a particular accent or dialect, you are more than likely to bungle it. So please keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Think about your characters' backgrounds, their education level, their ethnicity and social class, where they live (and where they grew up if it's different from their current locale). Take into consideration also your reading audience. If you know in general who your readers are, and if you must use unfamiliar slang and vernacular, be sure you make it understandable by context at the very least, or even better, by explanation.
  • Choose your character's words wisely. For instance, "He done gone and messed up agin" would be a line you wouldn't be likely to hear in New York City, but you are likely to hear it in Mississippi. The same goes for other regional colloquialisms. You won't hear a Londoner say, "I'm fixin' to make the grits" as a Texan would, but then again, someone from Dallas isn't going to say, "Don't forget to knock me up in the morning" which an Englishman would say (meaning wake me, not impregnate me). Listen for distinctive language and vocabulary. That can tell a great deal about a character.
  • Use contractions sparingly, and try to stay away from the more complicated versions (w'dn't for wouldn't, for instance) because they're hard to read and add little to the flow of the character's speech. If one character tends to say y'all, ain't, ol', 'tis, dint, 'cept, and so forth, make him or her consistent.
  • Use misspellings sparingly, and once you use a particular spelling with that character, stick with it. For those readers who have an ear and an eye for dialect and accent, waffling by the author is noticeable. Alice Walker, for instance, has Miss Celie use 'kilt' for killed, 'cause' for because, and 'mens' for men. She's consistent in that usage, and the reader quickly grows accustomed to those oddball spellings.
  • Assess your use of grammar and the way you organize words in a sentence. Non-native English speakers sometimes do interesting things with sentence order. For instance, a Russian baker might arrange the words in her sentences like this:
  • The baking expert stopped at the girl's side. "Svetlana," she said, gesturing toward the bread Svetlana was kneading. "This dough." The apprentice stared down at the lump on the bread board. "Is not good. Is flat." The expert looked at her sharply. "You are liking bad bread? I no like flat. Taste no good."
  • Limit your use of misspellings, bad grammar, and cheesy accents if you are trying to point out that the character is rural or ignorant. It's very easy to overdo it, and then the character becomes a caricature—not someone who feels real.
  • When in doubt, consult with others regarding your use of dialect. Try reading the dialogue out loud and see if your ear picks up anything unusual or awkward. Give it to several others and have them read it out loud so you can listen. Do they falter? Where and why? What is their opinion of the effectiveness of the lines? Hear what they say and adjust accordingly.
The key thing to remember is that you are trying to give your characters unique voices while still giving your reader an enjoyable and smooth reading experience. Do everything you can to reach that goal.
_____
2005 Lori L. Lake

From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.

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