Monday, February 25, 2008

On Dialect

I've been dealing with two different projects today -- very different projects. Different settings, subgenres, themes. Different target readers, different experience levels from two different writers.

But they have one thing in common.

They both rely heavily on dialect. And they tend to get the dialect right and wrong in much the same ways. So I thought it might be useful to give a quick overview on dialect.

First thing to remember is that when we're talking about dialect, we're talking about spoken language. Spoken language = dialogue. Right? So this means that your dialect is best confined to what comes between the quotation marks. On occasion, you might want to include some dialect in other parts of the narrative -- in interior monologue, for example. But as a general principle, it's best kept between the quotes.

There are three basic aspects to dialect: pronunciation, slang, and sentence structure. The first of these, pronunciation, is the weakest way to convey dialect in writing.

Let's look at an example. Let's take the word pen. Depending on where you live and your personal regional dialect, when you read that word, you'll "hear" it in different ways. Some folks will hear it as pin, some as pen, and some will hear something approximating an Italian demi-vowel: peh-un.

And that's okay. There's no reason in the world that a typical writer working with typical prose would need to worry about how the reader would pronounce a particular word. As long as meaning and context are clear, pronunciation doesn't matter. In fact, that's the beauty of written language. It allows us to comprehend each other without having to puzzle out accents.

Writers sometimes reach for dialectic spellings of words in order to signal something about the cadence of a character's speech. Caribbean pirate? Shiver me timbers, yer pirate might be a-sayin'. Got a Nazi headmistress? Ve haf vays off making you shmarter, she says vit a shmack off de rular.

If you're like most readers, your reading pace slowed while reading the italicized portions of the previous paragraph. This is because pronunciation cues like odd spellings or punctuation need to be translated out of that dialect as we read the words.

Let that sink in for a moment.

You put all that work into getting your spelling to signal a particular accent, and the reader will automatically translate it into their own personal dialect as they read. That translation process slows them down.

Do I need to elaborate any further than this? Perhaps I should instead refer to John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, in which he classifies these "oddities of imitation or spelling" as "amateur sins" which are "matters so obvious to the experienced reader or writer that they seem at first glance to have no place in a book for serious writers.... [C]lumsy errors of the kind I've been treating help show clearly what we mean when we speak of 'things that distract the reader's mind from the fictional dream,' and nothing in what I'm saying is more fundamental than the concept of the uninterrupted fictional dream."

In other words, your job is to lull the reader into forgetting that they're reading, and you can't do that if you continually call attention to the arrangement of the letters and punctuation marks on the page.

Enough about pronunciation, then.

If you want to use dialect to signal something about a character's background, much better to use vocabulary or sentence structure to do so. It's almost become a cliche to have a Scottish warlord talk about wee bairns and bonny lasses, but that's because it works: these terms are strongly associated with Scottish speech.

Ditto for the guru using Yoda-esque inversions, the Wooster-like Englishman with his "I say" and "By Jove," and the Frenchwoman who asks, "This hat is pretty, is it not?" Phrasings and word choices can signal as much about a character's dialect as any attempt to convey an accent.

I'm not advocating for cliches. Not at all. Instead I'm advocating that you listen to dialect for something more than pronunciation. Listen for different usages or slang terms, for different ways of organizing the parts of speech into coherent concepts. You can get away with a little bit of dialect-specific spelling here and there, but your writing will be much stronger if you avoid that in favor of other techniques.



Ian Thomas Healy said...

In my 2007 NaNoWriMo book, I wrote a scene set in Australia and limited most dialect-specifics to "Oy" (Hey) and "Yer" (Your/You're). The main reason for this is that when you're cranking out 1700 words a day every day, you just don't have time to translate for yourself. My readers didn't seem to have any issue with it, but then again, NaNoWriMo is a totally different animal, innit? ;)


Edittorrent said...

I remember reading Gone with the Wind, or some other southern book, and I was baffled by this word: Gwine. It appeared in no dictionaries. Turns out it was the author's rendition of what she thought was dialect of "going". I grew up in the south and didn't understand it... just a cautionary tale for those trying to spell dialect.

Carol Burge said...

Very informative post. Especially since I have Spanish accents in my ms. :)


green_knight said...

Where do you stand on use of language in historical novels? Few people will attempt to write dialogue in the language of Chaucer, but once we get to the 16th century onwards, where we have a lot of examples of colloquial as well as formal language, and readers will be familiar with them - how do you evoke the language of Shakespeare without actually borrowing from him?

Genella deGrey said...

As a reader I LOVE old dialect in historicals! I probably get through books slower because I give each person their own voice/accent. In fact when the characters sound modern it kills the flavor of the period for me - Like no seasoning on food.

That being said . . . As a writer if my editor wants a less-formal tone, BOOM! It's gone.

Yes it's compromising my art, yes I'll probably have 50 SCA fanatics sending me hate emails, but if I want to get published I'll make the sacrifice.


Unhinged said...

I don't care to read dialect while reading for just the reason you shared: it slows me down. I'd rather be told I'm in Ireland, maybe read one or two Irish phrases or expressions here and there, but for the most part I want to imagine the dialect in my mind.

Much like the way they do this in movies. A good example is RED OCTOBER with Sean Connery. The movie begins with the Russian characters speaking Russian, but once watchers "get the picture" the Russians speak English. But we still know they're speaking Russian.

benwah said...

This is a great explication of the problem of writing in strict dialect. Thanks.

I remember "gwine" from Huck Finn, and it wasn't until I started reading some of the dialect aloud, that I figured out what was being said.

A very few words written in dialect can be a clue, but even better are speech patterns. George Higgins is great about the Boston accent precisely because he doesn't get into the whole "pahk the cahh" business, but rather focuses on how his characters string words together.

jwhit said...

Good topic. I've run into this in a few ways in my own work. In one, I have a British/Indian psychiatrist who doesn't use contractions in her speech. She speaks formally. Yet my reviewers continually put in 'change to contractions' so that the speech is more as they speak instead of how the character speaks. I'm leaving as I've created it until I hear from a professional editor.

We also have a little kid of three. To make her dialog more childlike, we sprinkle in child pronunciation, like 'fwee' for 'three'. Yes? No?

In another work, I wanted to have the right language of teen boys speaking to each other. I had a hard time with that because I doubted my own knowledge about it. I still don't know if I have that right because I wasn't privy to how they spoke to each other when I was at that age because I'm female. I tested with a few males.

So age and gender appropriate speech are aspects of dialect you might want to include in your thinking, as well as country of origin.


Liane Gentry Skye said...

Now, see, being a low country belle...gwine, for me is not's gullah speak for "going to be". The southern variant of "going to be" would be more like "gone" or "gonna".

In writing, I'd never use any of them. (Mostly because I have and it so did NOT work! :D )

I tend to depend on the character "listening" to the dialogue to comment on the regional rhythmic variances of accent and colloquialisms. The choice, order, and cadence of words in themselves can also give the flavor of region wihtout resorting to phonetic spellings.

I've thought about this one a lot, because I've been told so many times that I "write southern".

Great topic!!!!