Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I'm not a fan of non-standard spelling to convey dialect (that's SO 19th Century). It's confusing, and often discriminatory (why spell certain speakers' words phonetically and not others, when English spelling is not phonetic?).

But how then do we convey when a speaker or a POV character have a distinctive way of speaking? Let's say she's Irish, or from Chicago, or he's a 2nd Century Roman warrior?

First, I think, we have to do our research. We have to get enough experience with the rhythm of this speaking culture's sentences and the lingo to convey it accurately. But then, we should cut back (usually). Even without spelling irregularities, "authentic" dialect can put off readers. After all, that Roman warrior spoke Latin. We're already "translating" his speech into English, so we want to give a flavor without choking the reader.

I've been thinking of what constitutes a flavor. First, the rhythm of the sentences can give a flavor of the speaker's culture. There's an old book called English as We Speak It in Ireland which gives examples of sentences only an Irishperson would say:
I went to town yesterday in all of the rain, and if I didn't get a wetting, there's no cottoner in Cork. (That is, he got wet.)
An illigent song he sang, I'll go bail.

The author (PW Joyce) remarks that Irish English uses negation (if I didn't), stock phrases (I'll go bail), and reverse order (putting the object first -- An illigent song he sang) for emphasis. This is not a dialect that honors Struck and White's edict to "use no unnecessary words," or rather, the Irish don't think there are unnecessary words!

Read in the vernacular to pick up the sentence rhythm.  Watch films and TV shows =made= (not just set) in the culture. For historical settings, read books written then (you might have to read in translation, of course) or plays that would have been performed then.

(The British filmmakers, you know, are famous for making everyone else, especially Romans, sound English. Not just speak English, but sound it. All the rich Romans sound like Lord Olivier, and all the poor ones sound Cockney, like the Artful Dodger.)

But also, there are certain words or types of words that can be used without confusing the reader or making the character opaque. Here are some I've thought of, but please add!

Variations of "you". This, far more than "I", for some reason, marks a dialect quite precisely. Any linguist who hears "youse" knows the speaker is from the Great Lakes-Midwest (probably Chicago). "You-uns" is Pennsylvanian.
You all

What others have you heard? When would you use them? What about our Roman warrior, who doesn't speak English, but must be presented as speaking English?

Curses and other angry expletives: Even if the reader doesn't know what the word means, the placement and the context will make it clear that "glupak!" is a curse word.  Spelling can distinguish dialects when you're dealing with English speakers:

Wonder words: These are words that seem to erupt spontaneously, and because they're spontaneous, they're going to give a sense of the character's background. You can do this is the actual language if the character is foreign. Examples:
Mon Dieu!

Other thoughts?



Keli said...

You've touched on it with wonder words, also wonder phrases. In the south, they use wonder phrases: it's brewin' up a toad strangler or no bigger than a minute. I've also noticed (moving around the country as much as I have) that different regions tend to name people more, as in "There's a big rainstorm coming, Keli. Can't be good for the garden, Keli. Are you going to dig that trench before the ground freezes, Keli?" I'm not sure what to do about your Roman warrior except maybe make his speech more formal.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, Alicia, I agree with you on this.

I use many variations to distinguish between characters and their dialogue. It can be fun :)

A southern woman might say, "y'all headin' to lunch?"

I might add an 'eh' at the end of a Canadian's dialogue.

I'll insert a few French words in a French character's dialogue and won't use contractions. "The mademoiselle knows what she is doing." or he'd say merci instead of thanks, or oui and other obvious words.

If I watch a foreign show, say for example, a BBC production, I write down expressions and swear words.

BUT, there's nothing worse than reading a book filled with spelling mistakes when you do speak the language in question.
And no, folks... Online translators DO NOT work.

My rule of thumb: Never assume your readers are as ignorant as you are. Find someone who speaks the language and have them proofread you ;)


Stella Omega said...

Oh you have hit one of my worst enemies and baddest habits! I love dialects, and a few years back I was writing age of sail-- everyone spoke differently, and I tried to convey it all. It was so much fun but needless to say, that file is sitting in the "MUST REVISE folder.

Alicia said...

Nancy, how do you decide which French words to put in? That is, would you put in the things that a Frenchspeaker speaking English would say-- mon Dieu! or She's a pretty jeune fille maybe? Or?

I was also thinking that another "marker" of dialect might be greetings (this also of class maybe): "Mornin', ma'am."
"Good morning, madam."
"Top of the morning to you!"

Also, when you drop letters (say at the beginning or end-- Tis and mornin'), what words would you do that with?

Also maybe terms of address, like "mate" and "dude" and "cherie"?


Alicia said...

Keli, the example you have of the south speak also sounds like in the South, they use (like the Irish) more words than are precisely needed to build emphasis. Also hyperbole. I love that toad strangler line!

Anonymous said...

Alicia, you ask: Nancy, how do you decide which French words to put in?

First, I'll choose words most Anglophones know and recognize. Or words that are very close in spelling, and make their meaning obvious. Sometimes, I'll use the another character's dialogue to 'translate' the words.

"Vous voulez-quoi?"
"What do I want?" Jane repeated. "Come here, and I'll show you."

Inner dialogue works too.

"Quelque chose à boire?"

Something to drink? Jane considered the menu. Good idea. "Yes. I'll have a Coke please."

Nancy :)

I also read the sentence aloud, with the said 'French' accent LOL

"Also, when you drop letters (say at the beginning or end-- Tis and mornin'), what words would you do that with?"

Again, to me, that's a question of reading it aloud and listening to the phonetics.

But the important thing, IMO, is to remain constant. If your character drops their g's at the end of a word, then do it all the time.

Anonymous said...

1) Rhythm
2) Vocabulary
3) Judicious use of appropriate slang
4) Grammar (or lack thereof)

I will use words like "gonna" or "dunno" if appropriate but I feel that these have truly become shorthand these days.

When I read this post, one book that falls into the "exception that proves the rule" category came to mind. Richard Adams' The Plague Dogs has a character (the fox, or tod as he is called) who speaks such a thick form of Geordie that there is a glossary included at the end of the book.

Does this separate the reader from the character. Yes, but that is partly the point since the other characters, and by extension the reader, are supposed to be skeptical and perhaps distrustful of the fox. So in this rare case the technique works.