Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Responses to Comments on Dialect

I'm always so impressed by the thoughtful comments people leave on this blog, but the comments in response to the post On Dialect deserve a post of their own.

Ian says,
I wrote a scene set in Australia and limited most dialect-specifics to "Oy" (Hey) and "Yer" (Your/You're).

Ian, though there may be some debating this point, I think "Oy" or "Oi" might count as a word in its own right. I'm curious about something. I understand that "Oy" is used in places other than Australia, but whenever I hear or read it, I connect it to Australia. Am I alone in this?

This leads to another point. When you're using a phonetic like "yer," you may find that it is too broad or common to indicate any particular dialect. We also say "yer" in Chicago, as in, Yer gotta coupla to-tree hoses in yer gratch? To those spared the hideousness of my local dialect, that would translate to, Do you have any extra hoses in your garage?

What's the strong written dialect in that sentence, and what is the weak? The weak is yer and gratch. That may be precisely how we pronounce those words around here, but we ought to be too ashamed to commit it to paper.

And the strong dialect is coupla to-tree, or, couple of two-three, which is Chicagoese for some number greater than one and which usually indicates there are items to spare. See, e.g., coupla to-tree beers in da fritch, which we all know is what one offers a guest on a hot summer day. Anybody who knows the Chicago dialect will recognize that phrase and pin it to this area. I don't think any non-Chicagoans run around saying coupla to-tree in place of extra or plenty.

One of the most commonly used phonetic indicators is an apostrophe in place of the g in a present participle. Walkin'. Talkin'. Thinkin'. Sleepin'. But can anyone pinpoint a specific dialect which can claim this speech mannerism as its own? It belongs to just about anyone and probably signals informality more than dialect.

All of which is to say, phonetic dialect is slippery. For Australian dialect, Oy may work better than yer. But as a general proposition for any dialect, it's a good idea to pick just one or two phonetic representations (if any) and stick with them. Pick ones that are easy on the eyes so that they won't slow the reader. Ian picked Oy and yer, and left the rest of the text in standard English, and that's probably not a bad thing.

About Gwine

Two commenters mentioned reading gwine in books as a phonetic Southernism for going to, and being uncertain what gwine meant. This perfectly illustrates the danger in this kind of writing. It's confusing. It's non-standard. And it's probably best not to attempt phonetic dialect at all.

Green Knight says,

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?

It's a very tricky business to write historicals that sound authentic but still appeal to readers. There are so many factors to take into consideration. First, who is your audience? Genre novels probably have less room for writerly acrobatics than do litfic or genfic. Consider for example Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, which was written in an approximation of the dialect of the Revolutionary War period:

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,--the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-- the Children, having all upon the Fly, among the rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.

Yeah. It goes on like that for about eight hundred pages. I'm told the dialect becomes more transparent once you get through the first hundred or so pages. I wouldn't know. I've never read past page 6. This is one of those books I intend to read "someday," because it must surely be brilliant. All the scholars say so.

So if your name is Thomas Pynchon, you have a lot more leeway in historical dialect. If your name is J.P. Crimewriter or Melisandra LaRomantique, probably not so much leeway. Aim for hints of dialect rather than outright imitations. You wouldn't want to imitate Shakespeare, for example, because he wrote verse. Not prose. Dude was all about iambic pentameter.

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

You can practically hear the drumbeat in that line. Yeah, okay, he threw in an extra downbeat here and there, but I think we can let him slide on it.

So be careful what you're imitating. You might be able to toss in an occasional anon, thee or knave with far less risk than outright imitations of historical speech. And those kinds of things will feel more natural to modern readers if they're used during more formal moments. It would be one thing for a man to say, "I beg thee, madam, for but a moment's consideration," during an evening ball to his dancing partner. It would be quite another thing for him to say it as he's ravishing her in the coat closet.


Genella deGrey said...

If a hero is ravishing me in the coat closet, he can say anything his little ol' heart desires.


Dave Shaw said...

Gee, I've never written a scene with a hero ravishing anyone in a coat closet, with or without dialect. Should I? ;-)

On a serious note, 'oy' doesn't mean Australia to me. I read 'oy' and look for 'vey', and if it isn't there I think it's implied. Yes, I grew up in New York, and although I'm not Jewish I got a lot of exposure. If you want me to think Aus, you need to hit a few other words. Maybe I'm just a weird case, though.

Ian said...

One of the toughest books I ever read was Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, which takes writing in dialect to an extreme. If you're not familiar with it, it's a first-person narrative in a post-apocalyptic England written completely in the dialect of the time. I probably can't do it justice but I'll try to recreate my comment here in said dialogue:

Wun of ther tuffest books I evur red wuz Russul Hobin's Riddley Walker, witch takes writin in dialeck to an extreem. If yer not familyur widdit, its a furst purson narrativ in a post apocaclips Inglun writ compleetly in ther dialeck o the time.

Once you read it for awhile, you start to get the rhythm of the words down, but it's still very much like reading a foreign language that you don't speak very well. To be honest, I made a real effort to finish it but eventually the "translating" got the better of me.

Despite that, it's a good story, and worth a look.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for delurking, but the use of two very unremarkable words to indicate an Australian is worrisome.

When I look at 'Oy' and 'yer,' I do't think of my own (very Australian) modes of speech. If the writer in question were writing about a middle class woman from, say, Melbourne, then I would wonder about that woman's background.

The last time I personally said 'Oy' was when a friend stood on my toes, heavily, since middle-class, middle-aged educated women brought up in my suburb only use 'Oy' to close friends and near relatives. Being Jewish, I then said 'Oy vey' because they had left mud all over my shoes. Since I'm Jewish and very Australian, I then became upset that 'Oy vey' had somehow replaced 'Yoicks' or 'Oops' or 'Oh no' and wondered if I was watching too much American TV.

That's what it comes down to, for me. I use just enough dialect to indicate the character and their background. And if it's a dialect I don't actually know very well, then I use it even more sparingly.

It's the same as using phrases in foreign or dead languages (including Chaucerian English) and in using invented words (especially in speculative fiction). The trick is not how much you use, I suspect, but how well it integrates with the story and how easy it is for the reader.

It comes back to that translation issue. If the reader has to translate, then there must be a really strong reason for any non-standard language to be there.

Anonymous said...

The worst dialect I've read was part of David Feintuch's 'Voices of Hope' which is partly written in extrapolated 24th century streetslang. I wanted to have a translation and ended up mostly skipping those parts and giving the book away.

To us whingeing poms, 'oy' says 'north of England.' I would never have connected it with Australia at all.

Using 'G'day' and 'mate', having a roo bar on your Toyota, wattles and gum trees, drovers, going to the dunny (and checking under the seat for redbacks)... all of those would say 'Australian' much more than 'oy'. ('Aye,' as a marker for Scottish works for me, just as couple-to-three would for Chicago [I'm not familiar with the phrase, but it's both understandable _and_ a strong marker])

You wouldn't want to imitate Shakespeare, for example, because he wrote verse. Not prose. Dude was all about iambic pentameter.

In his plays, he mostly polished the bits that are attracting attention, but there's a good deal of prose stuffed inbetween the verse bits.

'Went you not to her yesterday?' 'Fasten your ear on my advisings' 'First, know, my horse is tired; my master and mistress fallen out' 'God forbid sir, but a knave should have some countenance at his friend's request'.

All of these are sentences that could well be used in dialect, and though not famous, they are pure Shakespeare. And yet I would be reluctant to use any of them.

Oh, would I had been mugged by an idea less preposterous!

Anonymous said...

good points about Oy and needing more. But I think where that Aussification of Oy is coming from is the use in the chants;
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,
Oy, Oy, Oy.

Mark 'Jacko' Jackson [battery ads in the US I think back in the early 90s] used to say Oy in his ads.

Now, contextually, it's normally heard at sporting events or as Gill said, when someone does something to you, and you need to get their attention and just before you might punch them in the nose out of annoyance.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Add me to the Oy = Yiddish vote. It's one I use often.

Oi, however, in my neck of the woods is generally referenced as a musical genre that's derivative of punk. You pogo to it (not pogo dance, mind you. Just pogo).

Just 2c... I've never read Pynchon, either; it's too much work. Hopefully, I'll continue down this path of having earned two degrees in English while avoiding most of what we call Classic Literature.

Edittorrent said...

Green Knight, yes he included prose, but for my money, the difference between something that sounds Shakespearean and something that sounds Elizabethan is the meter.

I think that sporting chant is what linked Australian and Oy for me. But it's a weak link. Glad I'm not the only one who also links Oy to other dialects.


Edittorrent said...

Also, Gillpolack, thank you for delurking. I have a few of your compatriots as friends, and was nearly ready to rouse them to entering this discussion for a little native insight. You've just spared me from nagging them. :)


EB said...

Color me another person who reads "Oy" as either British (courtesy of a few friends) or Yiddish.

A few of you have raised the issue of dialect in future-based novels. Two spring to mind: Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange" is navigable largely because he uses a generous handful of words & usages but not so many as to drown the reader. Will Self's "Book of Dave," on the other hand is partially written in such thick future dialect I found myself moving my lips (in the bookstore, no less!) attempting to make a phoenetic stab at translating it. I don't mind working a bit, but the effort was too much and I passed on the book after a chapter.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad my delurking was useful. I might do it again someday :).

Ian said...

See me ride out of that sunset
On your television screen..."

-"TNT" by AC/DC, certified Australian band. :)

Jan: I totally remember those commercials! Wow!


Keri Ford said...

(yeah! I found you...lost all my links and my memory ain't so hot!)

Chiming in late here, but I've been raised in the south, still live here and I have no idea what 'Gwine" in. I first read it as Swine *g*

the more popular for 'going to' would be 'gonna'. Want to = wanna

substituting ' for a g is a big thing too. or using it to combine words that shouldn't go together. Would'a is a real word 'round here instead of 'Would have'

To label your book southern without tossing the reader back, using ya'll for you all works just fine.

"Hey ya'll, I'm gonna start walkin' my block in'tha afternoons shortly after supper, anybody wanna join me?"

PatriciaW said...

I grew up in NY and heard "to-tree" all the time. Knew exactly what it meant. So I would never associate it with Chicago. LOL!

Lesson learned: stay away from dialect.

Sometimes when reading, I hear the characters speaking in dialect even though it's not written that way. The author has done such a good job of establishing the setting and time period as well as describing the characters that I just hear it. Now that's writing!

Edittorrent said...

benwah, I remember Burgess helpfully included a glossary in the back of Clockwork Orange, and I kept flipping back and forth. I still remember that he used "droogs" for "buddies," and "horrowshow" for "cool."

He based the punk vocab on Russian, I recall, hinting that Russians had a lot of influence over British culture then. Reminds me of the late, lamented show Firefly, where the use of Chinese slang indicates that at some point, the Chinese had been in ascendance.