Talkin’ Dialect

Sorry folks, I’m from the South and proud of my y’alls and my several-syllable pronunciations of single-syllable words. When the word police complain about dialect in writing, I have to ignore them. Like the food police, I think they lose me when they deny our regional individuality.

Still, dialect can be tricky. a writer peer once said that she believed written dialect always made the speaker look stupid–it insulted them. To that, I have to respond with simple reality: if your Scottish or New Orleans character speaks in perfect, Webster’s English using perfect, Strunk and White style, I’m distracted. Sure there are people who speak that way, but not the ship hand I met on a North Sea ferry, not the hawker I met in Jackson Square.

Yet I do agree that dialect is difficult to read. When studying Tom Sawyer with my son, I chose to use an audiotape along with the text. We found it easier to understand at least at first. In some ways, heavy dialect can be just as distracting as no dialect.

How can a writer balance dialect with readability? To me, the key is in thinking of dialect as an effect. How prevalent is it? How confusing are the phonetics? Is the point that it isn’t understandable? I’ve made the decision on some shorts to use dialog with three techniques:

1) Limited phonetics. Even if the speaker actually infuses their accent into every word, I can adapt just a couple of words in each sentence to get the effect but keep it readable.

2) Figures of speech. By using the regional coins of phrase, I can pull in their culture while keeping it readable.

3) Limiting characters in dialect. I don’t want to exhaust the reader, so I try to limit to one character in dialect for the first part of the story. After the reader is used to each character’s voice, I can use two, even three if I want a feeling of confusion.

So today I’m sending a submission that opens in dialect. Because it’s authentic.

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5 Comments

  1. As a reader, if the writer drops a few words of dialect here and there, I start “hearing” everything said by that character in dialect, even if it’s not written that way. I think it’s all in giving the reader the right cues.

  2. I think you are right, liz. A few phonetics, a few figures of speech–well researched and executed–create the illusion of speech in dialect. Thanks for sharing that point.

  3. Thanks, Magic. I think the goal for me is in learning the right balance through continuing to use dialect and tweaking my style. I want to be one of those writers who know how to do it well.

  4. I agree with your decision. I use dialect sparingly, but I try to read my dialog out loud. If I “hear” the word in dialect, then I write it that way as well.

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