Storyssentials: Dialect

“De man ain’t asleep — he’s dead. You hold still — I’ll go en see.”

He went, and bent down and looked, and says:

“It’s a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked, too. He’s ben shot in de back. I reck’n he’s ben dead two er three days. Come in, Huck, but doan’ look at his face — it’s too gashly.”

That confusing bit of prose comes from the famous Huckleberry Finn and it probably couldn’t be published today because of a new unwritten rule: In written stories, dialect isn’t about accents. Dialect is grammar. Thank goodness Twain was published, but let’s take a look at this new rule…

Whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel, you could say that dialect seldom breaks down into umlauts and gutturals, vowel points and dropped Gs, all slathered with a nice layer of contractions and apostrophes. Though phonetics factor into identifying various regions of speech, the words used and the order in which they are used creates any given dialect. In his Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (here on Amazon), Dave King shares this little nugget in his chapter devoted reading your manuscript aloud:

“When you use an unusual spelling, you are bound to draw the reader’s attention away from the dialogue and onto the means of getting it across. If the dialect gets thick enough, it isn’t read so much as translated… So how do you get a character’s geographical or education or social background across? The best way is through word choice, cadence, and grammar.”

We could just call this regional syntax. When we split hairs over the minute details in grammar, we can discover the country of origin, education, income level, and social circles of the speaker. Is it hard work on the side of the writer? Yes, up front, and it takes more guts than much of writing, but the payoffs end up as great as All the Pretty HorsesThe Secret Pilgrim, and The Price of Milk and Honey.

Let’s take the sentence:

American: Jack feels ill at school today. He ate too much.

And see how it looks in six other regions:

England: Jack feels ill at school today. He’s eaten too much.

Germany: Jack faces sickness today from eating too much at school.

Greek:  Ill today at school, Jack. He eats plenty more than others.

Spanish: It is from eating too much at school that Jack feels unwell.

Arabic: Indeed Jack feels ill today at school. Ate he did too much.

Chinese: At school today Jack feel sick. He eat too much.

That last one sounds as if I’m mocking Chinese, but if you look up Chinese syntax, you’ll see that this reads close to proper when translated back into the native tongue. Technically, it should read “school-at,” but that would only get us back to the typical confusion when we starta writin’ weirdin’m’out linga. Dialect in your dialog should disappear like the rest of the prose, leaving nothing but the story in the reader’s heart.

Am I some pro at dialect? No, I’m an amateur, but I’m certain that my most recent short story rejection came because I over-complicated my dialect and so distracted my readers… who happened to be editors of a magazine I want on my writing credits. Hopefully the answers I unearthed will help your next stories and mine.

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  1. Dialect (and therefore Voice) is often of the utmost important to me whenever I’m writing a character that should have a dialect. I’m a fan of dialect speaking for itself so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story (I’m thinking of Suzanne Clarke’s “On Lickerish Hill” in The Ladies of Grace Adieu collection). Though I cannot help but wonder if forcing readers to work through the dialect is part of the experience. I understand and definitely appreciate the effort it takes in creating dialect, and it’s even more enhanced with grammar, but completely abandoning “umlauts and gutturals, vowel points and dropped Gs, all slathered with a nice layer of contractions and apostrophes” seems almost like a cop out to me.

    Perhaps there’s a fine line between translating a story with dialect and with grammar?

    Interesting post, Lance.

    1. Good to have you back, brother-brother!

      So glad that you care about this. Few others think through it along with me–it’s hard to do dialect well and, as stated in the post, I obviously failed this year. Maybe I should clarify a few points that I overstated (imagine that…)

      When I said “contractions” I didn’t mean words like didn’t, can’t, couldn’t, and ain’t. Most of these are used so frequently that we would actually have more trouble if we parsed them. Like “ain’t,” for instance. The word means “are not,” but fairly smart people say, “I ain’t gonna” now and again while it sounds borderline brain dead to say “I are not gonna”–on par with Lenny from Of Mice and Men.

      So yeah, if it’s colloquial and widely accepted it’s fine of course. But I’ve read passages this year that used copious apostrophes in an attempt at Scottish. I mistook the attempt for New Mexico Hillbilly. I only noticed the mistake at the mention of a kilt. This sort of thing happens when we start with contractions rather than basic syntax and word usage. Asking whether or not the character calls the machine a “hoover” or a “vacuum,” and discovering where that device fits into the sentence clues us into region more than the modified “hoova” or “vacc’m.”

      Perhaps it might be more abstract (and thus precise) to say that though we write for the ear, we don’t write to the ear. We write to the eye which translates to the ear. Confused eyes in the read, confused minds in the translation. Confused minds in the translation, confused ears in the comprehension. Phonetics, then, become helpful only insofar as they clear up the prose. Otherwise, it would be pro͞odnt to͞o rīt ēCH sentns līk T͟His, and so accomplish precision of dialect.

      That example’s an exaggeration, of course, and could be considered an ad hoc argument, but I think to a lesser degree that we do exactly that sort of phonetic writing when we try to clarify our character’s dialect through too much punctuation. If we can learn something from McCarthy, it’s that sometimes punctuation really does get in the way of the prose. Should are prose look that naked? Maybe or maybe not, but we can all agree that McCarthy in All The Pretty Horses flows seamlessly in and out of Spanish giving us a feel for living Spanglish in a way no living author has rivaled.

      Of course, there are phonetic exceptions. If you’re translating straight from Spanish, there’s no substitute for the ñ found in niño or the æ in the Middle English fæger, but I think the exceptions prove the rule: In writing dialect for stories, phonetics defer to grammar, for grammar defines a region’s words and patterns of thought while phonetics defines merely her sounds.

      Sorry so verbose, but any thoughts?

  2. One contraction people in the U.S. often say that is rarely (I have never seen it) written down…is one that has baffled people from other countries or who speak English as a second language.

    I am going to= AHmuhnuh. Ahmuhnuh go to the store…Ahmuhnuh go to school.

    So common, so ingrained and so perplexing.

    1. That’s a better example than my own, one that Logan would appreciate if I didn’t scare him off… I’m’onna go’n get myself a cuppa coffee. I’m’onna flip my friggin lid.

      Yeah, I like that one.

    1. Enough to have ALMOST used it as an example of this, but not enough to be sure if it was in favor or against the point I made, so I left it out. Saw the film. Kiddo read it and loved it the first time we went to Indiana Beach together.

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