Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Question about dialect

Read the  first in a hot new series.

by Kathryn J. Bain

A “no man” policy doesn’t count when someone’s trying to kill you. A name can mean a lot. You expect Jasper to be a CEO of a company. Name your kid Phineas, well, he’ll get beat up a lot. Name your daughter Trubleh (true blay), and you’ll get nothing but trouble. Trubleh Lawrence makes a habit out of discovering dead bodies. When the police look to her as a suspect, she has no choice but to search for the killer. If being a suspect isn’t bad enough, she has to deal with a grandmother who has visions, a grandfather who wants to buy a speedboat, a co-worker who makes the Wicked Witch of the West look like Shirley Temple, and a guy who constantly reminds her that celibacy is hard when a hot male is around.

Question from the e-mail:  Isn't it okay to write conversation the way people really talk instead of how they're supposed to talk? I asked a friend (who teaches English in our local school system) to read my ms and make suggestions and she corrected every sentence anyone one said. One of my characters is an old codger and "don't talk so good." But she want him not to say "ain't" or "we was" and so on. Isn't one of us missing the boat? If so, is it me? I know I am sometimes confused on homonyms and verb tenses and hoped to find help with THAT. What do I say to her?

Answer:  Dialect (the phonetic presentation of incorrectly phrased English) is often ppresented on the page in incorrect form. So you were not wrong.  But smile and say Thanks to your friend.

If you want her to stay a friend, appreciate her for all her hard work and the time she put in.

Do not ask if she has ever read a book with dialogue. Do not wonder out loud if she has ever seen a single episode of Gunsmoke that featured Festus Hagen. Just keep a straight face, thank her for all she has done, and remember never to give her anything else to mark up.

Obviously, she is in "correction Mode" and will zealously mark everything she can in the interests of "being thorough." Not what you need in this case, but she did try to help.  She is probably not an habitual reader of fiction. 

Ask someone else next time. This same issue came up about the time Huckleberry Finn was first published. As you may recall, it is written in Huck's voice and educators everywhere put it on their NO list, as a bad example for young people to read and experience because of Huck's poorly constructed English.

On the other hand, be careful not to overdo Dialect. Less is more. Lots of dialect and strangely spelled accents used to be popular in fiction, but with the reading ability steadily dropping since the advent of TV, that is passing.

Face it. We are a nation of poor readers. I grew up reading Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s thick dialect in The Secret Garden, but most readers today don’t have patience to decode all those missing letters and apostrophes in strange places. They go rent the movie, which also has very little dialect. I’ve met people from Northumberland. I wasn’t sure they were speaking English.

Dialect can be very difficult to write well. This is a lesson I learned, reluctantly I’ll admit, in a workshop with Diana Gabaldon. She wrote a series of books about a group of 17th century Scots, and  English Outlander. Yes, the same one that the Starz network is advertising for next summer.

No dialect is a thick as that of Scotland. Diana said she listened to old Scots ballads sung in English and in Gaelic to absorb the rhythm of the speech. There’s a great deal of difference between the speech of the Scots and the Englishwoman, and among the Scots, depending upon their station in life and educational level.  But nobody said, “Hoot mon!”

Diana changed didn’t to didna, and wouldn’t to wouldna, and added some dated terms like “foxed” for drunk. The dialect is there, but most of it is in the rhythm of the language. Because of the sentence construction, English sounded different when the Scots spoke, but their meaning was never obscured by strange-looking or hard to read passages. 


  1. Some people can't resist showing you how well they know their grammar. But I wouldn't carry dialect too fat. Too much of a good thing can become annoying. I think it best just to throw in enough to give the reader the idea. For Huckleberry Finn, it was okay, but today's readers expect something a little different.