Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Uses and Misuses of Dialect


Use of a dialect is something I am always struggling with when trying to write stories set in Detroit. Here is an article that has some good ideas about it.

http://www.justaboutwrite.com/A_Archive_Uses-Abuses-Dialect.html

How do you incorporate the kind of speech your characters use without becoming incomprehensible to your readers?

As readers, how much dialect do you want to read? Is it fair to use a little to indicate the speech patterns and then drop it?

I know it bothered me in Huck Finn, for instance.

18 comments:

Deb said...

I really don't like dialect being written out; I'd rather be told that a character has, say, a strong Irish brogue than struggle with reading dialog written to mimic an Irish accent.

I think it's better to have characters use particular words and phrases that help define them and their miieux.

Heath Lowrance said...

A little bit goes a long way. I think if you can establish it in the reader's mind with just three or four key bits, they'll hear it on their own after that, as long as you stay consistent. I especially don't like it when you have to face an entire page of dropped "g"'s-- for some reason, I find that really hard to read.
And I think Deb is right: particular words and phrases here and there is a better way to go than using alternate spellings or something like that.

Todd Mason said...

Twain was attempting documentary art in that aspect, and was among the earlier do so. I tend to find it more distracting in those circumstances where it's used to further stereotype rather than reflect actual usage. Chet Williamson's historical work comes to mind somehow.

Demonstrating excessively how people from different regions differently pronounce the same syllables in prose can indeed frequently be tiresome, however. Yes, most Americans say "wotter" and the RP British pronunciation is more like "wuTTER"...thanks, yes, we get it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Emulating real speech is a nuisance to read unless you are as artful as Ken Bruen in doing it.
Although I took some advice from Al Guthrie (an interview) and stopped using complete sentences in most conversations. The only people I know who speak in complete sentences regularly are English professors.

Charles Gramlich said...

As far as I can tell there is no right or wrong answer on this one. I tend to think, generally, that less is more.

Ron Scheer said...

In the early westerns I'm reading, the slavish mimicking of regional and inflected speech was the norm, to the point of being incomprehensible. You have to steel yourself to read whole chapters of it. I think it goes with a more pronounced class consciousness that has since largely disappeared... As for a rule of thumb for writers, I would second Heath's comment above.

Christopher Black said...

As Heath said a little goes a long way. Unless you're doing the whole James Joyce, but that's harder than it looks; and it looks pretty hard.

Saying that, Charlie Williams does it pretty well.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Maybe I need to expand this a little to include the use of bad grammar. Does a little of this go along way too?

Martin Edwards said...

I agree with Deb too. I've been reading some Golden Age mysteries lately where the dialogue in dialect is excruciating!

Jerry House said...

Twain was merely approximating dialect; had he slavishly followed it, the book would have been unreadable, IMHO. As it stands, I have no problem reading (and enjoying) HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

What bogs me down is Scottish dialogue a la Robert Burns, James Hogg, and other 19th century writers. Kitty could never get into Sayer's FIVE RED HERRINGS because of the dialect.

(What I really can't understand are some spoken dialects. Telephone customer service representatives really should have some training as to speaking clearly and enunciating.)
Worse yet

Jerry House said...

And Patti, my Gramma may not have been perfect, but let's leave her out of the discussion, ok?

(Sorry, the devil made me post this. **embarrassed blushng over the terrible pun** )

Richard R. said...

Probably the most difficult to read dialect I can think of is in Joel Chandler Harris' Tales of Uncle Remus. I like the stories well enough, but it's tough slogging through all those dems and dats and worse.

I say the less the better.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The worse example of it was in this book of poetry I had as a child, where some poet mimicked the Italian-American dialect to horrible ends. My kids chastise me about reading it to them still. But my mother read it to me and so on. How this stuff gets passed down.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Dialect is a really interesting topic! On the plus side, it can flesh out a character and make a scene more believable. On the minus side it can get in the way of an easy understanding of a story. My solution? I use certain aspects of dialect - subtle touches that will place the reader without getting the way of easy communication (I hope!).

Cap'n Bob said...

I'd advise you to stay away from Harry Stephen Keeler.

I also think a minor character with minimal lines can get away with dialect but not a major character with a lot of lines.

I read a mountain man book a few years ago that was packed with authentic fur trade patois and it was sheer torture. Never again.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Good idea. It can bring a minor character to life but do damage to our willingness to spend time with a major one.

Al Tucher said...

I have been writing some stories set on the Big Island of Hawaii, and the issue is how much Hawaiian pidgin to use. It's more than dialect. It's a language made up of elements of Hawaiian, Japanese, Tagalog, Samoan, Portuguese, and the original Hawaiian language. It can be impenetrable to outsiders.

I met a charming young woman there who gave me some pidgin lessons, but a writer would have to grow up in it to use it confidently. I have settled on marking pidgin with a few tags that anyone who spends time there can pick up.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can't imagine setting a story where I had to use a dialect that unfamiliar to me. Wow, you are brave, Al.