A dialect is a pattern of speech that is found in a particular region. It is not a separate language, but it may differ from the standard language of the country in its vocabulary, its pronunciation, and its sentence structure. Some examples of dialect might be the “Jersey Shore” speech heard in the television show of that same name, a Cockney accent from London’s east end, or the “Yooper” dialect from my own home state of Michigan. If I make the definition a bit broader and include accents, the list of possibilities is virtually endless.
Writers frequently have one or more of their characters speak in a dialect. This can often be a good thing, but there are also some pitfalls for writers to avoid. I’ll try to cover both of those in this lesson.
When you write your character’s voice in a dialect, you are telling your reader several things about that character. Dialect can indicate a character’s position in life: her level of education, her age, her economic status, her geographical background—and if I add jargon (the vocabulary particular to a profession or some other distinct group), it might even indicate her occupation. So dialect can aid you in characterization—these are things that you do not have to tell the reader, saving you more words that you can then use to tell your story.
Dialect is also a good tool for giving your characters unique voices. If you have two characters who can be similarly described—both, for example, are middle-aged men—then giving one of them a dialect or an accent will help your readers to keep track of who’s who.
Additionally, well-written dialect can give your writing a unique rhythm, and it can be really fun to read. I recommend that you give writing in dialect a try if you’re looking for a way to stretch yourself or to make your piece stand out.
However—there are a few warnings for those who write in a dialect.
1. Be sure that you get it right. If it’s not a dialect that is very familiar to you, spend some time listening to speakers of that dialect, and perhaps transcribing what you hear. If that’s not possible for reasons of time or geography, find something that’s written with that dialect and take note of how it is written. If you get it wrong, it will reflect on your writing, and someone who is more familiar with that dialect will call you on it.
Although King James English isn’t exactly a dialect, I can use it to demonstrate this point. We’ve all heard people with only a nodding acquaintance with the language of that version of the Bible when they attempt what they think is “biblical” language. Thou is makething me laughest. Ye shouldeth not doeth that. It makes you cringe, doesn’t it? That’s the way a poorly-written or inauthentic dialect will sound to those who are familiar with its rhythms.
2. Be careful not to overdo the writing of non-standard phrases; your reader will get weary of the work they have to do to mentally translate the dialect. Take a look at this, written in a bad approximation of a southern dialect:
Ah jes’ couldn’ belive mah eyes! Lawd, thet young’un were a sight, ‘n’ ah never knewed whut dun hit me. She wuz so purty it made me wanna slap mah muther, ‘n’ she wuz jist a-grinnin’ an’ a-laughin’ et me lak nobuddy’s bidness.
That’s exhausting to read, isn’t it? I’d suggest that if you have a character who speaks in a dialect, you should pick a few words or linguistic quirks that are suggestive of that dialect--just enough to give your reader the idea of that character’s speech.
3. Finally, you should be very careful—very, very careful—that your rendering of dialect does not come across as a stereotype, exaggeration, or satire of any particular group’s speech patterns, and that nothing you write could be considered insulting to members of the group for whom that dialect is their native tongue. If you’re not sure, have someone from that group read it. They will tell you if it is accurate, and also if it is offensive.
HOMEWORK: (Choose one or more of the following exercises)
1. Write a paragraph or two with some dialect or accent.
2. Link to a challenge entry you wrote with a dialect or accent, and tell whether you think you did it effectively. Also tell why you used the dialect—what did it bring to the story?
3. Tell about a book you’ve read that uses dialect effectively.
4. Ask a question or make a comment about the use of dialect.
Finally, I'd like to encourage you to check out the Critique Circle. I know that Mike and Bea have elicited the help of several seasoned writers and editors to stop by there frequently and to critique new additions. There's a new category there for "Challenge Entries"--a great place to put that entry that you loved, but didn't score well for a more in-depth critique.