Talking the Talk

Some writers couch all of their work in an obscure dialect; others seek to write even the most ill-educated character’s speech in the most grammatically correct form. M H Lee makes the very good point that you should use both based on what is right for the situation.

Having trained to be a lawyer I habitually fall into a more formal style, both in writing and speech, so a challenge I face is writing convincing informal speech (this sentence being an example thereof). A certain informality (ending with a preposition, beginning with a conjunction) comes easily enough; however, moving beyond into contradicting the rules of spelling and grammar completely to better represent dialects sometimes causes me issues both with when to do it and when good phonetics make bad reading.

So I wanted to share my thoughts about dialect in writing. As the methods of representing accents and dialects in writing are almost identical, I use dialect to mean both. If any of my readers are linguists I trust they will forgive the incorrect usage.

The most common use in fiction (certainly my usual use) of dialect is to add detail to the reader’s mental picture of a group or character, either throughout their speech to place them in a different group (either regional or social) or for only a small amount of a character’s speech to show they are in an altered state (such as drunkenness).

However, some writers aim for to create a new form of speech for a wider purpose than adding depth to the work. For example Suzette Hadin Elgin’s Native Tongue:

Native Tongue was a thought experiment, with a time limit of ten years. My hypothesis was that if I constructed a language designed specifically to provide a more adequate mechanism for expressing women’s perceptions, women would (a) embrace it and begin using it, or (b) embrace the idea but not the language, say “Elgin, you’ve got it all wrong!” and construct some other “women’s language” to replace it. Elgin interviewed in 2007

Whilst most of us are writing fiction as a message and not the medium, it is good to remember that dialect is a product of a group’s thought.

A third use of dialect is to hide meaning, either from the characters, the reader, or both. In MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead and Unwelcome one of the characters wants to warn another about an escalating threat by mobile phone, but the needs of the plot dictate that the warning not be heeded; rather than use the obvious (potentially clichéd) lack of signal, the author has the warnings sent in text-speak which the recipient does not understand. In addition, by writing out these messages she lets the reader sympathise with the sender’s frustration at the lack of response or the recipient’s wish for a single proper word.

Obviously these categories overlap and there are others. Even if the choice to use a dialect is made consciously, it is often a combination of several factors. For example, the cod accent of the British agent in ‘Allo ‘Allo (“I was pissing by your café when I heard a shit” instead of “I was passing by your café when I heard a shot”) made the character seem obviously foreign but also allowed other characters to misunderstand at key points.

It is this potential for misunderstanding that can make dialects problematic. As the writer we already know what the characters are saying, so might not notice when colour veers into unintelligibility. A good second opinion will often point out these areas; however I suspect you, like me, prefer those honoured with sight of your draft to find only enough minor issues to prove that they are telling the truth when they tell you how good it is. So stopping “I could not understand most of Chapter 4” making the list will free us up to worry about other things and let us focus our editing on other probably more important points. On the other hand, every peasant speaking like Professor Higgins – whilst easy on the reader – often lacks credibility.

When the dialect is a message in itself or is designed to hide the message, then the extent and intelligibility are strongly influenced by those considerations. For characterful dialect, as with so many writing dilemmas, the guideline I attempt to use is that reality can be more extreme than fiction; just as what would be an acceptable string of coincidences in life, is more believable to the reader as the protagonist’s actions producing the result, so a dialect becomes more acceptable if it is only different from correct language in a few ways.

What rules do you have to balance a the uses of dialect with the need to be readable?

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