Talking the Talk: Writing in Dialect

English is the third most widely spoken language in the world. But are you fluent in Northumbrian? How about East Anglian? Boontling? Yinglish?

A dialect is a variety of language based on region or social class. It can be the difference between “ryn” and “rain,” “korova” and “cow,” “ain’t” and “isn’t.” Choosing to have your characters speak in a dialect can establish a story’s regional setting or time in history. It can even help create a completely fictional world—but it’s not easy to pull off.  Read on for some noteworthy examples.

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

In this play–the basis for the musical My Fair Lady–upper-class Henry Higgins, professor of phonetics, makes a bet with his friends that he can turn Cockney-accented Eliza Doolittle from a lowly flower girl into a duchess. He takes her under his wing, gives her a bath, decks her out in England’s finest frills, and drills her until she can say, “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” instead of, “The rine in Spine falls minely in the pline.” While Henry’s intentions are good and he successfully manages to transform Eliza’s lower-class Cockney into “upper-class” King’s English, he kind of misses the point, which is that Eliza doesn’t really appreciate being treated like his guinea pig. In Pygmalion, Eliza’s accent is both a source of conflict and of comic relief, but by the end of the play—when Henry ultimately falls for Eliza—you realize what a superficial difference it was all along.

 

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Southern accents are some of the most common in American literature, and it would be hard to find a more famous (or more controversial) example than Huckleberry Finn. You all know the story: Huck runs away from home; bumps into Jim, a slave; and the two of them escape their respective lives by traveling down the Mississippi River, bonding over all kinds of adventures along the way. Huck’s dialect is filled with altered words—”it warn’t no time to be sentimentering”—while Jim’s dialect is much stronger—”Ef I could git de ten cents back, I’d call it squah, en be glad er de chanst”—that some contemporary readers find uncomfortable. (The book’s portrayal of race and race relations is a hot-button issue, even after all these years.) Whatever you think about the way Twain wrote Jim’s speech, the trusting relationship that solidifies between Huck and Jim as they rescue drifters and hide out in caves carries a positive message: Even though Huck and Jim speak in different dialects, they still speak the same moral language.

 

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Okay, okay. Technically, the dialect—Nadsat—in this book is fictional, but it is derived from Russian. Why would an author make up a fictional dialect? Well, first, because he or she is dorky in the most fantastically elaborate way. (Think J.R.R. Tolkien creating Elvish for Lord of the Rings.) And in the case of this book, at least, the inclusion of those foreign words—which aren’t immediately translated for the reader—completes the impression that the main character, Alex, and his violent band of “droogs” really have formed an exclusive, sociopathic gang in a futuristic England. Plus, getting to say things like “he’s a malenky malchickiwick [small boy]”is really too much fun to pass up.

 

Bronxwood by Coe Booth

Bronxwood

Tyrell has got more on his plate than a normal 16-year-old boy should have to handle, but he doesn’t just cower in a corner until all the drama is over. Instead, he stays true to himself, even as his world gets turned upside down. He doesn’t gussy up his situation with formal language–he tells it like it is, and it’s rough: “The day we was evicted from that apartment, man, I ain’t never gonna forget that feeling I got when I came home from school and seen my moms and Troy in the hall outside our apartment.” One of the hardest parts about writing fiction in the first person (especially in dialect) without sounding forced or self-conscious is finding a character’s authentic voice. But Tyrell’s casual abbreviations and slang not only distinguish his voice from those of the other characters, they also give the book a confessional tone—allowing readers to see the neighborhood, Bronxwood, through Tyrell’s eyes, rather than from a distance.

 

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