I. What is Dialect?
A dialect (pronounced DIE-uh-lect) is any particular form of a language spoken by some group of people, such as southern English, Black English, Appalachian English, or even standard English. In literature, “dialect” means a form of writing that shows the accent and way people talk in a particular region. Because of this, it can sometimes risk being offensive to the people you’re imitating, but lots of great authors have used dialect in their work, and if you do it carefully it can give a lot of color and realism to a novel, poem, or story.
Writing dialect is mainly about representing people’s speech in the way it really sounds, for example spelling “governor” as “gubnah.” This also includes writing sentences with the unusual grammar of the dialect, such as “Ah ain’ seen nuh’in, gubnah” (I ain’t seen nothing, governor).
II. Examples of Dialect
“Will ye go, lassie, go?”
This is a line from a Scottish folk song, written in a light Scottish dialect. Both of the underlined words are associated with the Scottish dialect of English. However, none of the words are misspelled, so it’s not a heavy-handed use of dialect.
“He was alienated, too…by the indecipherable words of popular songs which American ears could apparently make out without strain . . . by the broadly spoken e’s that turned expression into axprassion, I’ll get the check into I’ll gat the chack.” (Salman Rushdie, Fury)
This line is about a man from India first coming to America and trying to understand its culture. Normally, you’d have a novel where the American characters speak normally but the Indian characters might speak in dialect. But this novel reverses the experience, and tries to get us to hear how a “normal” American accent sounds to someone from another culture.
III. The Risks and Benefits of Dialect
The main benefits of writing dialect are in developing more realistic and life-like characters and settings. It allows your reader to imagine exactly how the characters voice ‘s might sound as they speak. And if your characters live in a place like New Orleans or Boston, with a strong accent, it helps the reader to really feel like they’re there and can also show the reader a lot about the place. It shows when a culture has a unique heritage, such as in the French-influenced dialect of New Orleans, and whether the characters are educated or come from a more disadvantaged neighborhood.
There are several risks, though. The main one is that it can just be confusing! Iff’n ye wants yer reeder tuh faller wut yer sayn, it’s better to spell things correctly. It takes some readers a lot of effort to understand dialect, so don’t make it to thick, and try to make sure anyone can understand it.
Second, dialect can be offensive. It calls attention to the fact that some people’s speech is “different” while other people’s speech is considered “normal.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that by itself, but you can understand how emphasizing it might be hurtful to some people. Although linguists disagree, most people who speak a non-standard dialect feel that it makes them sound stupid, and especially if it’s a dialect spoken by an ethnic minority, some people may feel that you’re making fun of that group of people or making them look bad. If you’re writing dialect for a group that you don’t belong to, be careful that you use a light touch and be accurate – don’t overdo it and definitely don’t write in a dialect that you’re not very familiar with, because you’ll get it wrong.
Finally, dialect can be distracting. The more your reader pays attention to how someone speaks, the less attention they’re paying to what that character has to say. As a writer, that’s not a situation you usually want to create.
IV. Examples of Dialect in Literature
“If family and friend turn out good, is a bonus. Enjoy it. But don’t expect it.” (Merle Collins – The Colour of Forgetting)
This line comes from a novel about the Caribbean island of Grenada. We can easily imagine that the character in this quote speaks with a thick Grenadian accent, though the author is actually using a very light touch with the dialect! She’s using nonstandard grammar (e.g. “is a bonus” instead of “it’s a bonus”), but she’s not using any nonstandard spellings.
“Ya’ll nee’n try ter ‘scuse yo’seffs. Ain’ Miss Pitty writ you an’ writ you ter come home?” (Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind).
Gone with the Wind is a famous example of an offensive use of dialect. In this novel, all of the characters are from the American South, so they should all speak with a certain roughly similar regional “accent.” However, in the book only the black characters speak in dialect, thus giving the impression that the white accent is normal while the black accent is strange. That’s already a little offensive, but it gets worse: the black dialect isn’t even very accurate; in many ways it’s more a bunch of clichés than an accurate representation of how people in that community spoke at the time.
“You got a job?”
“Ignatius hasta help me at home,” Mrs. Reilly said. Her initial courage was failing a little, and she began to twist the lute string with the cord on the cake boxes. “I got terrible arthuritis.”
“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
(John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces)
This is a classic example of dialect with a solid creative purpose. The author represents Mrs. Reilly talking about her son, in her lower-class white New Orleans accent, and then her son speaking in his pretentious college-educated dialect–but the silliness of what he says makes for an ironic contrast with his dialect. The contrasts between Ignatius and his mother, and between his language and his obnoxious personality is both funny and meaningful without being offensive—especially since the author was representing the dialects of his own community.
V. Examples of Dialect in Popular Culture
“You OK, paw? You look tuckered out!!”
“I had a turrible night, Weezy!”
(Barney Google and Snuffy Smith)
Snuffy is a classic comic strip in which all the characters speak in dialect. The dialect here is a vague rural American accent, which makes it less effective than if it were specific. But it’s only a comic strip, so the author can get away with it a little.
“All Orks is equal, but some Orks are more equal dan uvvas.”
(Bugrat Skumdreg, Warhammer 40,000)
All the Orcs in Warhammer speak in heavy dialect. It’s great for the players, because they get to imagine exactly how the character sounds. And it’s low-risk, because there aren’t any Orcs around to feel offended! (The quote itself, of course, comes from Orwell’s Animal Farm, but it’s being translated here into Orc-speak.)
VI. Related Terms
Diction is word choice and phrasing, and it’s a feature of all writing (and speech). Every person their own favorite words and sentence structures, and so does each culture. So when you write in dialect, you are trying to capture a group’s diction as well as their accent.