f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 6 of Dialogue – “What You Talkin’ About, Willis?” – Dangers of Dialect

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Day 6 of Dialogue – “What You Talkin’ About, Willis?” – Dangers of Dialect

Here’s my rule for using dialect: Please, please…just don’t.

Okay, I know that’s too simplistic, so I’ll revise it: FOR ALL THAT’S GOOD AND HOLY IN THIS WORLD, PLEASE DON’T.

You can see I don’t feel strongly about this issue at all.

I heard somebody once said that the only writer ever who should use dialect is Mark Twain. Works for me.

To me, dialect is mostly a risk not worth taking... UNLESS

1. You know the dialect intimately.
2. You use it efficiently and precisely..
3. It in no way stereotypes the characters using it.

I don’t have the book with me at the moment, but one of the most wonderfully effective uses of dialect recently (if I remember correctly) was Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. That’s not fiction, though, it’s non-fiction and it’s the man’s life.

The problem is that people speak differently from one another. I’ve got NJ/Philly in my blood that no amount of Minnesota-nice is ever going to erase. “Ar-enge.” “Tor-na-ment.” “Wudder.” My wife, meanwhile, tortures the word bagel and my mom can’t say coffee.

And there’s enough of you from New Hampshire and Texas and Tennessee and Canada (and everywhere else) reading this blog that I know you say things funny, too.

So how does it make it to the page?

First, take a step back. Why does it need to make it to the page? Usually dialect is used mostly to ridicule people.

Second, it’s my contention that WHAT is said is far more important than HOW. So focus on learning the idioms and unusual phrasings of an area. Learn who says “soda” and who says “pop” and who, God help us, just says, “coke.” Most importantly, learn the syntax of an area.

This is the key right here: 70% of dialect can be accomplished merely through syntax. And 20% more through diction.

In Minnesota they said, “I’m going to come with.” Drives me nuts, but it’s part of the local dialect.

In NJ, it’s “going down the shore.”

Finally, if you need to use dialect, pick a few words and make it simple. “Y’all,” Youse, “Yo’uns,” “You all.” These are all different regional versions of that same word and can help bring authenticity to dialogue. If “g”s are typically dropped from “ing”, that’s another easy fix.

After that, the choice rests with you. But know that I have seen dialogue so atrocious as to make my eyes water. It’s been racist. It’s sounded wrong. It’s been awkward. One time it was just flat out incomprehensible. So, well, just really be sure about what you’re doing. And then don’t. I thank you.
Continue to Day 7 of Dialogue