Writing Dialect

Some thoughts on writing dialogue in dialect, or accents, drawing mainly on my personal experience, and giving examples of famous uses.

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary “Pike-County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

The Author.

The above quote is the ‘Explanatory Note’ preceding the text of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Despite these strictures, Twain does not in fact write very much dialect in the book; Huck’s narrative voice is delivered in standard, if colloquial, American English. And most of the ‘dialect’ delivered in dialogue by various characters is in point of fact only the semi-phonetic rendition of an accent. Take this passage of speech by Jim:

“Yo’ ole father doan’ know, yit, what he’s a-gwyne to do. Sometimes he spec he’ll go ‘way, en den agin he spec he’ll stay. De bes’ way is to res’ easy en let de ole man take his own way. 

If we regularise the spelling, however, without changing any of the words, and free it from the rather racist rendition of the accent Twain employs for Jim’s dialogue, we get this:

“Your old father don’t know, yet, what he’s a-goin’ to do. Sometimes he expects he’ll go away, and then again he expects he’ll stay. The best way is to rest easy and let the old man take his own way.”

Perfectly regular English.

Now this, by contrast, is more like dialect: 

‘Yon lad gets war und war!’ observed he on re-entering. ‘He’s left th’ gate at t’ full swing, and Miss’s pony has trodden dahn two rigs o’ corn, and plottered through, raight o’er into t’ meadow! Hahsomdiver, t’ maister ‘ull play t’ devil to-morn, and he’ll do weel. He’s patience itsseln wi’ sich careless, offald craters—patience itsseln he is! Bud he’ll not be soa allus—yah’s see, all on ye! Yah mun’n’t drive him out of his heead for nowt!’

Perfectly regular Yorkshire 🙂 The above is old Joseph, from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a character who has to have a webpage dedicated to translating his effusions into something folk outside Yorkshire can comprehend.

Which points up the major problem with using dialect speech in dialogue; the writer runs the risk of the reader not understanding it. Charlotte Brontë, editing her sister’s work after Emily’s untimely death, toned Joseph’s speech down considerably from what we see above, for the benefit, so she said, of ‘southerners’.

Now, I, personally, have never had a problem reading dialect speech; I studied Chaucer at college, in the original Middle English, and understood it almost straight away, and I can read works written in braid Scots as easily as standard English (more easily, sometimes, if the writer of standard English is trying too hard to impress us with how clever he is). But I can see that too authentic a rendition of dialect can pose something of a problem to most readers, and then what we have here is a failure to communicate. or almost as bad, the poor reader constantly having to turn to the glossary on p.223 to find out what auld Tam is greetin’ on aboot the noo. (Sorry).

And yet, and yet, there’s no point in pretending that old Joseph and all his kin spoke perfect BBC English. It would make a novel set in 18th century Yorkshire very hard to believe in if there were not some indication of Yorkshire speech, by ‘eck. The writer could use deviant spelling to indicate an accent (or four), as Twain did, and as Charlotte changed Joseph into, and that might be fine … or it might lose the point.

And the point Emily was making about old Joseph was not just that his speech indicated his habitat and social status, but that his speech indicated his character, his frame of mind, and his whole way of life. Joseph clings to tradition and the old ways in all he does and says, and his use of traditional Yorkshire dialect, far more than any other characters of his station in life do, re-enforces that reluctance to part with all that he has known, and all that he believes to be right and proper. We may not understand him very well, but in many ways neither do the other characters, nor he them. His incomprehensibility is both literal and metaphorical, and it is now generally thought that Charlotte’s editorial decisions were ill-advised.

I shall return to some more problems with writing dialect and accent later, but let me now turn from the general to the particular, and my own experience with writing in dialect. There is no dialect in the Huldrasaga … set as it is in a comic-fantasy Norseland, I’m not sure I’d know where to start, even if it were appropriate. But in Aiella there is a character not unlike Emily’s Joseph (except a lot nicer) – old Burroughs the retired gamekeeper, Aiella’s childhood friend. Aiella grows up in the duchy of Rheged, a land closely modelled on the English Lake District, and Gladwin Burroughs, defiantly a man of the people, refusing all honour and reward and choosing to live in the tiny cottage he was born in, really needed to speak in genuine Lakeland dialect. Except, of course,  if I had used it as it really is (or was), very few people outside Cumbria would have understood it easily. So I watered him down a bit, and tried to suggest the accent and the dialect by careful use of language rather than by deviant spelling. Here he is, explaining his philosophy of life to the young Aiella:

“Tools are thy friend, lass,” he would often tell her. “Look after thy tools and they’ll look after thee. Many and many a one has gone hungry, all along of how they didn’t have tools handy.”
“You can’t eat tools,” Aiella had objected. Burroughs gave a creaking laugh.
“Nay, that’s so, lass, but if thou’ve the right tools, why, thou can make anything. Make a trap, maybe, and catch summat for the pot. Or make a crook or a staff out of wood, or a basket out of withies, and happen sell it. Learn how to use tools and make things and thou’ll never be hungry.”

You will notice that Burroughs uses ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ when speaking to Aiella; one beta reader mistook this for Ye Olde Butchered Englysshe, much to my horror. There are in fact two sound reasons for it, though. Firstly, the old familiar forms of thou, thy, thine and thee were still, within living memory, commonly used in the dialect speech of the North of England, and indeed the usage hasn’t quite died out yet. Secondly, these are, historically, the familiar pronouns, as opposed to the polite form, which was ‘you’, ‘your’. Thou is directly cognate to French tu or German Du, and was used in much the same way; to address an intimate acquaintance, or, used as an insult, to imply that the person addressed is your social inferior. Aiella is of a (much) higher social rank than Burroughs, and by rights he ought to address her as ‘you’ – as indeed he does when talking to her cousin Eliana. But Burroughs is his own man, and never acknowledges the class gulf – this is partly his sly humour, but also, more pertinently, because he is very fond of Aiella. So I am using the thou/thee forms to try and suggest two separate things, and even if nobody ever notices the secondary and more subtle effect, it’s still there 🙂

It does cause some problems, though. Apart from being possibly mistaken for faux-medieval olde-worlde speech, it also caused me some difficulty with word forms. In the above extract Burroughs uses ‘thou’ll’ and (even more awkwardly) ‘thou’ve’, neither of which are strictly grammatically correct; they should be ‘thou wilt’ (or maybe ‘thou shalt’) and ‘thou hast’, respectively. Burroughs, however, being as he is of peasant stock and with no book-learning, is hardly likely to use dictionary grammar, and furthermore the correct phrases would look even more like Ye Olde Butchered Englysshe, so I compromised, even if it does read a bit awkwardly.

(Incidentally, never, never, on pain of pain, use ‘ye’ seriously to mean anything other than the plural of ‘you’. The rendition Ye Olde is a comic misapprehension of þe olde, where the first letter is the Old English ‘thorn’, pronounced with the voiced ‘th’ of the. Do not use Ye for The other than as a joke. And if you do want to use language to suggest the characters are from Olden Tymes, remember that in the real medieval England people didn’t just throw their thees and thys around carelessly; as I said above, they mean something).

Now, let’s reverse the exercise I did with Jim, and re-cast Burroughs’ speech into a reasonable facsimile of how his actual dialect might have been:

“Tools art thi marra, lass,” he would often tell her. “Look arter thi tools ant they’ll look arter thee. Mony an’ mony a one hast gan clemt, all alang as ‘aa they divven’t ha’ tools handy.”
“You can’t eat tools,” Aiella had objected. Burroughs gave a creaking laugh.
“Nay, that’s so, lass, but if tha’ast t’right tools, whey, tha canst mek owt. Mek a trap, mebbes, an’ cotch summat for t’pot. Or mek a crewk or a staff aht o’ wood, or a punnet aht o’ withies, an’ ‘appen sell it. Luern ‘aa to wairk tools an’ mek things an’ tha’ll niver be clemt.”

Which is, I am sure you will agree, a different tin of snap altogether. It’s harder to read, and much harder to write, and while it might be more authentic (were this story set in Bowness-on-Windermere in Westmorland rather than in Rheged on the fictional continent of Tenaria),  I think you can see that for the purposes of the story, it is also unnecessary. I wanted to give Burroughs his own voice, and to make that voice stand out as different to the others in the story, and so give the reader clues as to his character and social status. For those purposes, the light shading I actually used works just as well as the full-on dialect. You might say it’s a compromise between authenticity and legibility, and legibility was more important.

All writing is compromise, especially dialogue. It is well-nigh impossible to represent actual speech in coherent writing, although that hasn’t stopped some authors from trying; real speech is all half-finished thoughts, mumbles, ers and ums, rambling disconnected sentences, or just plain boring. (Repetition, hesitation and deviation, if you will).  It makes for a hard read. What we present on the page is (usually) a compromise between realism and readability, and dialects and accents are no exception.

Let’s examine the reasons why we might use accents or dialect. I think the primary reason is to make the dialogue do some of the work of description. It helps set the scene. establish the background and locale, and tells the reader something about the character, their origins or their social class (or both), helping reduce the amount of purely descriptive prose needed. It cuts down on the infodump quota, if you like. Perspicacious readers of Burroughs speech should be able to deduce that the story is set in a country similar to the North of England, and armed with that knowledge, can go on to make some assumptions about the landscape and the people, without me having to spell it all out for them. They may further infer that he is a man of low birth, although his job description of gamekeeper is probably clue enough. The danger here is that it can lead to the reader applying their prejudices,  which is not necessarily what you want to happen.

Another obvious danger is the risk of offending people, by using stereotyped accents, or, even more commonly, plain wrong ones. I’ve seen a lot of terrible attempts at Scots accents in books, some of them by well-respected authors … Scots seem especially prone to this, for some reason. The way to avoid this error is to Do The Research. The safe route is to only attempt accents (and even more so, dialects) that you are familiar with and have regularly heard spoken. If you really need to set your story in some locale or time period you are not very personally familiar with, or have characters from there, read up on it, watch videos and TV programs from that place (not just set in that place), find audio clips of natives speaking in their own accents, see how local authors have depicted the accent and dialect, try and get a feel for it. A really common error (maybe more so in TV and film) is to not realise that countries usually have more than one accent – Ireland is much put upon in this way, I’ve seen and read dialogue where an Irish accent was quite well portrayed, except the story is set in Belfast, and all the characters sounded like they came from various bits of Dublin. Trust me, they do not sound similar. At all. My advice would be, that if you are not over-familiar with the location, don’t go overboard on the accent. Use a light touch to suggest the character is a Scot (or whatever), but hold back on the hoots mon and the braw brecht moonlicht nichts. It’s just as effective, doesn’t ring false, and will stop you getting hate-mail from people in Glasgow. (All right, it might not, but it certainly reduces the risk).

A note for fantasy writers here; even if your fantasy ‘verse is modelled on pre-industrial Europe, it’s all right to use American (other Anglophone countries are available) English, both for narration and dialogue. It’s your native tongue, and your writing is much more likely to read easily and naturally than if you go straining the language to sound olde worlde or ever-so English.

I’ve confined my remarks so far to accents employed by English speakers; what of the rest of the world? My strictures about using a light touch go double for writing foreign accents – it’s really easy to offend people with duff ‘ow-you-say-eet-in-Eenglish accents, and then you’ve got a whole country mad at you. If your character is educated they will probably speak English better than you do (although these days usually with an American accent), so maybe have them use grammar slightly too correctly, to indicate that. Exaggerating foreign accents always sounds false, so unless you really want a character to sound like Inspector Clouseau, sketch any such in only lightly. Also, in my experience, people speaking in English (or any other language not their own) do not usually drop in words of their own language at random, a trope that is still used far too often in books and films. (You know, Mais oui monsieur, I shall ‘ave your room prepared at wernce, or, Mein Gott, Herr Johnson, zat vas a narrow escape, hein? Never heard anything like that, not even from the concierge in a rotten Paris hotel).

Alright, having said all that about accents, let’s go back to dialect. By which I mean, a variety of English that uses many different words, and perhaps also different syntax and grammar, to standard varieties of English, and as such is not readily comprehensible to non-speakers. Let me give you another example:

The Laird’s ma herd; Ah sall want nocht; He gars me doon tae ligg; Amang howes haw by wattirs lown; Ma wabbit saul tae bigg. 

Recognise it? It’s Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) in Scots. (Let’s not get into the argument as to whether Scots is a dialect or a language – there’s an old saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, things that Scotland does not possess. Yet). If you are not yourself Scots I’d think you’d probably need that glossary on p223 to get what was going on, although if you are anything like me you’d get distracted by Elmer Fudd. Given the difficulty of reading it, is there any justification for using dialect (as opposed to accents) at all? Researching this piece I found several statements to the effect that modern readers aren’t willing to put in the mental effort necessary to understand dialect writing, and that therefore one shouldn’t do it.

Yeah, but, maybe you want your readers to put a bit of graft in. Maybe you don’t want to pander to the lazy bastards. Maybe, just maybe, you’d like your audience to think.  Anthony Burgess (in A Clockwork Orange) and Russell Hoban (in Riddley Walker) created fictional dialects for their future societies, which can make both books hard work at first. Both did so for sound reasons, to indicate the vast differences between Alex and the droogs, in Burgess’ book, or between the damaged inhabitants of post-apocalyptic Kent, in Hoban’s, and us. They are using the writer’s primary tool, language, to make it as clear as possible that these people are different from us, and cannot be understood by the frames of reference we are familiar with. George Orwell, too, created a new dialect for his future society in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, but with a slightly different purport; the object of Newspeak was to use language to make people different, to try and engineer a new breed of human by language alone, and Orwell did not attempt to tell any of the story using it. (I ought to note that all these authors were established novelists at the time, and Burgess was himself a knowledgeable linguist, so perhaps don’t rush off creating a new dialect for your first novel).

Which leads us back to Emily and Joseph; she too was employing dialect to emphasise the difference between ‘us’, the kind of people who read novels in the 1840s, and the kind of person Joseph was, a man not only of a different social class, but a throwback to an older – and different – world.

In short, yes, there are justifications for telling the story (whether by narrative or dialogue) in dialect speech, but they need to be pretty damn weighty, and you really need to know what you are doing. Although one could follow Orwell’s example and include dialect not to tell any of the story, but just to add a bit of local colour, or as an interesting artefact of your featured society.

That’s enough of me rambling on. Let’s finish with one of the oldest uses in English of a character’s use of dialect telling the reader something about them, Chaucer’s Prioress, from the Canterbury Tales, who spoke French, but

After the schole of Stratford-atte-Bowe; for Frensshe of Parys was to hir unknowe.




6 thoughts on “Writing Dialect

  1. A thoughtful analysis!

    I have big problems with phonetically-written accents/dialects in books – it’s an instant turn off for me. You’ve covered most of the reasons; the primary one for me is it breaks my immersion, and I love being immersed in books. It makes characters come off cartoonish when badly done.

    I also agree with your points that it enhances setting, and can add colour and characterisation.

    So, my approach is a compromise. When I have a character whose accent or dialect is different from the POV character, I show it with word *choice* rather than phonetic spellings. I pick two or three common words that the character says differently, and use those consistently – for example, my Scottish character says “aye” instead of “yes” and “wee” instead of “little” and that’s it. I don’t spell ‘you’ as ‘ye’ because that pushes him into Groundskeeper Willy territory, for my personal tastes. This method serves as a frequent reminder that the character has a dialect/accent, but it doesn’t interrupt flow and doesn’t mean the reader has to sound out every syllable to work out what’s being said (as I had to in some of the famous examples you cited).

    As with most things in writing, there is no One True Way. I think you made a balanced arguments. Bravo, sir!

    (Or “Pukka, mate!” since i’m from sarf Lundun, innit.)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Very interesting thoughts!

    I wonder if the best approach to writing dialect depends on your audience. I can imagine it might be more acceptable to write in a way that requires a little more reader thought to understand if you’re writing a literary novel, where readers expect to have to think anyway, and less acceptable in genre novels focussed more on external action.

    I read genre, and I won’t even try to decipher anything harder than the lightest dialect. I just skip to the point we get back to the regular English, too bad if I miss something important. Maybe I’m just lazy. 🙂


    • Don’t do yourself down! ‘Literary’ fiction is just another genre, and for too often focussed on making the reader feel clever than actually making them think. There is no reason why fantasy, or any other ‘genre’ should be held to or expect lower standards.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve just realized, after reading this, that I don’t know why I made the choices I did in having some of the characters in my fantasy world speak differently than others. My elves don’t use contractions, no matter how I have to contort my thinking to write their dialogue. Why? *shrug* Idunno. My pirate character tends to leave out a lot of “extraneous” words like articles and pronouns. I justified this to myself after the fact by deciding that in his line of work, communication should be as quick as possible, but when I started writing him? *shrug* Idunno. That was just the way he started talking at me. My characters are also guilty of throwing in the occasional “foreign” word, but since those are mostly swears, I forgive them.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s