Writing Dialect

Picking up on my topic of world-building from last month, dialect is one of the best (and in some cases trickiest) ways to add realism to your dialogue. After all, nothing indicates that a particular person is from elsewhere like a strange way of talking. But how does one transliterate another’s way of speaking into written form, especially when that one doesn’t talk that way himself? That is something I will attempt to answer here.

Dialect is not the same as accent. Accent is how a person sounds when attempting to pronounce something other than their mother tongue. Dialect is an actual form of the language that native speakers use, and is in some ways a much subtler thing to deal with. That is perhaps why many authors simply dodge it entirely and have their characters speak perfect King’s English all the time (in addition to the fact that some authors find dialect distracting to the narrative). However, it can also be a great way to help differentiate when you have a lot of characters around all at once, and unless all your characters come from more or less the same background–and have a superb education at that–odds are at least some of them are going to speak in a way that is less than perfect by a grammarian’s book.

But how does one portray a pattern of speech in writing? The answer is simple, in a way: Portray it the same way you would standard speech. Write the words as they sound when somebody says them. If it seems like people always leave the ‘g’ off of “ing” endings, then write all “ing” words with “in'” instead. If they make frequent use of ain’t, then be sure to include it a lot. There have evolved over time a certain set of conventions when portraying various dialects–especially of the English language–and it would probably be best to consult these first unless you are intimately familiar with the dialect at hand. Some of these conventions are fairly straightforward. For instance, when dealing with a person who uses Canadian English, frequent use of “eh” might be all you need (though it’s much more fun when accompanied by other Canadianisms, I think).

Among the better examples of dialogue portrayed in writing are the works of Brian Jacques (for British variants) and Mark Twain (for central and southern U. S. variants). One does not necessarily have to be a big fan of their writing to recognize that they have got a knack for portraying people’s speech patterns in print. That said, there’s nothing for trying to get down a subtle vowel shift in someone’s pronunciation like actually listening to a native speaker of that dialect. So, perhaps my strongest advice here is to find out what dialect you’re going for and seek out examples of it. If you know the dialect’s actual name when searching for it, all the better.

A word of caution before attempting to get into dialectal writing, however. Whereas you might spend a good long time getting it down just right, and you might even be able to write your whole book in that dialect, there’s a point where you have to ask yourself if it’s a good idea to use that knowledge to its fullest extent. For instance, while most dialects have discernable patterns if you listen long enough, there tend to be certain exceptions–certain words that might be pronounced in a manner that otherwise doesn’t fit that pattern. When you portray these in writing (and it can happen more often than you’d think), there’s always the chance that a reader who is less well versed in the speech form will see it as an inconsistency. It’s a small risk, perhaps, but one to consider all the same. As with most matters in writing (nonfiction excepted), it’s probably best not to share every detail with the reader. However much more there might be you want to share or show off, the quality of the story should always be top priority.

Next week, I’ll deal with a similarly fascinating topic: translating works in foreign languages.

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is an author, linguist, historian, and nature-lover based out of Kansas City, Missouri. He has previously published several short pieces in various local and online venues. Among these are the short stories "The Buck" and "The Otter Kit Streamer", which won 1st and 2nd place respectively in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the academic journal, 'Shorelines'. His first novel, 'Sauragia', was published in October of 2020.

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