Writing In Dialect

Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei ParkesWhat do the experts say about using dialect in your stories?

Don’t do it!

But I love writing dialects!

When I write dialect, I hear the language – the elongated or shortened or twisted vowels, the skipped syllables or consonants, the particular and unique words, colloquialisms, and constructions.

When I’m writing in dialect, I’m in the landscape, I can smell the air my character is breathing. That’s when my characters become….characterful!

So what’s the problem?

Dialect (and any unfamiliar language) can be incredibly hard to read, interrupting, slowing down – and worse, stopping – reading.

The danger is that if your reader has to stop to sound out words or work out the meaning, there may come a point when she just can’t be bothered any more and will put your story aside for something else.

Yet dialect can have marvelous pay-offs.

I’ve just been reading the wonderful and mysterious “Tail of the Blue Bird” by Nii Ayikwei Parkes. A fast, evocative and colorful who-dunnit following (mostly) Kayo Odamtten, a Ghanaian forensic pathologist recently returned from the UK.

Odamtten is a very sympathetic character and the descriptions of the Ghanaian landscape are magical but what I just love is the mix of languages: English, Twi, pidjin.

There’s no translation or explanation in the text, no glossary to help. I just kept reading and somehow found that I understood. Maybe not every last detail, but certainly more than enough to know what was happening.

The benefits?

  • particular, idiosyncratic characters
  • a distinct aura of place
  • energy
  • poetic rhythms and images
  • variety of nuance in relationships between people

Nii Ayikwei Parkes surely knows the effect the Ghanaian dialogue will have; he doesn’t translate or explain, and this additional layer of mystery (for the average British reader) only adds to the strength of its lyricism and insight. Jonathan Gibbs

So how to minimize the dangers of using dialect in order to reap the benefits?

Lori L. Lake sets out the problems of working with dialect very clearly in her Uses and Abuses of Dialect, and suggests pragmatic solutions, complete with examples. (essential reading if you’re at all interested in using dialect)

Don’t let dialect become too heavy: use sparingly

Be consistent: pick one or two idiosyncratic characteristics of speech for your character, and do not vary them.

Keep dialect and expressions true to place: This is a particular problem for me as, having lived in several countries, I don’t always remember which word comes from where:

“Loo? What’s that?” “What do you mean – washroom?” “Bathroom? You want to have a bath?”

“An Aunt Sally? Eh? What’s that?”

“She’s home and dry? But when did she get wet? Is it raining? What are you talking about?”

(So much for “global village”!)

Clarify: I’m not keen on translations after foreign words. Is there a way to clarify obliquely? My Montreal character says she’s off to the dép (the dépanneur). If I add that she’s going “to get milk, cereal, a six pack and a scouring pad,” does that help suggest that she’s going to a corner store? (I had to ask a friend for the North American English for dépanneur! Back in the day, in the UK, I’d just have called it ‘the shop’.)

Dialectologists, those who study dialects, have discovered that the writing errors that tend to irritate readers the most are what the experts call “dialect difference.” Four out of five readers report that reading representations of heavy dialect is extremely bothersome. But almost all readers report that they want characters to sound individual-unique and specific-not like cardboard cutouts. Lori L. Lake, The Uses and Abuses of Dialect

I’ve just opened “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz at random – page 108: “Beli picked up her taza and wiped the table in one perfunctory motion. We stopped serving pendejada last week.” Spanglish! Hm, let’s see how I manage with this!


3 thoughts on “Writing In Dialect

  1. Sometimes annoying and diverting, other times annoying but illuminating. See 1. Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Giller Prize winner 2011) and Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It can take some persistence to continue with a story featuring dialect, but it can be really enjoyable after a certain point. And sometimes less is more.


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