Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dastardly Dialect

I hail originally from Kentucky, land of hills and horses, bluegrass and bourbon. Growing up, I earned pocket change by learning how to handle a pitchfork and worked with people who preferred dip or chew over a smoke any day. I get the cult of UK basketball, the difference between barbecuing and grilling (the former involves beef only if you're from Texas), and why Appalachian ghost stories are so good. Also, I understand Kentucky voices, their lilt and twang. They're voices I sometimes find myself profoundly missing in south Florida, a place full of people whose speech primarily rides South American and European cadences. But though I love the voices of my birthplace, I never ever want to see them in my reading.

Not that I don't want Kentuckians in books or Southerners in general or Midwesterners, Northeasterners, Indians, Australians, Russians and Indonesians. Add them all to the narrative stew if you'd like. But please don't try to replicate the way they talk on the page. No matter the tongue, the result is generally always the same: It trips the reader up, makes him feel as though he has to translate on the fly, breaks the story's flow. Anne Lamott plainly states that if you must attempt to ape specific speech patterns, "be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read ... It makes our necks feel funny. We are, as you know, a tense people, and we have a lot of problems of our own without you adding to them." Perhaps my desire to see such a technique completely eradicated says something about my general stress level, but that's a topic for another essay.

So what techniques does this leave to the writer who likes characters with varying accents? Quite a few, actually. Word choice, use of similes and sentence length vary significantly from region to region. (For example, you won't likely here someone in Seattle say that a particularly nice day was "fine as frog's hair.") Those just learning a language will likely fall into some standard grammatical errors, although you have to be careful not to cater to stereotype. One of my favorites to read is extended description of an individual's voice, the pinching of particular consonants, rounding or flattening certain vowels. It's difficult to do well, but those working with English accents can turn to the
International Dialects of English Archive, an audio database with vocal samples from every continent. Log on, take a listen and get to describing.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
Brent and MariLynn)


B. Nagel said...

Hey! I listened to the first Mississippi sample and he was talking about BBQ/grilling as well.

Hopefully, you have read Wendell Berry's Fidelity. It's set in rural Ky, the fictional town of Port William.

I agree with Lammot (and you). Dialect done poorly kills any momentum. But it can be done wonderfully.

On a technical (technique-al) level, the use of dialect by the author and/or narrator indicates an Otherness. If the dialect is shared, its use can communicate solidarity. If one or a few individuals are singled out as speaking differently, they are the Other.

Loren Eaton said...

Proper barbeque is a beautiful thing. Did a pit, set it on fire, throw in a pig and leave it for a couple days. Wondrous, wondrous grub.

Alas, I've only read Berry's non-fiction work, mostly essays.

I'm sure there are people who can make dialect (die-uh-lekt) sing. They're probably in the literary (lhet-ir-air-rhey) camp, though, and their readers likely expect to have to work. Not that genre need be easy, but it often challenges (chal-un-gez) in different ways.

B. Nagel said...

I have the most problems where the writer is not consistent. Either go big or go home, I say. Or, to fit the current discussion: you have to go it whole hog.

On a different note, I saw the word "thru" used in a book. And not as dialect. The times they are a-changin'.

Loren Eaton said...

Wait "thru"? Are you serious? Man, that copy editor needs a (slightly) vigorous thrashing.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

A poetry prof insists that all dialect is always a step away from racist caricature, especially in modern English. That's because English has such a great variety of dialects (some incomprehensible) which use a standard system of spelling. So when you exceed that, you're really doing something out of the ordinary.

But yeah, mostly I agree with you. Unless I'm reading Redwall, dialect just distracts from the experience, gives me a headache. Worse, it's unnecessary--a good author can evoke a distinctive culture simply with word order, vocabulary, and punctuation.

Loren Eaton said...

America is such a melting pot and so few of us are intimately familiar with dialects other than our own that unintentional charicature is always an issue. That's something I really don't want to accidentally fall into.

So, CR, no opinion on the pork versus brisket debate in the barbeque war?

Peter Rozovsky said...

On a different note, I saw the word "thru" used in a book. And not as dialect. The times they are a-changin'.

The bad news is that publishers and newspapers are dispensing with copy editing as a luxury just when Americans are becoming less literate. The good is news is that humanity survived before standardized English spelling and widespread literacy and may well continue to do so.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Loren Eaton said...

I just hope we don't start writing like a teenager's Facebook status update. If that becomes standard practice, I may be tempted to throw myself onto I-95.