Showing posts with label dialect. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dialect. Show all posts

04 April 2015

Dial D for Dialect

by John M. Floyd

As a native of Mississippi, I confess that most writers south of the Mason-Dixon think they're good at writing dialect, or at least think they should write dialect, because the way southerners talk is so different and so recognizable. (If you don't believe that, you ain't seen the last of Ernest T. Bass.)

The truth is, whether we're good at it or not, we'd be well advised to (as one dominatrix said to the other) use a little restraint now and then. The overuse of dialect of any kind is far more risky than not using it at all. More about that later.

Calling the dialectrician

What exactly is dialect, anyway? Merriam-Webster says it's "a form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations."

I prefer a simpler definition: it's the way specific groups (regional, ethnic, social, etc.) talk. And, make no mistake, all of us speak in dialect. It only sounds funny when it's not ours.

From a writing standpoint (which is, after all, where we at this blog should be standing and pointing from), dialect can at times be useful. All writers want their characters to have individual, believable voices. We should make them speak in dialogue that has unique phrases and interesting rhythms. I once heard that the key to fascinating characters is not the words they use but the way they use them. Reference a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: "I was sittin' on the porch, and he come along. There's this old chifforobe in the yard, and I said, 'You come in here, boy, and bust up this chifforobe, and I'll give you a nickel.'" To me, that's good use of dialect. I grew up the same part of the country as Harper Lee's Maycomb County, and I can assure you a lot of folks down here talk that way.

At, Fiction Editor Beth Hill says we should "use contractions--I'd, isn't, weren't, would've, and so on. Then, when you don't use a contraction, the words will take on an emphasis they couldn't have if all words were written without contractions." (As in, I suppose, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Presidential statements should always be emphatic.)

Ms. Hill goes on to say that authors should "select one or two or half a dozen words that'll identify a character's background and accent or dialect. Or use a sentence construction or phrase pattern with recognizable accents." Another example of the proper use of dialect, this one from Huckleberry Finn: ". . . It was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out."

Compare that to this groaner of a line, from Huck's friend Jim: "I got hurt a little, en couldn't swim fas', so I wuz a considable ways behine you towards de las'." Go thou and don't do likewise.

Which brings up the other side of the coin:

Don't touch that dialect

The fact is, an overdose of dialect can kill your story deader than Billy Bob Shakespeare. Despite what we've seen in some of the work of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mitchell, George Eliot, William Faulkner, and many others from long ago, the overuse of dialect these days can be as dangerous as the all-too-familiar overuse of adverbs, adjectives, italics, exclamation points, cliches, ellipses, etc. Any of those things are distractions when used too often, and can pull the reader out of the dream world you've worked so hard to create.

Too much dialect can also transform your characters from realistic and interesting to cartoonish and cliched. Not to mention the fact that it is sometimes--let's face it--politically incorrect.

Besides, most dialect is just plain annoying. In a DailyWritingTips piece called "Showing Dialect in Dialogue," Maeve Maddox says modern readers have little patience with this kind of writing. Detailed punctuation, she says, interferes with the narrative, and "some readers who speak nonstandard dialects find attempts to represent their home dialects--even if they are successful renditions--disrespectful." She then addresses one of my pet peeves: "Sprinkling dialogue with odd spellings is especially pointless when the misspelling conveys the same pronunciation as the standard spelling. For example, sez for says, and shure for sure. The consensus among today's writing coaches is that dialect is best expressed with vocabulary, grammar, and easily understood regional expressions, rather than with apostrophes and made-up spellings."

Screenplays can be a different matter. In the movie Fargo, they overused dialect quite a bit, for the purpose of humor--and it worked. Ya, darn tootin', youbetcha it did.

More quotes on this subject:

"Dialect is out. Hinting at a character's ethnic background or regional origins by very subtle means is in. The occasional foreign word or y'all will do, and by all means, don't spell funny. Editors hate funny spelling. So do intelligent readers." -- Carolyn Wheat, How to Write Killer Fiction

"Four out of five readers report that reading representations of heavy dialect is extremely bothersome." -- Lori L. Lake, "The Uses and Abuses of Dialect,"

"There is no point in spelling phonetically any word as it is ordinarily pronounced; almost all of us say things like 'fur' or for, 'uv' for of, 'wuz' for was, 'an' for and . . . When you misspell these words in dialogue, you indicate that the speaker is ignorant enough to spell them that way when writing." -- Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

"Dialogue that is written in dialect is very tiring to read. If you can do it brilliantly, fine . . . but be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read short stories or novels that are written in dialect." -- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

"Some writers try to use misspellings to convey dialect. Yet . . . those who speak differently don't spell differently; the words are the same. So the spelling should be standard." -- Beth Hill, as credited above

"Dialect is annoying to the reader. It takes extra effort to derive the meaning of words on the page . . . [also,] dialect is offensive to some readers." -- Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Have a good dighe, mite

Another aggravation is that many U.S. writers seem to have problems with the English dialogue of characters from other countries. The best tip I've heard regarding foreigners' dialects came from Revision & Self-Editing, by James Scott Bell. He said we should use syntax (the order of the words rather than the words themselves) to indicate that someone's native language is not English. Example: "Please, where is bathroom?"

Anytime this topic comes up, I'm reminded of an e-mail I received years ago from an IBM colleague in the Philippines the week before I traveled to Manila to teach a check-processing class. His note to me (I printed it out and kept it) said, "I am having happy feeling about you come to visit."

Sometimes simple is the best option. In the article "Most Common Writing Mistakes: The Do's and Don'ts of Dialect" at, K.M. Weiland says, "Readers are smart. They don't need much encouragement to get the idea that your character talks like Jackie Chan or Helen Mirren. Sometimes just mentioning your character's nationality will be enough to help readers hear the proper accent when reading your dialogue." She continues with: "Let your character's interesting word choices or incorrect sentence constructions carry the burden of conveying the foreignness of his speech." Good advice.

Personal observations

In my own writing, I commit dialect errors often, but I'm trying to cut back to two or three a week. I still leave the occasional "g" out of my writin' and rantin', and I can't seem to resist using "gonna" or "gotta" now and then. But I'm editing out more and more of the sho-nuffs and the scuse-me's and substituting correct spellings.

Finally, here's an example of dialect from one of my favorite movie characters: "Luke, when gone am I . . . the last of the Jedi will you be."

Now, gone am I. Back in two weeks I will be.

01 November 2013

The Accidental Accent Thief

by Dixon Hill

A Symphony of Subtleties

Akwaaba means "Welcome" in Twri, the language of the Ashanti
In Ghana, West Africa
Accents, in my opinion, are comprised of subtle linguistic aspects. But, when these subtle aspects—of tonal inflection, word choice, phraseology, and myriad other factors—combine, they can team-up to dominate the way a person speaks. The greater the linguistic domination, the “heavier” we say a person’s accent is. That’s the way I see it. And, I have a certain feel for accents. After all …

I’m An Accent Thief 

I don’t do it on purpose; it just happens. Put me in a room with somebody who has an accent, and before too long I’ve caught that accent the same way a hypochondriac might catch a cold. Instead of becoming infected with my conversation-partner’s sniffles, I’m speaking with his twang, maybe dropping certain parts of words, unintentionally borrowing certain phrases, widening my mouth when I make a vowel sound, or perhaps accumulating schwas.

Sometimes this comes in handy. When I was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for instance, I quickly discovered that many local mechanics tended to automatically raise their rates when working on cars that belonged to folks who “ain’t from aroun-cheer.” So, I made it a habit to drop into a drawl as soon as I hopped out of my convertible at the repair shop. The “Fellowship of the Ya’ll,” as I called it, earned me good discounts on new brakes and other necessities.

On other occasions, however, my odd tendency to capture accents leads to embarrassment. I recall speaking to a British gentleman who suddenly cut me off (something I’ve noticed Brits rarely do) to ask: “Are you making sport of me?” (I don’t think he used the word “sport,” though. But, I can’t remember the word he did use.) I apologized, and explained that I tended to “catch accents” but didn’t mean to poke fun at anyone. In fact, I hadn’t realized I was doing it, until he called my attention to it.

After a moment he said, “I see. So, you’re a bit like a human Macaw, then, aren’t you? Or mynah bird, perhaps.”

My automatic response? “Snap!” We both burst into laughter.

While teaching at the Venezuelan Commando (Cazador, or “Hunter”) School, my buddies and I liked to frequent a nearby cafĂ©, where the waitress was happy to serve me “Peksi Lijera” (Pepsi Light). I spoke to her quite a bit, and learned to order my “Peksi” early-on. In fact, I accidentally acquired quite a bit of her accent. Unfortunately, the reason she said “Peksi” instead of “Pepsi” was because she had a speech impediment—which I also temporarily acquired, thinking it was part of the local dialect!

Foreign Dialects

When studying Arabic, at the Defense Language Institute, we spent the first twelve months learning to read, write and speak Modern Standard Arabic. This is basically the language of the Qur’an.

After that, we broke into smaller classes and focused on individual dialects for the next six months. The dialect I studied was the one spoken in Egypt (a nation pronounced “Musr” in Arabic, with the “s” held for an extra half-beat, compared to most contemporary English usage, and wrapped into a breathy, brief, relatively un-voiced, trilled “r” sound). This was the first time I’d been introduced to an in-depth study of dialectal differences in language, and I found it fascinating—if somewhat over my head.

The most interesting case of dialectal differences I ran into, however, was in Africa.

The nation of Ghana
Capital City:  Accra
On our first full day in Ghana, we were taken to a museum and introduced to the “Twri of Ashanti.” (At this point, I should probably point out that Twri can evidently sometimes also be written or pronounced: “Chee” or “Tshee”, or “Twee”—but, I was taught it as “Twri”, so that’s what I’ll use here.)

The word “Twri” is—surprisingly, perhaps, for a westerner—pronounced just as it looks. The word begins with the “tw” sound we use in the word “Twine”.

The “wr” sound takes that unvoiced w sound from the word “twine” (minus any vowel-ing, of course: just the “w?” part of the w sound in the shorter word “wine”). Then, this w sound is rolled into the back-of-the-mouth, mid-to-upper-throat part of the r sound we use at the beginning of the word “roar.” Now, combine the two sounds, transitioning from the w sound into the r sound without stopping in the middle. Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger if it takes a bit of practice to learn to smoothly transition between w and r sounds.

The “i” sound is pronounced “ee”, so the entire word “Twri” comes out sounding a lot like the English word “Tree” except that it has a w sound between the t and the r. In fact, as I later discovered, this word “Twri” is the “English” word that many people in Ghana often use when talking about a tree in the forest—which helped me more fully understand why the person explaining the “Twri of Ashanti” was, at the time, standing and pointing at a giant tree painted on the two-story wall of the museum as he did so.

That painted tree was shaped similar to the tree seen on the right, but each leaf held the name of a village, while the trunk had the word Ashanti painted on it, and some of the major branches carried other names.

The painting was designed to illustrate how the language of the Ashanti peoples (Twri) had branched into many dialects—some primarily used by peoples other than the Ashanti (hence the names painted on some of the larger branches).

Ghana is not a giant country; in fact it’s area is smaller than that of the state of Oregon. Because the people had only low-speed transportation for hundreds of years, however, coupled with sometimes rather inhospitable terrain, villages were often relatively isolated. This physical isolation resulted in relative linguistic isolation, creating linguistic differences between villages to an extraordinary extent, particularly when one considers the limited area they are all contained within.

The Ashanti region of Ghana
These differences are so great, in fact, that many people I met there did not consider each village to have its own dialect, but rather its own language. I met far more than one person who told me he spoke over twenty languages. Usually, he might speak English, French and Twri—but instead of saying he spoke Twri, he’d then start listing all the village dialects he spoke. Which is not to say that the village dialects weren’t quite different from each other.

My A-Team was there to teach a leadership class to NCO’s in the Ghana Army. We worked in Akim Achiaze (Ah-keem Ah-chee-ah-zay). Akim means village, town or city. Achiaze was the name of the town outside the base where we worked. But, depending on where one came from, Achiaze was pronounced: “Ah-chee-ah-zay”, “Uh-chazzee”, “Ah-chee-ah-zee”, “Ah-kee-ah-zee”, “Ah-kah-shee”, etc.

What Does This Have to do With Writing?

One of the most esoteric concepts in writing, imho, is “voice.” And, somehow, there seems to be a connection between accents and voices—including the written “voice”—which runs much deeper than just a twang.

As I wrote earlier in this essay, an accent can cause subtleties to combine in a domineering way. This changes my speaking voice. In my own experiences as an accidental accent thief, I’ve noticed that slipping into another accent sometimes even shifts the tonal range of my voice several octaves up or down the scale. It influences word choice, phraseology, sometimes even paragraph order.

Tone, word choice, phraseology, paragraph or word order—it’s beginning to sound as if we’re talking about aspects of written “voice” here, doesn’t it?

I found myself explaining this to someone, a few days ago, when he asked me if I read books or short stories when I was working on a story or novel. I answered that I did read while working, but had to be careful not to read anything with a “conflicting voice.”

Answering my friend’s subsequent question (“What the hell does conflicting voice mean?”), led me to explain that I’m not just an accent thief. In writing, I have to be very careful not to let the voice of my work be unintentionally altered by the voice of something else. Further, if I read something that has a voice totally alien to the voice I’m writing in, it can completely derail my project until I can get that other voice out of my head—which can take awhile.

A Final Thieving Smile

About six months ago, I spotted a visitor in our church, here in Scottsdale, who had scars on his face that told me he was a chief’s son—if he came from Ghana. His eyes lit up when I said hello in Twri, and after he responded in kind we shook hands, snapping our fingers off each other (a common Ghana practice, I believe) then gave each other the “thumbs-up” while saying, “Ay-yea” which means roughly “yes” or “okay”.

We called each other “Medonfo!” (may-dawn-foe) then, meaning “my friend” and hugged (another common practice in Ghana, I believe). But, when he asked where I’d learned to speak Twri, he professed not to know where Akim Achiaze was. Undaunted, I began listing all the ways I’d heard it pronounced, and when I said, “Akim Uh-chazzee” he clapped his hands and cried, “Uh-chazzie! Where they have the Army Jungle School—it’s way back in the bush!” 

He knew the place, alright. He just wasn’t used to hearing it pronounced in an Achiaze accent. And, since that’s where I’d spent almost all my time in Ghana, that’s the stolen accent I spoke.

See you in two weeks!