Friday, June 24, 2011

Writing Dialects: Not As Easy As It Sounds, Y'All

“Rungway! Rungway!" yelled a man at a person driving down the street. If the tourist had been native to the area, he would have understood “Wrong way!” and realized he was driving the wrong way down a one way street. The first person was speaking a dialect unfamiliar to a visitor.

Not all people speak the same language the same way. Every language has dialects, also accents and idiolects, which are divided by social groups (Valley Girl and Ebonics), class and geographic regions. There are almost no grammatical differences region to region but word pronunciation is frequently markedly different and some words are replaced. A good example: soda versus pop for carbonated soft drinks. Vocabulary is the most fluid aspect of dialects and grammar the least.

Habits of speech become rungs on the ladder of success both in both the social and business arenas. There is no “correct English” as such but most Americans realize a certain set of grammar rules, syntax and pronunciation. American broadcasters in radio and television learn to speak what is now called “TV network American” which is close to the dialect of most Midwesterners. They are easily understood by all Americans. That is the same reason many companies who offer goods via catalogs have based the telephone ordering part of their business in the Midwest. People often speak using their own dialect when in a relaxed and unguarded situation reserving TV network American when the occasion requires it.

Within some dialects, subdialects emerge but usually do not become permanent. Young people parrot the speech of popular singers who in turn are influenced by Southern white or black speech patterns. Youngsters frequently weaken vowels before an “L”: sale = sell, really = rilly, and feel = fill. They also like creating their own dialects to talk more secretly and to define social status among themselves. By the time these words come into general usage, the young people have dropped them and gone on to other words. Today’s rapid development of communications technology will probably slow down the evolution of dialects and languages. For the first time in history, a dialect called Network Standard is being used all across the country without regard to the usual stratifications of speech. Class distinction, race and poverty will slow down this trend but more and more people will be added to the users as they grow up in a computer dominated world. As a sidelight, many children are not being taught cursive writing because teachers say they all will be using personal communication devices and never need to put their thoughts on paper via a pencil or pen.

Try asking someone what those sandwiches with many layers between thick slices of buns are called. In Philadelphia they are hoagies; NY heroes; New Orleans po’ boys; Pittsburgh submarines; Miami Cuban sandwiches; and strangely enough in Wisconsin Garibaldis. A heavy rainstorm is called a dam-buster in AL, hay-rotter in VA, leak-finder in WI, million dollar rain in MS, tree-bender in Maine, ditch-worker in IL, sewer-clogger in MI, mud-sender in CA, and gully washer in 3 dozen other states. Other more localized names are goose-drowners, toad stranglers and duck drenchers. Most of us say “turn off the lights” but in the South is it “cut off the lights” and in the Northeast “shut off the lights”. Floridians “mash” button while the rest of us “push” them to open an elevator door or start the washing machine.

Eighty-two per cent of the people in the United States speak English but we are often separated by different dialects. For writers this presents a dilemma. How much of a dialect do you use in your stories? If your story is set in the South how many local words will add color to your characters versus run the risk of them being misunderstood? Another conundrum for the successful writer.


Jessie Gunderson said...

Cool post! I enjoyed this. Now the question... what to do. :) I guess one thing to ask yourself is who is the target audience. If it is southerners, then you'd better just asume they are reading it with their dialect or risk getting in trouble. :)

I like to add diversity to my characters with dialect but it is annoying if used too heavily. Sometimes I prefer to just describe they way they said it, "he had a heavy NY accent."

Fun to think about though. Thanks for your post.

Jennifer Rova said...

You're welcome. Good point you make about it sometimes is better to just say "He's got a NY accent" and instead of trying to write it. I never liked the story "B'rer Rabbit" as a child because I couldn't read the dialect. I still hold onto that angst when I read stories with too much Southern accented dialogue.

elizabethbrinton said...

I struggled with this question when I wrote my novel, "My American Eden."
There was the issue of the use of the word thee. I put it in, and I took it out. Should I use old English, or more modern English? That was another question. My editor had me change all words not in use in 1660. It was jolly nerve wracking trying to get the right balance. In the end, I suppose we had to take some liberties because it would have been too hard to read otherwise.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Thanks for an interesting blog,Jennier.. Right away i think of the poet Jame Whitcomb Riley and the great American author, Mark Twain - both used dialect heavily in their writing.... seems a daunting task to me :)