Dialectical musings

No, no, not philosophy. I survived my college philosophy and ethics courses by the very skin of my teeth, made all the more difficult by how hard I had to bite my tongue over each semester. I’m talking about dialect, that sometimes-clumsy method by which we writers try to capture the spoken word on the page.

We quite often fail . . . and part of the reason is that it’s very hard to continue to empathize with a character who is portrayed as so overtly “other.” We want to bond with characters– it’s what keeps us reading about them. Bonding, however, is broken every time a clumsy bit of dialect knocks us out of the story and makes us try to figure out what the person is saying.

For example, I’m reading “Little Bee”, the story of a Nigerian refugee who has gone to Great Britain. The main character, the titular Little Bee, leaves a refugee processing center with a woman who speaks in a broad Jamaican accent. It’s probably going to be a difficult conversation, sure– neither one of them speaks a “perfect” version of The Queen’s English, but a very localized slangy version of it.

Still, it’s distracting that every time the Jamaican woman says “people”, the author spells it as “pipple.” On the page, it looks like nothing so much as “nipple.” It doesn’t give us a better sense of how the Jamaican woman speaks, it simply complicates the matter by making me think of mammary glands.

It’s funny, in a way, that such a weird little dialect-related bumble keeps tripping me up in a book that’s largely devoted to the interplay of language and culture. It just goes to show that, when playing with dialect in your dialogue, you’re playing with fire. It may sound perfectly right to you, the writer (you’re speaking it in your head and sometimes aloud while you write it) but the reader is going to come at your creation with their OWN dialect firmly in place, rendering your imagined pronunciations moot.

It reminds me of a Facebook conversation one of my friends had the other day– she wanted to know how many people say “M(egg)an” for “Megan” and how many say “M(ay)gan” . . . coming from where I do, I’ve never heard anyone say “Maygan” . . . it’s always eggy for Megan. Even just halfway across the country, people can speak in ways that sound so odd to our ears. You don’t have to complicate it too much to capture a dialect– a word or two will do it. Our imaginations can fill in the rest. 🙂


About endurancemom

Writer of fantasy and historical fantasy fiction, mother of 6, former nurse, Catholic convert, wife of 25 years, and general all-around geek. Warning: Do not attempt this at home. View all posts by endurancemom

2 responses to “Dialectical musings

  • ericjbaker

    Ahhhh! It bugs the crap out of me when writers write ‘accented’ dialog phonetically. Then why not write all dialog phonetically?

    The only exception in my writing is that I’ll use a dropped “g” for humorous effect, or maybe a “gonna” here and there, because a rough-and-tumble biker dude seems funny saying, “I’m going to kick your ass!” But that’s rare.

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