Sunday, December 12, 2010

Use of Dialect


Chee Chee isn't going to Jamaica with me, so I'm pretty sure that nothing will happen."

This is an excerpt from my second book, Pirates at Port Royal. The truth is that such a sentence probably would not come out of the mouth of the average child in St. Kitts. It is more likely to look like:

"Chee Chee not going Jamaica wid me, so nuttin' gorn happ'n."

Writing direct speech for my West Indian characters has been an ongoing struggle for me. On the one hand, I do want the books to be an authentic representation of life in the Caribbean. I want my characters to seem realistic and familiar to my West Indian readers. On the other hand, I recall reading books set in Scotland and struggling to understand the dialect speech and wondering to myself how these words actually sound. I have also read books written entirely in Jamaican creole which I have to read out loud to catch the gist of the text. I don’t want to alienate my non-West Indian readers by making them work too hard to figure out what my characters are saying.

There is a little more to the dilemma in my case. While I appreciate the use of dialect, I have spoken out about the way that it is proliferating our English and questioned whether or not it is the right way to go. Many people have responded positively to my suggestions and it does seem a bit hypocritical if I turn around and write a book in dialect!

Have you had that struggle between realistic and understandable speech?


Charles Gramlich said...

From my own experience I think it's pretty risky. The only story I ever used a substantial amount of dialect in also recieved the worst review I've ever gotten on a story.

G. B. Miller said...

I haven't come across it much while reading, except for the story that Charles is talking about (if I'm assuming correctly), but I do come across it in very small blocks via a FB friend of mine who will sometimes talk like what you just wrote.

I agree that it is very difficult to understand dialect unless you had some kind of substantial exposure to it as a reader (fortunately for me, having a few West Inidian co-workers in addition to being exposed to that culture while growing up, makes reading/understanding that dialect easier).

Personally, I only use it when I'm trying to write a funny blog post.

KeVin K. said...

As a southern writer I often have to consider how much dialect I'm going to use or how to indicate it. I will use sentence structure to indicate speech patterns. (Folks in the south tend to leave the initial article off their sentences, for example.) Also word choice ("folks" instead of "people").

Or I will have a non-dialect speaking character try to sort out the meaning of a phrase or word choice.
Biff asked Bobby Jo about the twins' bookbags. It took him a moment to decipher "Theyah inna caw" as "they're in the car," but then he was out the door heading for the old Dodge" (No need to translate Bobby Jo as Barbra Joan, I think.)

In "Dragons of Despair" I had a character with a head injury that caused slurred speech. A plot point was the protagonist thought the slurring was simply the result of a few teeth being knocked out in the same accident and ignored a medical emergency until the character passed out. I began with a few paragraphs of very pronounced slurring and the protagonist having her repeat herself and puzzle out words where "f" replaced "th" and no sibilants. Then, as the protagonist ignored the problem the speech became clear because she'd become used to it. Only later when a medico asked about symptoms does she mention it.

In my Star Trek short story "Indomitable," I depicted Checkov's speech the way Walter Koenig played it on the show. Clear English with occasional substitutions ("kepten" for "captain"). The folks at Pocket Books took out all my phonetics and went with plain English. Their style manual was to indicate accents through the perceptions of other characters while presenting standard usage on the page. (Similar to my example above.)

Whichever method you use to indicate dialect or accent or speech impediment, I recommend you use it sparingly. Just enough to anchor it in the reader's mind, then set it aside.

Charles Gramlich said...

G, I imagine you're correct. Slugger's HOliday from Bitter Steel. said...

No struggle, really. Just be selective in your dialect, making it germane to the story.
Like aping a Welchman.
"My sister you will not marry."

Jewel Amethyst said...

I wrote "From SKB With Love" with an American audience in mind; yet I incorperated a bit of Kittitian dialect in the speech of the local characters for authenticity. The trick is to use it sparingly.

Now I've written whole stories (unpublished) in Kittitian dialect, but those stories are culturally specific and meant for a Caribbean audience.

Mary Witzl said...

I love reading books with lots of dialect in them, trying to figure it out and feeling like I'm experiencing a bit of that world myself, vicarioiusly. But I do appreciate that it can be overwhelming if it's overdone. My critique partner used dialect in one of her books and had it pared right down to almost nothing by the time it went to publication. I think the idea is to use just enough to give your readers the 'flavor', but not so much that they have to wade through it.

G. B. Miller said...

Charles: Thanks. I was pretty sure that was the story you were talking about.

I still think its good, in spite of what others may have said. Reminds me of the stuff I used to work with back in the day.

Shauna Roberts said...

I try to do as KeVin Does—indicate accents and dialect through sentence structure and specific words (pop vs. coke vs. soft drink vs. soda, for example).

I find it annoying when I read a book set in a place where I know they talk differently yet I get no sense of that from the plain-vanilla newscaster English used.

Anonymous said...

One trick is to use dialect sparingly, perhaps just the first few times a character speaks and then in small doses after that. The reader will then hopefully absorb the character's speech style without having to work too hard on every piece of dialogue. So I'm basically supporting what KeVin says in his last paragraph.

I once tried to read Feersum Endjinn by Iain M Banks. It's written phonetically, including the prose. I got no further than chapter two.

Farrah Rochon said...

Carol, I had the same problem with my books that were set in New Orleans. We speak differently down here (I nearly wrote "We 'talk' differently down here" because that's what I'm used to).

I tried to color my writing with local dialect. Some of it didn't make it past the copy editor, but for the bits that did, I never got complaints from readers.