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Thread: How heavy on the dialect?

  1. #1
    permaflounced
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    How heavy on the dialect?

    I am soliciting opinions on the use of dialect. My WIP features a character who is a fugitive slave and figures prominently in the story. I do want to use dialect in his speech, but I am debating over how heavy his dialog should be flavored with it. I don't want to go as overboard as to have him sound like Jim in Huckleberry Finn, but I can't have him speaking proper English either.

    Any suggestions as to what bits of dialect, proper to a character circa 1861, might I indulge in without it making it to difficult or annoying to read? Such as pronoun-verb agreement, dropping Gs, use of mo', fo', and yo' in place of more, for and you (your). There are other oft-used substitutions I've considered, but I am interested in what others would be able to handle or be comfortable with were they to read such a character's dialog. He will have some amount of dialect, no matter what, so I am looking for some barometer of just how much is enough. I realize doing it properly is tricky so I will do some studying of how it has been done in other instances, using examples from writers who wrote or lived in the period.

    Any thoughts?

  2. #2
    Don't let your deal go down, Dave Hardy's Avatar
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    Maybe you could try some period idiom to establish his speaking style? I'm thinking of the way of phrasing things and expressions of the era. "There was a passel o' paterollers on the road so I lit a shuck for the territory." When I see something like that I sort of fill in the accent.
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  3. #3
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    If I read that, my eyes would glaze over.

    Just passing by, and posting out of curiosity - and I readily admit I'm not an avid Western reader so I could be totally off the tracks - but why does it have to be period phonetics?

    Isn't it better to use minimal phonetics so the reader understands and follow the story? I know how I think a fugitive slave might speak and I would interpret his dialogue accordingly. Careful word choice and phrasing might be preferable to phonetics.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Hardy View Post
    Maybe you could try some period idiom to establish his speaking style? I'm thinking of the way of phrasing things and expressions of the era. "There was a passel o' paterollers on the road so I lit a shuck for the territory." When I see something like that I sort of fill in the accent.
    Everything yields to treatment.

  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW firedrake's Avatar
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    I, personally, would keep dialect to the bare minimum, perhaps just the occasional word. Solid chunks of dialect put me right off a story.

  5. #5
    Baby plot bunneh sniffs out a clue Snowstorm's Avatar
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    I agree with firedrake. I would include some dialect, but only to give the reader a sense of the accent or the mannerism of speaking. If there's too many of the "local" expressions, then I don't understand what's being said.

    A couple years ago I read a novel set in Victorian London. The author introduced some characters who had a Cockney accent and wrote their dialogue completely literally. Every "h" or "g" was dropped. In one printed line in the book, I counted up to 7--SEVEN--apostrophes. What. the. hell. Pretty quick I realized these characters had nothing to contribute to the story and just skipped over their dialogue every time.


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  6. #6
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    As I suspected, for modern readers, less is more. There are so many possible quirks one can insert in to a black slave's dialect that you could make it unreadable and this is precisely why I am gathering opinions.

    Personally, I have never been a fan of period-piece movies or books which use modern English with all the anachronisms it offers. If I am reading or watching something set in the 1800s, I don't want 21st century jargon spewing from the characters; it sounds out of place. But I do want to be able to read or hear it and be able to understand it immediately without having to read or hear it twice. I find Twain's Huckleberry Finn difficult to read because some of the phonetic spellings do not read like anything I have ever heard come out of anyone's mouth.

    That being said, I still cannot have my character speaking proper English as it has to come across that he is at that point in time unable to read or write, and is a product of a slave's upbringing. Deciding just how much to tweak his speech is the difficult part. For instance, if I decided to substitute mo' for more, that almost opens up an obligation to do the same for every word with the "or" sound, which would be overwhelming in its scope. And quite frankly, I am too lazy to want to type that many apostrophes into his sentences even if I were inclined to be that "authentic."

    So what I am looking for is a few key dialect quirks I can consistently use without it becoming too much of a distraction for most of today's modern readers. Period idioms are fine as far as I am concerned if you use them with enough context the reader can immediately tell what they mean, but I plan on using them more sparingly than I would if the novel were set 10-15 years later.

    Any more thoughts, anyone? I guess the question is, what would be the most effective two or three means of transmitting the character's dialect with minimum effort?
    Last edited by jdm; 02-04-2013 at 09:10 AM.

  7. #7
    Don't let your deal go down, Dave Hardy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bufty View Post
    If I read that, my eyes would glaze over.

    Just passing by, and posting out of curiosity - and I readily admit I'm not an avid Western reader so I could be totally off the tracks - but why does it have to be period phonetics?

    Isn't it better to use minimal phonetics so the reader understands and follow the story? I know how I think a fugitive slave might speak and I would interpret his dialogue accordingly. Careful word choice and phrasing might be preferable to phonetics.
    The only two words that are phonetic are o' instead of "of" and "pateroller" in place of "patroller". "Pateroller" might be familiar from some of the period dialect, for instance "The Pateroller Song." I actually encountered it in Flash For Freedom, and worked out from the context it meant the slave patrol.

    "Passel" and "lit a shuck" are not phonetic. They are period dialect, passel means many and "to light a shuck" means depart hastily.

    Honestly I think I'd need to see them in context, but if period dialect is too much, and phonetics is too much, that doesn't leave a whole lot of options.
    In the words of Hasan i-Sabah: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

  8. #8
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    The problem with most dialect isn't so much that it's too heavy, but that it's unrealistic. It comes not from real speech of a period, but from other novels where the writer didn't have a clue.

    The basic rule is to go light on the dialect, but not so light that the character sounds like he could be from Anywhere, USA. A reader should know who's talking, what color that character is, and exactly where he's from just from the way the speech is written. It's a matter of the ear, and you have to trust your own.

  9. #9
    figuring it all out Arislan's Avatar
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    I still use the manner of speech without changing the spelling. I think it's less grating on the readers. I remember reading a graphic novel based on War of the Worlds, set in the 1800s, where I loved the art but I couldn't make heads or tails of the actual text. "Wuhl ah'll be durnt. Yeh no sumthin', I fergit dat a man wurth a-shootin's uh man wurth a-killin'"and such crap that was closer to Lil' Abner than H.G. Wells.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Arislan View Post
    I still use the manner of speech without changing the spelling. I think it's less grating on the readers. I remember reading a graphic novel based on War of the Worlds, set in the 1800s, where I loved the art but I couldn't make heads or tails of the actual text. "Wuhl ah'll be durnt. Yeh no sumthin', I fergit dat a man wurth a-shootin's uh man wurth a-killin'"and such crap that was closer to Lil' Abner than H.G. Wells.
    I would have quite a problem with that myself. What I was looking for (and so far have not really gotten) was suggestions for a few minor dialect affectations I could consistently use that would not make it hard for someone to read and immediately understand. In other words, how could you make a slave in 1861 sound like a slave in his dialogue without going overboard.

  11. #11
    figuring it all out Arislan's Avatar
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    I'd go with some of the tips already offered. In my writing I make this more about tone and attitude than dialect alone, as slaves were submissive and servile if born slaves, and broken and fearful if made into slaves.

    I have to say I agree with the producers of Deadwood on this subject:
    From its debut, Deadwood has drawn attention for its extensive profanity. It is a deliberate anachronism on the part of the creator with a twofold intent. Milch has explained in several interviews that the characters were originally intended to use period slang and swear words. Such words, however, were based heavily on the era's deep religious roots and tended to be more blasphemous than scatological. Instead of being shockingly crude (in keeping with the tone of a frontier mining camp), the results sounded downright comical. As one commentator put it "… if you put words like 'goldarn' into the mouths of the characters on 'Deadwood', they'd all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam."[8]
    Instead, it was decided that the show would use current profanity in order for the words to have the same impact on modern audiences as the blasphemous ones did back in the 1870s. In early episodes, the character of Mr. Wu excessively uses "cocksucka," his favorite derogatory term for those whom he dislikes. Wu is also fond of the Cantonese derogatory term "gweilo" which he applies to the camp's white males.
    The other intent in regards to the frequency of the swearing was to signal to the audience the lawlessness of the camp in much the same way that the original inhabitants used it to show that they were living outside the bounds of "civil society".
    The issue of the authenticity of Deadwood's dialogue has even been alluded to in the show itself. Early in the second season, E.B. Farnum has fleeced Mr. Wolcott of $9,900, and Farnum tries to console the geologist:

    EB: Some ancient Italian maxim fits our situation, whose particulars escape me.
    Wolcott: Is the gist that I'm shit outta luck?
    EB: Did they speak that way then?

  12. #12
    figuring it all out Arislan's Avatar
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    I found this "Texas Talk" glossary and it reminded me of this thread.

    Ah for I
    Poe for po' (poor)
    Hit for it
    Tuh for to
    Wuz for was
    Baid for bed
    Daid for dead
    Ouh for our
    Mah for my
    Ovah for over
    Othuh for other
    Wha for whar (where)
    Undah for under
    Fuh for for
    Yondah for yonder
    Moster for marster or massa
    Gwainter for gwineter (going to)
    Oman for woman
    Ifn for iffen (if)
    Fiuh or fiah for fire
    Uz or uv or o' for of
    Poar for poor or po'
    J'in for jine
    Coase for cose
    Utha for other
    Yo' for you
    Gi' for give
    Cot for caught
    Kin' for kind
    Cose for 'cause
    Tho't for thought

  13. #13
    lost in the TVTropes.org jungle... Jamie Stone's Avatar
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    What about something like the way The Help was written? As an example from the first page... "I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning. But I ain't never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it's a rotten turnip."

    The author doesn't overdo the accent but manages to convey the voice.

    Edit: Of course my first experience with that particular book was as a FANTASTIC audiobook and so I always hear the audiobook reader's voices as I read the hard copy...

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by Arislan View Post
    I found this "Texas Talk" glossary and it reminded me of this thread.

    Ah for I
    Poe for po' (poor)
    Hit for it
    Tuh for to
    Wuz for was
    Baid for bed
    Daid for dead
    Ouh for our
    Mah for my
    Ovah for over
    Othuh for other
    Wha for whar (where)
    Undah for under
    Fuh for for
    Yondah for yonder
    Moster for marster or massa
    Gwainter for gwineter (going to)
    Oman for woman
    Ifn for iffen (if)
    Fiuh or fiah for fire
    Uz or uv or o' for of
    Poar for poor or po'
    J'in for jine
    Coase for cose
    Utha for other
    Yo' for you
    Gi' for give
    Cot for caught
    Kin' for kind
    Cose for 'cause
    Tho't for thought
    Doesn't sound like any Texan in my family.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jamie Stone View Post
    What about something like the way The Help was written? As an example from the first page... "I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning. But I ain't never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it's a rotten turnip."

    The author doesn't overdo the accent but manages to convey the voice.

    Edit: Of course my first experience with that particular book was as a FANTASTIC audiobook and so I always hear the audiobook reader's voices as I read the hard copy...
    As long as it matches who the character is, that's pretty good.

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