View Full Version : Dialect Dreck

04-16-2012, 08:55 AM
I know this is a pretty new forum, so stop and slap me if this particular topic has already been done to death elsewhere.

What I'm curious to know is, what dumb things have you seen done with dialect or slang as it relates to people of color?

As a more specific corollary: I'm aiming to pull a competent fantasy story out of something based on the American West, and I've always felt like it wouldn't be right to have these four or five vastly different cultures and peoples all sound alike. What well-intentioned but ultimately stupid things do I need to not do when crafting differences in their speech? (I already got a pretty good handle on "don't go nuts rendering accents phonetically; it will make at least half your readership want to hurl the book across the room." But anything else you can add to my understanding would be greatly appreciated.)

04-21-2012, 01:21 PM
dialect is tricky and something I'm not that good at. You're right the different cultures shouldn't sound alike, but try to do it in a way that isn't demeaning or makes the reader head hurts, I guess.

04-21-2012, 05:30 PM
Try to avoid stereotyping.

Personally, I wouldn't consider the following stereotypical, because it really is how English is spoken by many Singaporeans: "It's okay, la! No need to worry, la, you have great image." (Singaporean English.)

Writing "He go market, and I thank you you instructioning to him" wouldn't sound stereotypical to me, but it would annoy me. It's Chinese English.

But if you wrote, for example, "Please being not doing that, he is being very reasonable", I'd be tempted to hit you over the head, or at least throw the book in the bin. To me that's stereotypical Indian English.

Also, if I came across something like, "What ho, chaps! A top o' t' mornin' t' yer, guv! And aboot that there urn..." said book would be burned. That's not an attempt at dialect. That's someone trying to write a posh English accent and failing. "What ho, chaps!" could be posh, but "top o' t' mornin' t' yer, guv" is a "working class" accent and "aboot" is stereotypical Scottish.

04-21-2012, 05:44 PM
What I try to do is select no more than two or three turns of phrase which typify the dialect to those who have any familiarity with it, and use them when it's appropriate. Beyond that, it's just word choice and word order.

I learned this from reading (Caucasian) Richard Price, whose novels capture a different black voice for each black character, yet he never beats the reader over the head with it.

So my Texan might use respectful terms of address like sir and ma'am at greater frequency than the other characters do, plus y'all, and that's more than enough for people to 'hear' Texas in his dialogue.

The toughest aspect is identifying a trait that's fairly unique to a particular speech pattern (whether it's racial, regional, age-specific, etc.) and recognizable to those who know it, while fully readable to those who don't.

Maryn, eh?

04-21-2012, 07:10 PM
This sounds fun. I think too many verbal tics should be avoided, personally. The voice can be in the contstruction and vocabulary.

I have a character who speaks AAVE and it's not exactly the way he'd speak irl (I avoided using "nigga" and only have a few flat out slang idioms) it's more just to get the idea across. So make sure to consider practicality and clarity, as well as authenticity.

04-23-2012, 09:41 AM
Hey, thanks for the deep thoughts, y'all!

I agree that less is almost-certainly more when it comes to accents and dialect: I did read Trainspotting and kept pausing and rewinding to make sure I caught the more slangtastic exchanges in The Wire, but those writers had good reasons for the dialect and good payoff for those who took the extra time to understand it. Reading the reviews for Chuck Palahniuk's Pygmy, on the other hand, was enough to convince me that I probably shouldn't bet the farm on pulling that off (not that I'm yearning to try.)

I've also enjoyed seeing other languages rendered in faithful translation, or particular idioms carried over (like the Haitian "wash your hands and wipe them on the floor" to describe useless or wasted labor.) I expect that too should be kept moderate, but what a way to add some fresh flavor to the world!

04-26-2012, 02:14 AM
Actually, the lack of dialect in my new volume of Bre'er Rabbit tales, compared to the volume I grew up with, makes me sad. The dialect was always part of what made them special to me.
But I wouldn't attempt to write in a dialect I wasn't very familiar with. A character's voice can be reflected in their diction, the length of their sentences, their talkativeness, vocabulary, references, etc. A bunch of aboots ain't necessary. :)

04-26-2012, 02:50 AM
Dialect annoys me, especially when the entire novel is written in it. I like reading English, thank you, not literal interpretations of the way people speak. Don't even get me started on overused slang.

Granted, different cultures shouldn't sound the same, but you can write their dialogue without driving me away. Some people enjoy that kind of thing, though. I do not.

Quick example:

"He dun been a gud man," Sally Mae said.


"He done been a good man," Sally Mae said.


"He was a good man," Sally Mae drawled.

It's a matter of preference, but I'd pick #2 or #3 before #1.

Kitty Pryde
04-26-2012, 05:28 AM
I recently read a book with good dialects in it. The MC was a black kid from the hood in Cleveland. Most of the other characters were upper-class white private school kids, with a handful of black kids from Brooklyn. They all went to school together and I think the author did a really nice job dealing with code switching and different shifting speech patterns, and having really strong dialects without being difficult to read. Black Boy, White School.

04-26-2012, 05:48 AM
Think of it as seasoning. A little goes a long way. A word or two, often near the beginning of a line of dialogue, may be enough to let the reader know the character talks in a certain way.

04-26-2012, 11:53 AM
Just please don't have an AAVE or Southern accent be code for 'stupid'. Not that you would :) But that gets me so angry, I can't even say.

I love all the great idioms around the world. I've seen them overused in renditions of Southern speech, but I still appreciated the effort. Usually cultures that have a lot of them do enjoy hearing them repeated :)