Monday, September 17, 2012

Dialect Do's, Dialect Don't's

Last time I wrote about voice, an important component of characterization. This time I want to put down a few words on dialect.

Dialect, of course, is a regional way of using a language. It includes pronunciation and vocabulary. Pronunciation is the reason why in Maine they pahk the cah in the yahd and in Florida they park the car in the yard. Vocabulary is the reason why in New England it's a soda, in St. Paul it's a pop, and in Georgia it's a Coke, no matter what the brand.

Dialect is so colorful that it often tempts writers into ghastly error. "Aw, ah dun wen an dun at arredy, Mawmaw," he drawled.

Too much already. When you decide a character will speak in dialect, restrict yourself to a few key words to indicate pronunciation (it's fine to use regional vocabulary, though you may need to finesse a way to explain what the term means to speakers of general English).

Caribbean? Maybe a few "mon's" will help. But "Dat's fo' troo mon" is too much. "That's for true, mon," would work just as well. Work on the cadences and the lilt and not so much on distorted words.

Southern? First of all, there are all sorts of Southern: Piedmont, as spoken by the late Andy Griffith; Tidewater, in which "out" sounds like "oot"; Plantation, which is the one always faked by non-Southern actors. Be sure of your region. And there's no reason to spell "I" "Ah." Everybody knows already.

"That jes' ain't right, now," he drawled. "I mean, yeah, a man can git tangled up with the law sometimes, but to shoot a feller down f' nothin', now, that ain't right."

Be sure you know your dialect. Then think of it as a condiment, not a main dish. A little sprinkle helps to individualize characters and give them flavor; too much, and the reader tosses the whole dish into the garbage pail. Or trash can. Or waste bin.

Depends on where you're coming from, mon. Yaknowwaddimean?

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