How to Give Your Character an Authentic Dialect

How to Give Your Character an Authentic Dialect

Most people assume that dialect has to be a part of dialogue. My answer is that it can be, and in certain circumstances it ought to be, but the writer must never feel compelled to duplicate dialects simply for the sake of “authenticity.” The writer who thinks she is writing dialect because she is clipping the ends off of words and stretching out others is often taking delight more in her own experimentation than in any real sense of story. She may be shooting for a folksy charm or for a root authenticity, but most often she fails miserably. Try all you want to make the words unrecognizable-misspell them, cut them in half, throw in a fistful of apostrophes, sound out every groan the character makes-but the truth is, they are still words you’re dealing with.

Consider this example.

-By Tom Chiarella

Two grandmothers sit on a porch in Tennessee; one of them is trying to convince the other to go into town to get a pie from the grocery store to serve at dinner the next day:

“Sho’ ’nuff smo time leff fo you to git on downtown fo’ ‘nother pan dat pie.”

“Ain’t but a-our o’ two leff in the day. Dat walk take lease three hours, dere and back.”

“But ‘choo know dey love dat pie. Ah shore-ly do. You too. Ah love to serve that pie at a good suppa. Please
git on.”

“Ah had a car, Ah’d go. Ain’t no car workin’ in walkin distance tis whole place. Ah know you want dat pie. Ah know you do. Ah set out, maybe to barra Kip’s hahrse and buggy.”

“Ah hope so, light’s afailin.”

This is incredibly bad. The language is absurdly disguised behind the pretense of dialect. To be sure, it is an exaggeration. But each choice made by the writer-a misspelling here, an apostrophe there-is a little piece of what most people consider to be the essence of writing dialect. That is, it shoots for the sound of the words rather than the words themselves. In this case, it is difficult to read, complicated to decipher and once done, it’s hard for the reader to get a sense of anything outside of the basic question set up by the exposition that preceded it.

But wait. Perhaps you can read it, and while maybe you can’t understand every detail, you like it. That’s right, you think, that’s the way they talk in the South! You like reading dialogue aloud, sounding words out for their music. I give you high marks for admiring the music of language, but if you like this kind of writing, buy yourself a French horn and try to blow Shakespeare through it. You’re sure to get a clearer use of language. You might also coat-check your preconceptions of human beings in the southern half of the United States, because no matter how poor or little-traveled some people in Tennessee might be (or in the Bronx, for that matter), they use languagewhen they speak, and language is more than jamming a washcloth in the mouth of the speaker to get at the “sound.” All language has a logic; all language has dignity. It’s words as much as sounds.

When a piece is choked by dialect, the way this example exchange is, you have to work your way back to story through language. The writer of this sort of dialogue would probably say you have to read it aloud to understand it. When you do that, it becomes clear that “Ah” equals “I” and “dat” is “that.” This is a good illustration of relying too heavily on dialect. Right now you are probably saying “Ah” out loud. To some, this reads like the sound the doctor asks you to make before he swabs your tonsils for strep; for others, it is more nasal, sounding like a grunt made in an argument (“Ah … yeah. That’s true, but … ah … I have another point to make on that matter.”). The word has become a sound. A word created to mimic sound has to be an absolute success in terms of its music. There are entire novels where this happens (Alice Walker’s The Color Purple comes to mind), but in these books, the entire thread of the novel teaches the reader the language of these sounds. We can’t presume to do the same within the short dialogue we’re discussing, but in terms of translating dialogue, it looks something like this:

Sho’ ’nuff smo time leff fo you to git on downtown fo’ ‘nother pan dat pie. “There’s still time enough for you to get downtown for another pan of that pie.”

Ain’t but a-our o’ two leff in the day. Dat walk take lease three hours, dere and back. “Ain’t but an hour left in the day. That walk would take at least three hours, there and back.”

But ‘choo know dey love dat pie. Ah shore-ly do. You too. Ah love to serve that pie at a good suppa. Please git on. “Please get on. You know they love that pie. I surely do. You do too. At a good supper, I love to serve that pie. Please.”…

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