Just A Bit O’ Dialect
Dialect can make anything from a Sci-fi novel to a western story come alive with unique and realistic voices. But if your English fiction contains text as obtuse as:
Da grill da bik rude
it is unlikely that your work will be published.
To master the mystery of writing good dialect it helps to have a little insight into the difference between the rules of English, and effective communication. Some years ago a communications researcher at the University of Colorado, Dr. Sally Planalp, did a study on transitions. She took articles featuring various types of transitional links between paragraphs, broke them up into individual paragraphs, and then scored each transition on how well students could put the paragraphs back in the proper order using transitions as the key.
Most of us are to used to the idea that there are rules in the English language and students get graded on how well they know them. What Planalp did was grade the rules on how well they helped people understand what was going on. When we write in dialect we are breaking the rules. What we need to know is how to break them in such a way that people will still know what is going on.
There are three basic rules that pretty much sum up how we understand what we do understand in our language.
Semantic rules govern the meaning assigned to words. For example in the obtuse example above I substituted “da” for “the.” Semantic rules are arbitrary. There is no reason, for example, why a cat couldn’t have been named a “Meow.”
Syntactic rules govern the way in which sentences are put together in a language. In English we would say “The girl rode the bike.” Other languages have different syntactic rules. A German, would say, for example, “The girl the bike rode.”
The final rule, is Regulative. These govern the meaning of a communication based on the context. For example, the difference in a mother saying, “Johnny!” when her son gets a good report card, and “Johnny!” when the boy has just emptied the entire laundry detergent box into the washer. There is much more to regulative rules. They are the reason that, even though we somethings mispronounce words, or use the wrong words when speaking, our friends still understand us. If you make the context clear your dialect will always be understandable.
Now that you know the rules you can write effective dialect. To write effective dialect, that is dialect your reader will be able to understand, break either the semantic or syntactic rules but never more than one of these rules at any given time.
To prove this, in my fiction writing classes I give students one long paragraph to translate in which I’ve broken only the semantic rules. I’ve included a shorter example below. (It will probably be more fun to try solving this by reading it out loud with a friend.) See if you can figure it out.
Hum pieity Dun pieity at onta wrull. Hum pieity Dun pieity wrad o grit brawl. Sol ta binks borsis wrend sol ta binks ben, wroudn’t but Hum pieity agrather awren.
Similar things have successfully appeared in popular fiction. In Larry Shue’scomic play The Foreigner the main character is presented as someone who does not speak English. When asked to tell a story, he tells Little Red Riding Hood, substituting made up words for the English equivalent. The audience always gets it, the characters on the set think it sounds familiar and the result is hilarious.
Did you solve the example above yet? As in Shue’s play I used regulative trick to help you. In both the story in Shue’s play and the nursery rhyme I used in my example above,the words sound a bit like the original English words. The sound helps, but when understanding comes it is more than just the sound of the words, it is that the syntax is English and words themselves sound familiar. The sound helps remind you of a context that you should remember from your childhood.
Let’s go back to the obtuse example at the beginning of this article. “Da grill da bik rude” hard to understand is that two rules have been broken, syntactic and semantic. You probably guessed by now that this is an attempt at a German accent, saying, “The girl the bike rode.” Two far simpler ways to hint at the German accent and still get the color of the speakers voice across would be:
(1) To use the german syntax with only words that can be found in an English dictionary, “The frÑulein the bike rode.”
(2) Or to use some German, or made up German words but with English syntax. “Da frÑulein rode da bike.” If you use another languages syntactic rules(1) your writing will be far harder for English readers to understand.
If you must break syntactic rules keep your writing to short sentences. The second version(2) gives a sense of a foreign language but is much easier for an English readers to follow, and is the most often recommended way to include dialect in a story.
We’ve talked about semantic and syntactic rules, but not regulative rules. Regulative rules are the most important of all. Regulative rules govern the meaning of what is written in the context of how you tell the story. Regulative rules are so important that, If you make the context clear enough you can go beyond dialect and even write in a foreign language. If you set up the context so well, that when a character speaks in a foreign tongue we know from the context ( that has been given in English ) the basic gist of what the character must say. Randy Wayne White in his Doc Ford mystery series does this exceptionally well in books like North of Havana. However, again, you want to keep the foreign language sections as short as possible.
One thing you should keep in mind when using dialect is that there is a paradox in the “translation” of foreign languages. Look at these examples of translations of Ihara Saikaku’s book The story of Seijuro in Himeji.
Here is a short section of the translation by Wm. Theodore De Bary:
1. Darkness is the time for Love; Love makes night of day In spring the treasure ships lay, with waves their pillows, on a quiet sea before the bustling harbor of Murotsu. . . .
Here is the exact same work translated by Ivan Morris:
1. Love Is Darkness, But in the Land of Love the Darkest Night Is Bright as Noon. The town of Murotsu is a great bustling harbour and here, in the peaceful springtime waves, rest the ships with their heavy cargos of treasure. . . .
I ask my students, how can two men, translating the exact same text come up with such different translations. The paradox is that in languages with far different grammatical rules, words and metaphors, the writer’s tools, may not be directly “translatable” into English and vice versa. Which means you should concentrate on capturing your story and not worry too much about the language. Dialect should be used only to give your writing flavor, like spice in cooking. If you put too much in and try to capture the foreign language itself you’ll ruin your soup.
To used dialect effectively break either syntactic or semantic rules, but break only one of these rules. Then use dialect sparingly, and your fiction will come alive.
Many Thanks, David!