Intolerable Dialect? …. by Jeff Erno

Am I intolerant because I struggle with severe accents, dialect, or colloquialisms?  In all seriousness, I’m a fairly non-judgmental person, but for some reason, when it comes to literature, a foreign way of speaking really tends to pull me out of the story. Oddly, it doesn’t bother me so much in a movie, and I think the reason is that as I’m reading, I’m hearing the story with my internal voice, and the sudden shift in dialect that occurs within dialogue seems jarring to me.

On the other hand, I am absolutely fascinated by dialect. I often listen intently as the Australians or British pronounce their vowels differently than what I’m used to or as the Southerners in the United States pepper their dialogue with y’alls and other unique contractions that do not exist anywhere else in the world. Even as a kid, I would sit in front of the television and mimic the accents that I heard. My mom sometimes scolded me, thinking I was making fun of the speakers, but I really wasn’t.

But there are times when I really do allow myself to stereotype people because of the way they talk. Sadly and unfairly I’ve been guilty of equating the use of Ebonics with a lack of intelligence. I sometimes assume that speakers with Southern accents are uneducated. I even often hear British accents as being a little too sophisticated or “snobbish”. A perfect example of this is when I watch porn. I like watching BDSM, and when the Dom in the scene has a British accent, I just think he sounds too damned polite. When he’s flogging his slave mercilessly and calling him a slutty little bitch, I think he’s just being way too gentle—all because of the way he talks.

Okay, with this being said, I’m sure “ya’ll” are 100% convinced that I am the one who’s a snob. But please hear me out! No, I do not really believe all of these stereotypes. It’s just that in spite of what I know as fact, when I’m reading, my mind just seems to jump to these unfair assumptions of people based upon the way that they talk. It is something that is easy enough to correct, if I simply take a moment to think about it… and really this is what I do most of the time.

But I also notice that I’m not the only reader who is guilty of this. I sometime see comments in reviews about inauthentic dialogue. I’ve read blogs in which authors are advised not to even attempt to write dialect. Instead, write the way you normally would talk and allow the reader to interpret the accent with their internal voice. Most of the time I think this is fairly good advice, particularly when you’re writing a character of a certain ethnicity. For example, if you had an Asian, English-speaking character whose native language was Chinese, and you tried to include every nuance of his dialect, it may come across as being racist… or at the very least condescending. And I suppose this could be true of any specific ethnic or racial group.

Yet there are times, particularly with historicals or fantasy novels, in which the dialogue includes words or phrases that are unique to that time period or location. If you write everything, including dialogue, in modern vernacular, then isn’t this just pure laziness? I mean, authentic dialogue is an important part of world-building, or at least I thought it was.

The same is true in young adult novels. If you do not write young characters talking like young characters, then the entire book seems phony. People use slang. They use contractions and phrases that are illogical, and they abbreviate things that shouldn’t be abbreviated.

Maybe what it all boils down to is familiarity. We most often relate to the characters who are like us. When I read Harry Potter for the first time, I knew the story was set in England, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me that the characters had a British accent. When I saw the movies, all of a sudden it dawned on me. My internal voice read Harry as if he were a kid living next door to me.

So now I have to ask the question: if the British sound too sophisticated to me, do we Americans sound like a bunch of rubes and hillbillies to them? I just wonder if other readers contemplate these stereotypes. When is accent or dialect severe enough to take you out of a story? When does authentic world-building go too far?

When I was a kid, one of the most popular sitcoms on television was the show called “Alice.” The show was about three waitresses who worked in a greasy-spoon diner, and one of them was a Southern belle named Flo. Flo was famous for her trademark phrase, “Kiss my grits!” If I were to attempt to write the phrase exactly the way that I heard Flo say it, I would have to spell it differently… “Key-us mah gree-uhts!” But I think to actually write it out that way would be annoying to the reader and quite possibly offensive to my friends in the South.

It seems that in this worldwide market, attention to dialect can be a balancing act of authenticity and sensitivity. Sometimes you just have to allow the reader to interpret the conversation with their own voice and other times you have to focus upon keeping it real.

I’d be interested to hear what authors and readers from around the globe think about this issue… or perhaps they don’t think much about it at all.

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  • I just read HJ’s comments. I echo them. My thoughts exactly. The reader’s not stupid.

    Love this “… those who say that the author should tell the reader what accent/dialect the character speaks, and then use “normal” English to set it down. But (again as someone else has said) use a cadence or rhythm to convey the accent, and to distinguish between the characters. Harper Fox is brilliant at this.”

  • Elin, what a silly twit that author was. English English? It annoys US readers? Bollocks! 😉 Seriously, if that were true that would be very sad.

    I’m Canadian, and absolutely love British writing. When I discover a new, wonderful English writer (and thanks again to Wave’s wonderful site) I get a little thrill. Love the whole *feel* of the novel and the characters themselves.

    What does give me pause and, if a constant in a novel, I stop reading, is “ing” or the lack thereof. Tryin’, gettin’, watchin’. Rather than emphasize the character’s background, where he’s from, his social class, his ethnicity, it only annoys. Well, annoys me anyway.

    I’m from Newfoundland. If I wrote how I speak in casual conversation, the reader would be .. confused:)

  • Oh, and slang is a different thing but really important. Slang is fine by me, and works really well in establishing a character. It might mean more to some readers than to others (a non-English reader might not get that one character uses words that another one would never use, and no doubt the same is true for non-US readers of US books), but for those who understand the nuances there’s a real benefit. I don’t believe in dumbing down, or using a lowest common denominator approach – making sure everything can immediately understand easily, at the cost of an important gloss for those who understand immediately or who can be bothered to look it up.

  • I think that this is a very relevant topic. I’m very aware of the dialect and accent of the characters I’m reading, and of the vocabulary in the rest of the book. For example, if the book is written from one character’s POV then it should use the language he would speak, and the same rhythm and pace which he would.

    However, I cannot read dialogue or prose written in dialect, even if it is authentic. (Rabbie Burns will forever remain unread by me.) I spend all my time time trying to translate, and am jarred out of the story. I agree with those who say that the author should tell the reader what accent/dialect the character speaks, and then use “normal” English to set it down. But (again as someone else has said) use a cadence or rhythm to convey the accent, and to distinguish between the characters. Harper Fox is brilliant at this. The occasional (very occasional) special word or phrase can help, too.

    I think it is important that not every book and every character uses the same, bland, correct English, but slavishly spelling out dialect comes across to me as sometimes pretentious, always irritating, and unnecessary. It is a complete no-no for me.


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I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports - especially baseball
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