Tips for Writers: Dialect

Writing broken English is harder than it looks. That’s one of the first lessons any writer who wants to jazz up her fiction with non-standard English learns. Dialects – that is, the vernacular language of a particular region of the country, or the streets, or just an imitation of the myriad ways immigrants fracture English – are certainly tempting devices. Besides the fun of playing with language, they often seem a quick route to three much-desired effects in fiction – authenticity (street cred if you will); freshness (escape from the cliché); and, of course, humor.

(On this last point, I’ll always remember the somewhat politically incorrect phrase for Prince Charles in the Pidgin language of Papua New Guinea:  ”numba one pikinini blong miss kween.” “Pikinini” is the standard PNG Pidgin word for “child,” and Pidgin, a creole variation of English, is the official language of Papua New Guinea. )

In an effort to tell effective bad English from weak bad English, let’s take a look at three fiction writers who use less-than-perfect English in their work.

Before Mark Twain and Huck Finn, there was a Tennessee newspaperman named George Washington Harris and his low-life creation, Sut Lovingood. Harris ‘s stock in trade were crude backwoods stories usually involving a vicious joke or hoax, or satirizing politicians, all told in the voice of Sut, a hillbilly before there were hillbillies. These appeared in newspapers in Tennessee and New York, and were collected in 1867 under the title Sut Lovingood: Yarns Spun by a Nat’ral Born Durn’d Fool . The High Lit critic Edmund Wilson once wrote about Sut: “I should say that, as far as my experience goes, it is by far the most repellent book of any real literary merit in American literature.”

Here’s Sut on the unfortunate circumstances of his birth:

Hit am an orful thing, George, tu be a nat'ral born durn'd fool. Yu'se never 'sperienced hit pussonally, hev yu? Hits made pow'fully agin our famerly, an all owin tu dad. I orter bust my head open agin a bluff ove rocks, an' jis' wud du hit, ef I warnt a cussed coward.

Book jacket of Sut Lovingood.

The sort of humor that occurs in the Sut Lovingood Tales.

Now this sort of thing enjoyed a vogue in the 19th century, and Harris and Sut are always cited as among the founding fathers of a minor American literary tradition, Southwestern Humor, but only dissertation-topic-seekers read Harris today. It’s easy to see why. By relying on Sut’s primitive notions of spelling, Harris makes it too hard for a reader to understand the story line. Sut’s style is translatable, like a foreign language, word by word, but it slows the reader down and takes you out of the story – the last thing any writer wants. Sut’s jumbled syntax does not help, but that’s less the problem here than the phonetic spellings.

Lesson #1 on dialects: don’t overdo it. Do not try to literally capture on the page the sound of every word in the way your character would speak it.

If we skip ahead to 1964 to a short story by the 20th century master Bernard Malamud, we see a different approach to dialect. In “The German Refugee,” the narrator/protagonist is a poor student near the end of the Depression “who would brashly attempt to teach anybody anything for a buck an hour.” His best money-maker is teaching English to refugees from Nazi Germany. One day he’s introduced to Oskar Gessner, a 50ish intellectual who’s been hired to lecture once a week at the Institute for Public Studies, and in the spring, to teach a course in English translation, on “The Literature of the Weimar Republic.”

Oskar is a smart man who’d once studied English, but his first attempts to speak it in America are laughable. And he’s terrified at the prospect of his upcoming public humiliation at the institute.

“How is it possible?” he asks the narrator. “I can’t say two words. I cannot pronunziate. I will make a fool of myself.”

And after a semi-successful first lesson, Oskar says: “Do you sink I will succezz?”

Photo of Bernard Malamud

Novelist Bernard Malamud, a subtle master of dialect.

Malamud’s secret here is restraint. Gessner knows enough English to have standard sentence structure, though his sentences are very brief. Malamud has him mispronounce and misuse a few key words, but he does not Germanize every word out of Gessner’s mouth. You understand exactly what Gessner means at the same time you spot his heart-breaking difficulties and see good reason for his anxiety. Oh, and words like “pronunziate” are funny in themselves. Malamud is shooting for a difficult double here – both humor and pathos – and I think he pulls it off.

One last example. Some years ago I wrote a story with the opening line:

The trouble begun with the fourth dog in the stack.

In revising it, I changed it to:

The trouble began with the fourth dog in the stack.

And I puzzled for days over which it should be. One path lets you know right up front that you’re in the hands of a flamboyantly ungrammatical narrator – Huck Finn country – while the other is a more conventional beginning of a mystery.  The first is also more farcical than the second.

What kind of story was I writing then? It all seemed to turn on that second word.

As Mark Twain famously put it, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” And I think that’s at least as true of fractured English as standard English.

In a future 317am post I’ll take up some comic uses of dialect and try to answer a nearly impossible question: why do people laugh at fractured English?

3 Responses to Tips for Writers: Dialect

  1. This puts me in mind of a conversation with my dearest friend Karen back in December 2011. Karen is an actress of many years standing and as I was then embarking on my first play, I was concerned about writing colloquial English for six characters all from different parts of the the United Kingdom and from different social backgrounds. Karen reassured me that to write badly in dialect was not a useful tool for actors who armed with strong characterisation details are well able to create the correct way of speaking for each character. So apart from some mild differences in the ways of expressing words and phrases there is no obvious dialect in my play. Of course after the production it may be possible to re-write some of the text where appropriate.

    Perhaps though, this is permissable in a theatre piece whereas in a novel it may be helpful to use far more colloquialisms.

  2. Kaze

    I have a great snapshot of Josephine Baker I would like to offer for the Pic of the Day. Are you interested?


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