Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Literary Dialect

In my last post before I took a break, I wrote about Literary Dialect and gave some examples of how a writer can capture in print the way a character sounds.  I stopped before I got into the issue of "respelling." 

You know,  gonna instead of "going to," hafta instead of "have to." This technique has stirred some controversy among linguists as well as writers, so I thought it would be interesting to present the opposing views here, and then ask for your opinions.

Dr. Dennis Preston, distinguished professor of linguistics at MSU has presented strong objections to respelling. He's even given it a special name--Eye Dialect--referring to how the prose looks on the page Here's why he objects to using it.

All speakers of English reduce vowels and cluster words in normal conversation. How many people, including yourself, say, "I have to go now."? If I wrote what I'd hear it would look like this. "I hafta go now." So if you single out one group to misspell or mark as different, Dr. Preston believes you are devaluing that dialect.

He also says that writing dialect phonetically may distract readers, so they pay more attention to how something's being said than what's being said. He gives an excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin as an example: 

"But, Aunt Chloe, I'm getting mighty hungry," said George. "Isn't that cake in the skillet almost done?" "Mose done, Mas'r George," said Aunt Chloe, lifting the lid and peeping in, -- "browning beautiful -- a real lovely brown. Ah! let me alone for dat. Missis let Sally try to make some cake, t' other day, jes to larn her, she said. 'O, go way, Missis,' said I; 'it really hurts my feelin's, now, to see good vittles spilt dat ar way! Cake ris all to one side -- no shape at all; no more than my shoe; go way!"

Harriet Beecher Stow didn’t set out to devalue the black dialect, but Dr. Preston believes that even though this devaluing is unintentional it is inappropriate. In her blog  Anne Sibley O’Brien writes,

“Being a dominant group member is like having a free pass that members of out-groups don’t have, but with no awareness of having it. Given such conditioning, developing White Mind is pretty much inescapable.”

So she and Dr. Preston say that respelling one group’s language may reveal more about authors and their assumptions/biases than about the characters they’re creating.

In contrast the Folklorist, Dr. Elizabeth Fine says this is an expression of appreciation for the characters and their dialects. The author is using an effective way of letting the reader “hear” the voice. Eye dialect translates performance (how a character sounds) into print.

When you read Eye Dialect, what is your reaction? Is it distracting or does it help you "hear" the characters' voices? If you're a writer, do you use Eye Dialect? How much? I'd love to hear from you and find out what you think about this technique.


  1. I, admittedly, do find it a distraction. I couldn't tolerate reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston because of the dialect. I just didn't have fun reading it because I spent more time trying to pick it apart rather than just reading it as dialogue should be read: naturally. Alice Walker can bring out voice incredibly well without using dialect. I can personally hear her characters and how they would sound because she is just so effective with crafting certain characters. I think that if you have a well-developed enough character, adding dialect is unnecessary. The characterization will put the voice in the readers' heads, and so they can determine themselves if the character's developed enough that they can imagine a Southern drawl--like in Beautiful Creatures. Those two authors do an amazing job at getting me to imagine a Southern accent without resorting to dialect.

  2. Too much of it distracts me. A little isn't so bad, but I think it's best just to write normally.

  3. I think he's right about phonetic dialogue being distracted. There have been books I couldn't read because of it. But I know that people in different regions of the country use English differently and that if I don't write it how they sound, I'm not really being true to the character. I think the Caster Chronicles (beatiful Creatures and Beautiful Darkness) balance respellings well.

  4. Things like gonna and wanna don't distract me, but when I have to re-read something to figure out what the author is trying to say, that kicks me out of a story.

    There's a character in the House Of Night series that has a southern drawl. PC + Kristin Cast do a great job keeping it balanced, especially in chapters from that characters POV.

    I think "eye dialect" has a purpose, but should be used sparingly to keep readers engaged.

  5. Thank you very much for this post. I have often wondered what others feel about eye dialect.I am a Suspense Thriller writer and have many different criminal characters..Chinese Triads, Mexican Cartel, Black Street Gangs, White Rednecks...etc and I always use eye dialect with my characters. I feel this makes the character real. I don't get hung up on P.C. stuff, people talk the way people talk. I have never viewed Eye dialect as racist or demeaning...it's us , folks.

  6. Some interesting comments here. Thank you all so much for taking the time to contribute to the discussion.

  7. I use "eye dialect" like I use salt. A dash is fine to bring the flavor of a scene, but no more than that.

    Great discussion topic, Lee!

  8. I'm not a fan of eye dialect. I believe people read things the way they speak them, so it's not necessary to try to spell things to reflect that speech. Honestly, I think it's more difficult to read eye dialect. If I know a person's background because the author told me, then I will know if they have an accent. I don't need to literally "see" the accent. It slows the flow of the story. I've heard some people say that it also insults the reader because the author is assuming the reader isn't smart enough to figure out the accent on their own.

  9. Insulting the reader is an interesting take on this topic, Kelly. Why not trust to the reader's life experience to bring the voices to life. Of course, that takes some good writing as well, doesn't it?

    I like the "dash" of salt, Darby. Nice.

  10. If it is too much, it is distracting and hard to read. But if it's a little bit of dialect or slang I think it adds to the character.

  11. What a fun subject!

    I get TOTALLY distracted when I read stuff like that. Sometimes I find myself even skipping over those parts, because it annoys me so much. I can't blame the author for trying it, as I'm sure their goal is to make it more authentic. But really, I don't like it.

  12. Writing skill must enter into this equation. There are some excellent writers who use respelling a lot and their books are so powerful. Maybe it would be worth reading those books that succeed with respelled dialog and comparing then to those that don't. Oh no, research!

  13. What an awesome idea for a post!! Very interesting, and well researched I might add. I use words like "gonna" but only sparingly and to punctuate at times I feel it is the way to make the voice ring true. Does that make sense? It's kind of like using swear words. I don't believe in completely omitting them as that would feel false, but I also wouldn't use them solely for shock value, or as often as some teens might.

  14. It is a fine line with those swear words. I'm uncomfortable writing them in my books, but some of my characters talk that way, so I can't very well have them saying, "Golly gee whiz."

  15. I struggled at first reading "The Help" due to the dialect. It was very slow reading, but eventually I figured it out. I probably would not have finished the book, except the story intrigued me. I can't imagine the story now without the dialect.

  16. Dialect I've learned from teaching is hard for some people. I can read it and hear the character's voice clearly, so I sort of like it. The key I think is how well the author does it. Not every can write readable dialect, but the few who can make it easy to read (J.K. Rowling and Mark Twain come to mind).

  17. JQ, the interesting thing about Hope is that she got the dialect wrong. She broke the rules, but that certainly didn't keep the book from succeeding.

    Jenn, I agree that writing any dialect takes skill. I steer clear of it unless it sounds right to me and is natural to the character.

    Thank you both for your comments.


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