New Worlds Theory Post: Language Variance on the Page

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Of all the types of linguistic variation an author might put on the page — foreign or invented languages, creoles, grammatical features not found in English — there’s one that’s relatively common, even outside of speculative fiction. And because it can so often be so badly handled, for this theory post, we’re going to stop to look more closely at the mechanics for how to do it.

In other words, we’s gonna talk ’bout dialects.

If you’ve ever read a romance set in the Scottish Highlands, you may well have run into lines of dialogue like “Och, noo, I dinna ken what the wee bairn is saying so loodly.” Or maybe it was a cockney in a Victorian-set novel, dropping ‘is aitches, guvnor. The character is still speaking English, but the author wants to communicate that they’re speaking a particular variety of English, something marked out from the norm. The variation may be based in a particular region, ethnicity, or class, but regardless of the source, it isn’t the standard acrolect.

There are plenty of reasons to do this. Maybe you want to evoke a particular context for the reader, calling to mind the atmosphere of Scotland not only through descriptions of the landscape and culture, but through the sound of the dialogue itself. Maybe you’re working in a secondary-world setting, and you want to reinforce the idea of regional (or ethnic or class) differences, so you use a real-world dialect or even try to create your own. Maybe you’re aiming for vivid character voices, so that the reader really feels the differences in how people speak. All of these are good reasons to want to put a dialect on the page — but how do you make that happen?

The usual way writers think about doing this involves those weird spellings up above: they try to “phonetically” represent what the dialect sounds like. I put “phonetic” in quotation marks, though, because it isn’t really anything of the sort. Nobody’s using the actual International Phonetic Alphabet for this; instead they’re just deploying non-standard spellings and hoping the reader will correctly guess what pronunciation those are supposed to represent. This can sort of work when the reader has a clear sense of the accent already . . . but even then, it’s not great. I’ve heard plenty of Scottish accents, but in Dorothy Sayers’ The Five Red Herrings, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to mentally pronounce the verb tak’. I know it means take, but should it sound like tack or like talk? What about juist — how’s that supposed to sound?

And this kind of thing can get extremely distracting on the page. To quote an actual bit of dialogue from The Five Red Herrings (which is absolutely larded with “phonetic” spellings): “Ay, but he got weel duckit himsel’ […] And Graham’s been fushin’ there every nicht since then, wi’ yin or twa of the lads. He’ll be there the nicht, I wadna wonder.” The occasional situation-based exception notwithstanding, you don’t generally want your reader having to puzzle out what the heck the characters are even saying — does fushin’ translate to fishing? If so, then why did another Scottish character a couple of paragraphs earlier say fishing?

Not only that, but this kind of thing tips very easily over into insulting parody. To be blunt, phonetic spellings have often been used to represent marginalized populations in a profoundly unflattering light — the prose equivalent of American minstrel shows. So even if that isn’t what you’re doing in your story, using this technique can evoke that association, which you really don’t want.

So does that mean you can’t represent dialects on the page? Not at all — you just need different techniques.

Because a dialect is more than just different pronunciation. It’s word choice, sentence structure, key deviations from standard grammar. Both double negatives (“I don’t know nothing about that”) and subject-verb number disagreement (“he say to me” or “they isn’t here”) are features of many varieties of non-standard English; when you dig into specific dialects, you’ll soon find more distinctive characteristics, like using “me” in place of “my” and dropping the copula from sentences (“You dead meat” instead of “You’re dead meat”).

Some of the features are not so much departures from the rules of standard grammar as simply characteristic phrasings: the difference between “I’m to believe” and “I’m supposed to believe,” or “in future” vs. “in the future” (the former being a British usage in the sense of “from now on”). Irish English tends to use a lot of the progressive in its verbs (“I’m thinking we should do that” instead of “I think we should do that”), and in the T.V. show Murdoch Mysteries, set in Canada in the early 20th century, the protagonist always says “What have you?” rather than “What do you have?” Having a character say they’re “fixing to” do something, rather than “going to” or “planning to” or any other such phrasing, waves a banner that they’re probably from the American South, or at least have familial ties there — and when they drink a carbonated beverage, it may well be a coke, even if it’s actually a Pepsi or a Sprite.

I should note, by the way, that a similar mindset applies to representing a character speaking a language non-fluently. Rather than showing this by spelling out their accent, it’s better to think about what types of errors we characteristically make in those situations. Screwing up verb tense might be the number one mistake among language learners: you’re so busy fumbling for vocabulary, the finer points of past tense and so forth slip your mind. If your native tongue doesn’t use indefinite and definite articles (a/an and the), deploying them correctly in English can be very difficult; the same goes for gendered pronouns. You use the wrong preposition with a verb — English has a plethora of them, and it can be difficult to figure out which one is correct — or you accidentally violate the subtle rules of sequencing, so that you mention a red big car instead of a big red car. When the community of speakers is large enough, certain errors can even become a standard feature of a new dialect, if they’re aspects of the original language ported over into the new one.

Leaning into these aspects can accomplish those goals above, without all the problems that attend the so-called phonetic spelling approach. But they do require a good grasp of a dialect’s features, and if you’re not immersed in that speech community yourself, pulling it off may require a lot of research. For my cockney characters in With Fate Conspire I was heavily indebted to Cockey Past and Present: A Short History of the Dialect of London by William Matthews; sometimes you can find a similar book for other dialects. You can (and probably should) also get corrections from someone who is in that speech community — but remember, especially if they’re from a marginalized group, then they should be compensated for their work.

These approaches aren’t completely exclusive of each other. I’ll confess to using dropped aitches in my cockney dialogue, along with all the other markers based more on phrasing and word choice, because it’s so heavily used as a diagnostic marker of that dialect, and it doesn’t create any significant stumbling block of “how is this supposed to pronounced?” in the reader’s mind. Same with droppin’ the G off the end of a verb, or with words like ain’t or contractions like gonna. But one or two grace notes like that go a long way, and in the meanwhile, the main flavor can and probably should come from the words themselves, their selection and their ordering.

Not every book needs this, of course. But when it’s done well, it can help the characters come to three-dimensional life.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds Theory Post: Language Variance on the Page — 5 Comments

  1. I give up when I read “phonetic” spellings. Puzzles can be fine and good, but not when I’m reading. And my brain doesn’t work that way.

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Language Variance on the Page - Swan Tower

  3. I remember giving up on a book entirely because one of the “characters” was a Geordie fox and its dialogue was so heavily phonetic that I very quickly ceased to have the first clue what he was saying – and therefore lost interest fairly rapidly. So yeah, what you said.

  4. I also note that characters do not regard their language as a dialect. YOU talk funny. The Five Red Herrings at least managed to have the non-POV characters speak it. It’s much worse when the POV characters.

    I remember one romance where we were actually given a glossary, and I was thinking that from the Scottish characters’ view, those were normal words, not oddities in speech, so it misrepresented them.

  5. And then there are dialect put-downs, especially when… mishandled:

    He mumbled a few sentences, of which she recognized little and understood nothing.
    Servir? Servirat? I’ll bet that’s Josephani. Her supposed native language, of which she knew zip. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Ridgeway?”
    “Would you like me to repeat it, Ms. Tyi?”
    “Judging from your accent, I don’t think it would help.”

    The author (Kristine Smith) simultaneously manages to invoke “dialect” and not further distract the reader in a novel filled with truly alien language.

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