3 Tips to Writing and Using Dialect in Stories
When you bring up world-building, one of the first things that comes up is language. People ask if you’ve made up your own language, or if you’re going to, or how you should do it.
Now, if you want to make up languages, go ahead! I’m not stopping you. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the world of phonemes, morphemes, etc. However, if you want to focus more on getting words onto paper, I’d suggest a different route.
The different between a language and a dialect can be subjective.
Officially (more or less) the difference between languages and dialects is that people who speak different languages can’t understand each other, whereas people from other dialects can at least hold a conversation (this Economist article does a nice job with a few more details).
For the purposes of writing, we’ll call a language something you have to make up and then translate for the reader somehow–context clues or a convenient translator repeating everything for the protagonist are common ways. A dialect is something that involves more of syntax (word order) and lexicon (vocabulary) than long strings of foreign language. The reader can still understand the dialogue more or less.
For example, the acceptable, grammatically correct way of phrasing a sentence might be this:
I like flute music.
Nonstandard speech might phrase it.
I like me some flute music.
Another way could be.
Flute music me likes.
(Yes, I used to play the flute).
The second and third examples are both nonstandard usages of English that would get a red flag from any editor–unless those usages were intentional uses of dialect within a fictional setting. Then it becomes a matter of which usage best fits the voice of the character, the tone of the piece, and is easy for readers to understand.
Unlike the tips I’ve given you previously, messing around with dialect isn’t an easy trick. It requires time, effort, care, and a fair amount of YouTube videos (and if possible, some in-person reference or personal experience to draw upon). However, I’m all about action items, so here are:
3 Dos and 3 Don’ts of Dialect
1.) DO use dialect as a way of showing differences between culture, ethnicity, and socio-economic class.
You can also explore concepts of discrimination against certain dialects, the elevation of other dialects as superior, and the way that people make judgments based on speech. It’s also great for showing geographical distance. Any time a people group is isolated, they will develop their own manners of speech.
DON’T overdo dialect at the expense of clarity.
I read a YA book with the standard love triangle with two guys after one girl. This was actually a decent love triangle. Both males were fully-fleshed characters who had their own lives and goals apart from the female protagonist. However, a main reason I shipped one guy over the other was due to dialect. This writer went all in for piratey dialect in such a way that made it really hard to understand what the guy was saying–and even harder to imagine his voice in my head. All of the commas and apostrophes used to indicate his particular way of speech made reading his dialogue more of a decoding session instead of an enjoyable experience.
2.) DO use resources online. Google references and sources on the dialects you’re using. If possible, go bother a linguist friend.
DON’T just think you can do this on your own. Even if you are writing from personal experience and your personal dialect, still check some YouTube videos, online reference guides, and resources. Google is your friend. My current WIP draws heavily from my personal dialect and my experiences with Appalachian dialects. Plus, I’ve had linguistic and cultural training. However, I still have at least three different tabs open when I’m drafting for easy access to sentence structure, idioms, and unique lexicon. Writing is different than speaking and still requires intentionality.
3.) DO feel free to borrow different linguistic aspects from existing languages to substitute for fake languages.
Languages borrow from each other all the time–English being one of the worst offenders! Go ahead and Google ideas. Just be respectful and intelligent in usage. Having a linguist help out is invaluable.
DON’T forget to keep track of your own rules!
Each time you borrow a sentence structure or a type of spelling or a slang word, write it down or copy and paste into a document. Make sure you’re consistent in usage as well. In one WIP, I’m managing the interactions of three different levels of Appalachian dialect: the super thick, archaic dialect of immortals who have lived there for over a century, the mixed dialect of a descendant who wants to break away from his ancient clan, and then the dialect of Jack, the main character who moved to the valley when she was an adult and picked up a lot of the syntax to fit in but is self-conscious about it and will code-switch into more educated speech. Those little touches are easy ways to distinguish between character roles and deepen each character naturally.
What about you? Do you use dialect in your writing or world-building?
What do you think of books that are heavy on dialect? Any great pieces of advice?