life

Dialectic

Here I am up before the sun, drinking my coffee before Mimi is even awake, so let me ponder a bit on dialectic.

This story I’m writing. The characters speak several different varieties of English. Which variety is only important in the case of two characters, one main and one secondary. The other characters need only be not-THAT-dialect. I’m having fun hearing the characters’ own voices in my head as I write dialogue, though, and it’s been interesting to observe when I do and don’t feel inclined to write them in dialectic.

The Received Pronunciation characters I just write, trying to stay away from American idioms. The American Broadcast Standard characters I just write, trying to stay away from British idioms. That’s harder for this American to do than you’d think–I’ve watched a lot of BBC and read a lot of Victorian novels in my life, and I like to think that my inner voice is mid-Atlantic.

By the way, my real speaking voice is pretty close to American Broadcast Standard. I have darker Rs, picked up when we lived in Kansas I guess, and many non-Americans have independently verified that I have a “lisp”, which happens in word-onset sibilants only and is therefore part of my dialect, not a speech problem. Shtreet. Shtar. Shtate. It’s not very dramatic or Americans would hear it too. But I digress.

The characters who venture outside of those two “standard” pronunciations are the ones I have dithered about writing in dialectic or not. Dialectic can be so much fun–cite the Outlander series–but it can also ruin the experience of a book. Cite Ivanhoe, or nearly everything Mark Twain ever wrote.

I’ve been trying not to do it. I’ve been trying to convey, or just hint at, the dialects using sentence formation and idiom instead. It isn’t particularly important that I succeed, like I said. Only two characters matter and I’ve come out and said exactly what they speak, and had other characters with other dialects remark on it.

There are two interesting cases though, one from each side of the Atlantic: African American Vernacular English and Scots. Both of these are officially languages of their own, with grammar and phonology and vocabulary of their own. Both of them can be spoken so as to be unintelligible to RP/ABS natives and that’s one reason they’re considered to be separate languages. Both of them can also be spoken anywhere along a spectrum between that and RP/ABS too though, depending on register and audience and emotional state of the speaker. And both of them have been written as heavy dialectic in different literary works.

So far I’ve chosen not to do it. I’m not writing things out phonetically. It irritates me when people do it to my own accent in its casual register–gonna gotta shoulda coulda woulda. I’m going to be respectful of the other dialects and avoid spelling out their casual registers too. So my Scots aren’t being written down as saying dinna verra, any more than the RP speakers are being written down as speakah writah readah. Which brings me to another interesting point…

There’s dialectic prestige working there, isn’t there. Dialectic tends to highlight the otherness of less prestigious varieties of a language. As an American I’m irritated because ABS dialectic is meant to highlight its otherness from RP. I know that written AAVE dialectic is a touchy subject. And as an American I am completely in love with Scottish dialectic but, well, being ignorant of the ins and outs of its use by others, I’ll stay away from it anyhow.

Vocabulary I feel is fair game though. My dialect can permute into my grandmother’s “north bank of the Ohio River” drawl (not to be confused with south bank of the Ohio River, that’s completely different!) when I think it’s to my advantage, and that changes the vocabulary, not just the grammar and pronunciation. Ain’t and y’all become real words, and there’s no other way to write those out. Relaxed ABS has yeah, could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, and I write those without blinking an eye. And so I figure that it’s fair for my non-ABS characters to also insert their own peculiar words, as long as I do it sparingly. My Scottish characters, relaxed and speaking to each other, begin to say aye, wee, laddie. In one moment of emotional extremity–once in sixty thousand words so far–a character drops a couldnae.

About the aye and wee and laddie. I have an American character with a dialect that is extremely American and extremely easy for me to hear in my head, but being honest with myself, it’s an Old Timey dialect. It’s something that maybe my grandparents would use, more like my great-grandparents. I’ve got vague suspicions that those Scottish words are in the same Old Timey category. I should probably spend more time listening to Scottish people on YouTube to answer that question.

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One thought on “Dialectic

  1. sewassbe says:

    I just re-read Terry Pratchett’s “The Wee Free Men,” and while the Nac Mac Feegle vernacular takes some getting used to, it’s quite funny and really adds to the characters. They would be totally different if they didn’t speak in that dialect.

    But yes – I know what you mean. Maybe intersperse just enough dialect to give the flavor in the reader’s head without reading like lolcats?

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