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ProAm Tips #11

February 13, 2016

To dialect or not to dialect?

Mark Twain may be one of the only authors I know that did it with strict accuracy and got away with a whole book -two actually- written in dialect.

Jim: “We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels. Dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it.”
Huck: “I’ll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn’t be, you know.”

Harper Lee did it in Mockingbird, too.

“Reckon I have. Almost died first year I come to school and et them pecans — folks say he pizened ‘em and put ‘em over on the school side of the fence.”

Reproducing the actual sound of human speech is a struggle for any writer. No one ever used every letter in every word in correct configurations. Shakespeare- genius, maybe- was the worst offender! No one speaks in iambic pentameter! Rhyming couplets are NOT a thing in an argument!

I sprinkle dialect carefully, believing that less is more. Sometimes, I’ll reproduce a couple of lines of dialect, and then thereafter only refer in afterthought. “…he said in his curling brogue.” “…her soft curling consonants made even her insults inviting and sensual.” “..his Bronx reminders littered the speech.”

Use dialect sparingly, and it’s like salt- it’ll make the flavor of the whole piece pop. Overseason, and it’s just a horrible, horrible mess to digest, and it’ll stick with you for hours after.

And like everything else, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Some things need no indications, because you watch tv and movies, and you know what Irish sounds like. You know what German sounds like. You know what Spanish, and French, and Italian, and hell even Latin sound like.

But like every rule, there’s an exception, and for me, it’s Robert Burns. The man knew how to write in a Scottish Brogue.


Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What the