Monday, April 4, 2011

On Dialect

JGS_GreyBarnOn Saturday, my son had a paintball party for his 14th birthday. The paintball fields were run by a company in a rural area about 45 minutes from Charlotte.

While we were out there, there was another group playing simultaneously—a group of 12 year old girls from a private school in the Charlotte area.

One of the girls from the other group had a problem with her paintball gun and handed it to the referee, an employee for the paintball company.

He fiddled with it for a while, then called her over. What he said (and the cigarette dangling out of his mouth didn’t help, either) sounded like this: “It ain’t dooin’ it no moah.”

“Excuse me?” the 12 year old private school girl asked.

He repeated it.

“I’m sorry…could you say that again?” I could tell she was listening very, very hard now.

He repeated it. The same way without trying a different approach.

“I’m sorry?” She looked at me for help translating.

“It’s fixed,” I said.

I don’t know if it was the double-negative, the ain’t, the poor grammar, his very thick Southern accent, or the cigarette, but she couldn’t understand a word the young man said.

The fact that she had to work that hard and still couldn’t figure out what he was saying perfectly illustrates my reasoning for not writing (much) Southern dialect in my very Southern books.

I think it’s best to go light on dialect and instead try using phrases, idioms, and word choices that locals of an area would use. For me, I’d rather stick with the rhythm of Southern speech (it has a definite lilt and pattern) than take a stab at phonetic spelling (which would be really tiresome for a reader.)

Yes, Southerners drop consonants like crazy. A Southern drawl can string out a short word into an 8 syllable one.

It would get old to read. And pulls the reader out of the story.

Why use dialect when there are so many other ways to convey the feel of a region?

Better to use vocabulary choices that Southerners would use: pocketbook instead of purse, tote instead of carry, buggy instead of cart, cut off instead of turn off.

Better to just say that a character speaks in a thick accent and show other characters struggling to understand them.

Better to include Southern foods and drinks to convey a sense of the South: grits, gravy, biscuits, barbeque, sweet tea, bourbon.

Better to show the slower pace of the South by writing about characters on screened porches in rocking chairs.

Better to detail unusual or interesting Southern customs surrounding funerals, family gatherings, and other special occasions.

Do you have trouble reading dialect? How do you convey a sense of your region in your writing?