No matter which methods you choose to convey dialect the key to doing it well is moderation.
In my first draft of How to Fell a Timberman, I made the mistake of using too much Norse dialect. Ole, the hero’s cousin is a secondary character and a relatively new immigrant to this country. It seemed logical that I could have fun with his heavy accent.
But there was a problem. Ole plays an important role in the story, and he’s on stage in many scenes. That meant I was writing not just a little dialect but A LOT!
My critique group’s feedback? “Ole’s dialogue is distracting.”
Imagine every word that starts with “w” spelled with a “v” to convey the Norse pronunciation. Now, imagine also leaving h out of words so that think becomes t’ink, white becomes w’ite, and then becomes den etc. Are you cross-eyed yet?
A hundred years ago, capturing dialect with phonetic spellings was popular but today’s readers simply don’t have the patience for it.
Ole’s dialect had to go – most of it, anyway. Left as it was, Ole would have sounded like a bad caricature than a real person.
So how did I make Ole sound like a Norse immigrant without the annoying distractions?
1. In Chapter one we’re in the heroine’s POV so she “hears” Ole’s Norse cadence.
2. Instead of the distracting phonetic spellings, I did this:
“Ya, you teach in Whiskey Spit,” he replied, his heavy accent making the w sound like a v.
3. I used present tense verbs. (see the above sentence) One of the hardest things to learn in any language is verb conjugation. So instead of saying I am going to go play ball today, a foreigner might say, I play ball today, using the present tense. This works most of the time but read sentences like this out loud. If they don’t make sense write it grammatically correct. It’s all about moderation.
4. I chose American-friendly foreign terms for flavor. They were easy for the reader to remember and I used them consistently. In Norwegian I used:
Ya – yes
Nei – no
Yndling – darling
Bofi – scoundrel or knave etc.
I did the same for my French timberman, using American-familiar French terms:
Eh!- an interjection used at the end of a sentence for “don’t you? Or wouldn’t you?
Eh bien! – and interjection -“well then, well now”
Zut! – slang expression similar to the American “darn it!”
Oui! – Yes
Non! – no
N’set-ce-pas – wouldn’t you agree?
A book with common French phrases that are familiar to most Americans is Je ne Sais What? By Jon Winokur. I found some Norse dialect ideas from the famous Ole and Leana joke books. See more of these types of books below. I also plumbed a Norwegian professor for expressions, careful that they could have been used during my historical time period.
5. On occasion, I inverted sentence structure, that is, I put the verb before the noun, a common practice in European dialects.
Many Europeans in their own language would say “Where live you?” Instead of “where do you live?” “ In German It would look like: “Wo wohnen sie?” Or instead of “Do you live here?” a German would say, “Wohnst du heir?” Literally in English – “Live you here?”
Caution: Different dialects arrange verbs, adjectives and adverbs in different placements. Go to a translating site; write the English version of what you want the character to say. The site will give you the foreign version. In most cases you can tell the verb locations but if not, use an English-foreign language dictionary. In any case when dealing with an immigrant language, having his or country’s dictionary is a good idea. A translating site is here but it’s only one many.
6. Because Ole came to this country as an adult, he didn’t grow up learning how to use American contractions. Most adult immigrants do not [don’t] use contractions like can’t, won’t, didn’t etc. unless they came to this country as children and learned them. Adults foreigners learn “proper” English first. They stick to cannot, will not, did not etc. [That said, many contemporary foreigners watch American television. Here’s where you really need to know your character’s background stats.]
7. On occasion it’s okay to drop articles like “a,” and “the.” Don’t do it if it makes the sentence incomprehensible.
8. Every immigrant speaks with the lilt or rhythm of speech shared by their countrymen: This is next to impossible to imitate on paper. But! Besides switching verbs around, a writer can sometimes imitate speech rhythm by researching and using the “subtle nuances” of speech common to a particular language. While this isn’t a method I have used, I feel it’s important to mention.
Examples: It’s impossible to mention them all but here are a few.
- Some languages use what is called the aspirate, that is a pause at the end of words as in the “uh” sound. The Spanish and Italians do this a lot.
- French often comes off as nasal sounding. That’s hard to write but we can simply say the character spoke in nasal sound and let it go at that.
- The Scandinavians have a brisk sing song cadence. The cadence softens this Germatic language.
- German has next to no lilt. According to Foreign Dialects A Manual for Actors, Directors and Writers by Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman, German is slow, plodding and Pedestrian.
- Asian languages can have a sing song cadence of their own. According to the above resource, Chinese has four rising and falling tones. I have heard this among my husband’s family but he has lost most of the tonal changes, having lived in this country for many years — something else to consider when using dialect. Be careful not make an Asian character sound like Hop Sing from the old TV series Ponderosa – it borders on insulting.
- Changing the sentence structure as mentioned above can simulate a lilt.
Note: The book mentioned above, Foreign Dialects A Manual for Actors, Directors and Writers explains the lilt or rhythm of many languages as well as the “subtle nuances” of speech patterns. I highly recommend it.
- If you’d like a more in depth study of dialect in writing I suggest this excellent article: Dialogue in Fiction: Part I
- Dictionary of Spanish Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Michael Mahler
- MIERDA! The Real Spanish You Were Never Taught in School by Frances de Talavera Berger
- MERMDE The Real French You were Never Taught at School by Genevieve and Michael Heath
- Bob’s Your Uncle A Dictionary of Slang for British Mystery Fans by Jann Turner-Lord [This book hilarious even if you aren’t writing a British mystery!
- Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases by Maxim Newmark
What problems with dialect have you run into? How do you handle it?