Dialect Tips To Use Not Abuse

No matter which methods you choose to convey dialect the key to doing it well is moderation.

photo credit: jaywood_uk via photopin cc

photo credit: jaywood_uk via photopin cc

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.

photo credit: talksrealfast via photopin cc

photo credit: talksrealfast via photopin cc

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.
    photo credit: jaywood_uk via photopin cc
    photo credit: jaywood_uk via photopin cc
  • 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.

Fun Resources:

What problems with dialect have you run into? How do you handle it?

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16 Responses to Dialect Tips To Use Not Abuse

  1. My solution to indicating accent in dialogue has been to use it as if it were salt–adds flavor but only when used sparingly! Too much and it becomes inedible. That’s the hard part. It’s so easy to sprinkle too generously. I think your suggestions are great, particularly the one about shifting verb positions. What works best for me is listening, and there’s so much available about distant places online now–Youtube is a gift. Doesn’t matter what they’re talking about–it’s the way they’re talking that I try to focus on.

    • sharla says:

      All true Beppie. I didn’t know I could find this on You-tube! I have to go look! You’re right, it’s a wonderful invention. 🙂

  2. Red says:

    I have many characters who are from different countries, so I work with dialect all the time. The first set of advice I followed is from Grammar Girl http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/writing-accents-and-dialects
    Then I asked a native speaker. In my Immortal American series a character is from France. Luckily, my undergraduate research partner was from France, so I’d had years of listening to her and asking questions about regional dialects. As well as attempted to speak French with her. By the way, I speak it very poorly. I sound like I’m in the first grade, “Look, there’s a cat under the table.” Very Eddie Izzard. Anyway, for my late October release, Highlander of Mine, I asked a colleague who was from the Highlands, and luckily born in the county I wanted to write about. He begged and pleaded and even yelled a little that I not use “donna, dinna, couldna,” etc. Out of respect for him, I followed his guidelines. Like you, I had a non-native speaker listen, observing the “ach” and “me” that could be for “my” etc. When it came to the contractions, I simply didn’t finish them, like what I heard when he spoke with me, “didn'”. However, I did think it was ironic that when he started to get angry about Americans writing “dinna” and how he never sounded like that, well, I think he kind of did. But only when he was mad. Before that, I didn’t hear the ending of his contractions, hence, “can’t” became “can'”.
    Another great post!

  3. sharla says:

    So funny Red! We never sound like we think we do! Have you ever listened to a tape recording of your voice? Now there’s an eye-opener. I consider myself very forthright but when I listened to myself, I heard a soft, uncertain voice! It’s enough to make a person want to take speech classes. Ha! The good news is that because I was born in Iowa, I have no detectable accent. Well, ok, I’m told that when I get excited or angry, my ten years in Texas shows up. Ha! But growing up with no accent has been a boon. In high school German, I was teacher’s pet because my pronunciation was right on — no back east accents, no Southern etc. to contend with. I lived in Minnesota as a kid, I can imitate my Scandi friends to tee. I used to love that TV show Fargo just for the lingo. It’s a lot like accents in MN.

  4. Great post, Sharla! Wonderful tips. Tweeted as well.

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    I sure miss Noelle and Vidar!

  6. sharla says:

    You won’t miss them for long Jen. The book will be on Kindle as soon as I can get there! 🙂

  7. Barbara Bettis says:

    Loved the post. You all have come up with some very good ways of indicating dialect! It’s good, too, to try to capture the rhythm of a speech pattern and use it to convey a way of speaking. tweeted

  8. Darleen Speers says:

    Another great blog. Especially enjoyed the links.

  9. Lyn Horner says:

    Sharla, as always, you touched a nerve with this post. Dialect is one of the most difficult, delicate aspects of writing fiction to master. Since you have invited me to post about my experience with Irish dialect this coming Monday, I won’t go into it here except to say it took me years of practice to get it right. Well, as right as I can get it, that is. Thanks for listing your resources. I’ll be putting them to use soon.

    • sharla says:

      I love your books with their Irish characters Lyn. I can’t think of anyone who does that dialect better! I look forward to hearing how you do it.

  10. Bob Richard says:

    I agree, Sharla,

    I follow the less is more approach to a foreigner’s dialogue. I just try to be consistent, once i get my bearings. I.e. I have a Russian who often drops his a’s and the’s, but I never swap out V and W.


    • sharla says:

      Thanks for stopping by Bob. Russian? Wow. Now there’s a dialect I wouldn’t know how to begin to write. What approach did you take to write it?

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