Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dialects, colloquialisms, and Slang

Are you a writer using dialects, colloquialisms, or slang in your writing? Peter Abresch is back to discuss this tricky task. If you find this article useful, please leave a comment and you'll be entered to win a free book.

Speaking in a dialect is part of our heritage in this polyglot country of immigrants, as well as speaking in colloquialisms and slang. Writing it in dialogue is a bit more tricky.

This is the subject of BookMarc #35

Dialogue - Part 4 of 4
For our writing to come alive it we must use the words to trigger our readers's imaginations and life experiences so that they build our world inside their heads. But in the end, our readers must use those imaginations and experiences to make it work. Putting dialect into dialogue requires more than the normal amount of this collaboration. Let's repeat a few sentences of the dinner scene from BookMarc #34.
He piled on food and carried it to the table.

1. "Hello, Jim," the black-haired Sana greeted in her sing-song India English, "We were indeed wondering if you would make it to tea."

2. "Made a quick trip into Bolder Harbor," he said, spreading lunch booty around his place setting. "Needed a sprayer."

3. "I'tis easy to see you believe in a hearty lunch."
I identify Sana's speech as India English to give the reader a clue to the lilt of the following sentence, "We were indeed wondering if you would make it to tea."
In addition to that, I use words that reflect the India English manner of speaking, such as "indeed" and using "tea" for dinner (or lunch) in sentence 1, and "I'tis" and "hearty" in sentence 3.
The trouble with using dialect is it has to sound right w/o using fractured words. Things like, "Why do dat gu' tret me that'a way," won't do it. At one time it might have, but today's reader won't spend the time deciphering it and could instead toss the book aside. Besides, it's intrusive. Our readers will stumble over it when we want them to be breezing along in easy reading. If we want to use dialect, or simulate a foreign language, we need to do it through word use and an altered sentence structure. Let me give you three examples which may not be the best, but will give you some idea:
"I should charge both a ya," Belinda said, the police chief's dark eyes shifting from Jim to Dodee, "but since you're leaving Friday, get outta here. But, hey." She held up a finger. "I'm going back home to bed. I don't wanna hear about you guys no more. Don't wanna be woken up no more. Don't wanna be drug out in the middle of the night no more. Knowhatamean?"
"May I help you, suh?" she asked, her voice dancing with the lilting inflection of the West Indies.

"I'm here for the Elderhostel," Jim said. "Is there still space for me to park my car?"

"Yes suh, what you must do, because this next street is one direction, go up to the second corna, take three rights and come back to the side of the hotel. If you will then honk your horn I shall raise the gate for you."
"So!" The word spit out of the darkness from the direction of a Gestapo Death's Head cap reflected in the flames from the fireplace. "Vhat did you find in the attic?"

Jon recognized the timbre of voice, but couldn't bring the tone into focus, as if a soprano was singing bass.

"Come, come, Herr General." The shadow in the black uniform was moving towards the door. "Have you suddenly got laryngitis? It is a simple question, yes? What was so interesting in the attic, hum? So interesting you kept me waiting?"

Did the guy have a gun?

"So," the black figure at the door now, "should I shoot you, mein General, hum?"

Oh, hell, he did have a gun.

"Or should I give you the spanking you deserve?"
The first is from BLOODY BONSAI and I got mixed reviews on the police woman. Some said she was the best character in the whole book, and others thought she was over the top with her "knowhatamean." The second is from its sequel, KILLING THYME. I did use a few altered words, outta and wanna in the first section of dialogue, and suh and corna in the second, but I don't think anyone will have trouble knowing and hearing them. I think a few obvious words sprinkled sparingly about will not slow the read, and they help with the inflection in a long conversation. You have to make the decision if that works.
The third example is from a pre-published novel of mine, one I still have hopes for. I think it is my best attempt at using altered English sentence structure, sprinkled with a few known German words, to simulate a character talking in German. I used "vhat" in the first piece of dialogue because I wanted to make sure the reader got it that the speech was in German, but switched back to "what" after that. Again, you have to be the judge if it works. BTW, anytime we use a foreign word it should be italicized, like mein.
Let me close out this section on dialogue with an English simulation of German written by a master, John le Carre from THE SILENT PILGRIM:
"Are you inadequate, Mr. Nobody? I think perhaps you are. In your occupation, that is normal. You should join us, Mr. Nobody. You should take lessons with us, and we shall convert you to our cause. Then you will be adequate."
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