writing dialect

Rather than get into a long essay on erroneous use of terms for language (the temptation is great, but I will resist), I will simply state an observation: it’s never a good idea to try to convey variation in spoken language in terms of spelling. The best (and maybe the only) way to make this clear is by example. Take a look at this exchange from Gone with the Wind. In this scene, there is an elderly black man named Peter, a slave, and he’s upset with Scarlett.

“Dey talked in front of me lak Ah wuz a mule an’ couldn’ unnerstan’ dem—lak Ah wuz a Affikun an’ din’ know whut dey wuz talkin’ ’bout,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “An’ dey call me a nigger an’ Ah ain’ never been call a nigger by no w’ite folks, an’ dey call me a ole pet an’ say dat niggers ain’ ter be trus’ed! Me not ter be trus’ed! Why, w’en de ole Cunnel wuz dyin he say ter me, ‘You, Peter! You look affer mah chillun. Te’k keer of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ‘ ’cause she ain’ got no mo’ sense dan a hoppergrass.’ An’ Ah done tek keer of her good all dese yars.”

“Nobody but the Angel Gabriel could have done better,” said Scarlett soothingly. “We just couldn’t have lived without you.”

You’ll note that the author attempts to portray Peter’s speech by playing with spelling. The idea being, I suppose, that he doesn’t speak English as it is written (something nobody does, by the way, unless you happen to be having a conversation with the ghost of somebody who lived in the 15th century). The author feels it is important to make the distinction between Peter’s speech and Scarlett’s…. why? Because he’s a slave, and she’s a free white woman of means? Because he is uneducated and she is … a little more educated? Let’s approach this differently, by rewriting the passage:

“They talked in front of me like I was a mule and couldn’t understand them — like I was an African and didn’t know what they was talking about,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “And they call me a nigger and I ain’t never been call a nigger by no white folks, and they call me a old pet and say that niggers ain’t to be trusted! Me not to be trusted! Why, when the old Colonel was dying he say to me, ‘You Peter! You look after my children. Take care of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ’cause she ain’t got no more sense than a hoppergrass.’ And I done take care of her good all these years.”

“Nobody but the Angel Gabriel cudda done bettah” said Scarlett soothingly. “We jus’ couldn’t have lived without you.”

I haven’t changed the dialog one bit — I’ve only changed the spelling. In Peter’s case all the grammatical points of his speech are maintained, such as the invariant use of third person singular verb forms (‘he say’). The distinctive lexical items remain, too (hoppergrass) and the syntax (”I ain’t never been call’). If it’s important to portray his speech, then this passage does it by means of lexical, grammatical and syntatic variations without resorting to spelling.

I’ve done to Scarlett’s dialog what the author did to Peter’s — I changed the spelling to approximate how she would have pronounced the words. The result? It’s amusing and condescending — the misspellings seem to indicate something about her intelligence, or her illiteracy.

The lesson here is simple: don’t play with spelling unless you have a really good reason. Playing with spelling will almost always work as a trivialization of the character, and that’s never good. If it’s important to portray dialect, do that in other ways.

7 Replies to “writing dialect”

  1. Oh, I HATE when authors do this. Not only does this passage make me think of someone in blackface, but it is also just plain hard to read, at least for me. Honestly, when I read Gone with the Wind at fifteen(hey, I liked melodrama then) I would get to dialog like this and have to stare at it for a while before I actually deciphered what they were saying.

  2. Wuthering Heights is even harder to read in this respect. Peter’s dialect is at least familiar to me.

    Sara, that was a great illustration. It’s getting bookmarked and passed around.

  3. Glad it was useful. I’ve got a lot of other examples, many of them quite recent — but no need to flog the dead horse. I will, however, post some examples where an author has been very successful at portraying dialect in dialog.

  4. Sara, thank you so much! Have had such a time with my Irishman. Figured I needed to abbreviate all his “ing”‘s and was getting really tired of having to put in all those appostrphies! “But sure and I won’t be doing that anymore!”

  5. Before you make comments on how to write dialect, you might first want to make sure you have written a book that’s sold a tenth as well as the one you’re detracting. Writing dialect is tricky, but you picked an example that works, at least according to world wide sales of the book. In future, choose an example that helps novice writers, not one that simply identifes your own likes and dislikes.

  6. Thanks for the example. We shouldn’t be afraid to tackle examples from successful writers. The mispelled Peter dialog slows the reader down and interfers with meaning. I remember asking my father to help me decipher this when I was in jr high. Gone With the Wind succeeds in spite of this dialect rather than because of it.

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