Summary: Dialect in Dialogue

I came across this material while I was sorting through posts, and I thought it might be useful to those of you who are writing fiction.
mouth open

Click to watch Polar Bear on Vimeo: storytelling in the classroom

Fact: everybody has some kind of regional and social dialect.

Question: Which features indicate differences in national or regional origin; social standing; economics, for the spoken language? And how best to get them across in the written language?


Syntax (word order and grammatical constructions)


He said he may can have these by the first of the month. (U.S. South)

Coffee I can always drink, so pour me. (Yiddish influenced)

Down the shore everything’s all right. (New Jersey)

If you’re going out, I’m coming with. (Midwest)

Are you off then? / I might do. / That’s just not on, luv. (Britain)

“You want me to quit graduate school and learn how to cast drill bits?” –“I want you should be there when I die,” her father said. “Without me having to send you bus fare first.” (Lippi) (working class Chicago)


Lexicon (word choice)

“Bless me, what a row that was.”

Laura Kinsale. Flowers from the Storm.

“Ar,” said Billy Pretty. “Remember the omaloor that brought me some decorated turr’s eggs?”

Annie Proulx. The Shipping News

Idiom (turns of phrase)

No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty…

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Finally she pulls away, only to touch my face in this way that reminds me exactly of her kiss.Then she calls me “you poor schmuck.”

David Levithan, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Phonology (pronunciation) by far the hardest to write effectively.

NOTE the dangers:

  • Confusing the reader; slowing the reader down.
  • Evoking social evaluations you don’t want.
  • If you condescend to a character or try to indicate a character’s stupidity by misrepresenting their language, the reader will mistrust you — and rightly so.

Examples of what not to do follow. These come from novels of all kinds. The example from Beauty and the Spy is remarkable especially for the fanciful British English features the author gathered from all over the country and then put together for her working class characters. There’s a full post about this tendency [Julia Ann Long].

“Gewhilliky crickets! Thunder and lightning! Licked him all to smash!” said Bud, rubbing his hands on his knees. “That beats my time all holler!”

Edward Eggleston. The Hoosier School-Master

“Come out,” she said.

“Ay! They have me fast. But when they do let me out, nina, I will take thee in my arms; and whosoever tries to tear thee away again will have a dagger in his heart. Dios de mi vida!” … “But thou lovest me, Carlos?”

Gertrude Atherton. The Doomswoman


Julia Anne Long. Beauty and the Spy

“Me, I am dead to shame,” grinned Rene. “Who would be respectable? All of my days I was respectable until ze war set me free lak ze darkies. Nevaire again must I be deegneefied and full of ennui. Free lak ze bird! I lak my pie wagon. I lak my mule. I lak ze dear Yankees who so kindly buy ze pie of Madame Belle Mere. No, my Scarlett, I must be ze King of ze Pies. Eet ees my destiny! Lak Napoleon, I follow my star.” He flourished his whip dramatically.

Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind

“Look, Ash,” said Will slowly. “I ain’t aimin’ to have nobody say nothin’ against Suellen, no matter what they think. You leave it to me. When you’ve finished with the readin’ and the prayin’ and you say: ‘If anyone would like to say a few words,’ you look right at me, so I can speak first.”

Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind

Examples of well done dialect representation

“Bless me, what a row that was, Miss Timms! Shev was right bosky, do you see—he was used up. Corned, pickled and salted—”

“Comatose, Miss Timms,” Durham explained gravely. “In strong drink.”

“Oh, yes, good Oxford word. Comatose!” The colonel seemed to find that description an uplifting one. “Perfectly senseless. And we was having to carry him home, y’see, between the two of us, and he weighs—’S blood, he must weigh fourteen stone! And who might drive by at the very moment but the one they call the resurrection jarvey—”

Laura Kinsale. Flowers from the Storm


“Ah,” said Yark. “I ‘as a one or two to finish up, y’know,” pointing to wooden skeletons and half-planked sides. “Says I might ‘elp Nige Fearn wid ‘is long-liner this winter. But if I gets out in the woods, you know, and finds the timber, it’ll go along. Something by spring, see, by the time the ice goes. If I goes in the woods and finds the right sticks you know, spruce, var. See, you must find good uns, your stem, you wants to bring it down with a bit of a ‘ollow to it, sternpost and your knee, and deadwoods a course, and breast’ook. You has to get the right ones. Your timbers, you know. There’s some around ‘ere steams ’em. I wouldn’t set down in a steam timber boat. Weak.”

Annie Proulx. The Shipping News

“Yeh, well never mind,” says Joe Lee. “The point is Mama well, it’s pride. You embarrass yourself and us too dancin like that.”

“I wasn’t shame.” Then nobody say nuthin. Them standin there in they pretty clothes with drinks in they hands and gangin up on me, and me in the third-degree chair and nary a olive to my name. Felt just like the police got hold to me.

“First of all,” Task say, holdin up his hand and tickin off the offenses, “the dress. Now that dress is too short, Mama, and too low-cut for a woman your age. And Tamu’s going to make a speech tonight to kick off the campaign and will be introducin you and expecting you to organize the council of elders—”

“Me? Didn nobody ask me nuthin. You mean Nisi? She change her name?”

“Well, Norton was supposed to tell you about it. Nisi wants to introduce you and then encourage the older folks to form a Council of the Elders to act as an advisory—”

“And you going to be standing there with your boobs out and that wig on your head and that hem up to your ass. And people’ll say, ‘Ain’t that the homy bitch that was grindin with the blind dude?”

Tone Cade Bambara. “My Man Bovanne”

Doing the Research

Two varieties of English that are notoriously difficult to capture well are African American English and Scots English. Below are selected documented features of both languages as a starting point. Note that there is variation within each of these languages, following from geographical and social markers. Wikipedia is, oddly enough, a very good place to find solid examples of syntax, morphology and idiom for a wide range of socially and geographically marked varieties of English.

Please see also this post, a discussion of Margaret Mitchell’s representation of African American English in Gone with the Wind.

African American English

*Negative concord (one thing negative, all things negative):

Ain’t no cat cain’t get in no henhouse. (Labov)

I cain’t kill nothin and won’t nothin die. (Smitherman)

*Generalized “ain’t” –

Ain’t no playground in heaven for nobody.

-I on know, man. How you figure they ain’t no playground in heaven for little kids?

-It ain’t. God ain’t making it special for nobody.

*Plural formation:

Two old building.

*Third person singular -s optional deletion:

Marcy want a new bike.

She sing real loud.

*Copula deletion:

People gon look at you like you dumb.

The coffee cold. The coffee is cold.

*Durative “be”:

She be working at the factory. She’s always at work at the factory.

The coffee bees cold. The coffee is always cold.

*Perfective Tenses

She BIN had that dress. She’s had that dress for a long time, and still does.

Befo you know it, he be done finished the job. Before you know it, he will have already finished the job.

*Clause reduction in questions/plural s reduction

I ast Ruf could she bring it to Tom place. I asked Ruth if she could bring it to Tom’s place.

Scots English

*Negative concord (one thing negative, all things negative)

A dinna care aboot nane o’t. I don’t care for any of it.

A’m no for nae mair. I don’t want any.

*Negation in the past tense with ‘never’

A niver gotten stertit till nine. I didn’t get started until nine.

*Negative or unpleasant attributes indicated by the prefix mis.

That wickit man mislippens his bairns. That wicked man neglects his children.

*Gaelic influence on verb formation

She’ss at sayin. She says.

She wull pe at sayin. She will say.

*Distinctive use of the definite article

A shillin the piece. One shilling each.

Ma sin’s lairnin the carpenterin. My son’s learning carpentry.

*Distinctions in use of plural /possessive -s

He said he seen a cou’s heid at the door. He said he saw the head of a living cow looking in.

She said she seen a cou-heid at the door. She said she saw the severed head of a dead cow at the door.

*Reflexive pronouns in emphatic forms

He wis twa year yunger nor masel. He was two years younger than me.

Masel an Dauvit gaed hame. David and I went home.

A telt ye we micht can mend it wirsel. I told you we may be able to repair it ourselves.

Gang awa yer twa sels. Go away both of you.

*Relative Markers

The laddies wha’s baa’s tint. The boys whose ball is lost.