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Writing Research: Dialects

by Weston Kincade on 07/26/14

DialectsThey say you should write what you know, but if you’ve been writing for any descent period of time you may want to explore other avenues in your dialogue. Dialects are different. It’s much harder to find voices and dialects to listen to repeatedly aside from rewinding movie clips and listening to them over and over. Even then they may not be accurate depictions. There are better ways and different recommended approaches to writing dialogue using dialects.


Too much can overwhelm readers:

As Brian Klem describes very well in this post on dialect writing in Writer’s Digest, crafting dialect is an art form very few people can do well. Too much will make your dialogue awkward, clumsy, and difficult to read.


Two methods of writing dialect:

Method 1

As Klem describes, the best way to incorporate dialect is mainly through word choice and structure. In doing this, the writer uses known writing techniques to change a few words rather than writing entire sentences phonetically, (meaning the way they sound).  Balance is key!

For instance:

“I ain’t going to do that,” Sam said. “You’s got to be kiddin’.”

This line has about the most augmented words I would include in such close proximity. It is still easily legible, but authentic enough to make the distinction between Sam’s voice and whoever he is speaking with clear. It also gives the reader a functional voice that sounds real. The word choice and changes are specifically geared toward how people from that area sound. I chose the improper contraction of “You has” because it is commonly used in many rural Southern states in the US, the word “ain’t” (which is in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary), and clipped the last letter of “kidding” because it is also common, both in usage and technique.


Method 2

An alternative to Method 1 uses descriptive words added to the dialogue tags instead of literary devices that change or augment the words. However, word choice is still a major consideration in constructing the line of dialogue.

For instance:

“I’m not going to do that,” Sam said, his words clipped. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

While sounding less authentic, this is clear and straightforward, just giving the reader the needed information without messing with the words.

However before you do either of these, you first have to know how authentic dialects sound.


Researching dialects:

To recreate authentic dialect using proper word choice, you have to know how people sound. If you’ve grown up in New Orleans, the Bronx, Texas, or the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, you should be familiar with how those dialects sound. However, no matter where you’re from, if you are trying to recreate a dialect from somewhere in the world you’ve never been, the task can be daunting. You may need to listen to people from places as far away as Spain, Germany, or Africa in order to recreate authentic word choice and potential augmentation. (Remember, a little word clipping or change goes a long way. Don’t overdo it.) Additionally, you need to hear them speaking English, not their native language.

To accomplish this there is one site in particular I recommend, IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive). The site contains recordings of people from all over the world reading passages and then describing a bit about themselves and their families in their own words. This is great information, and you can replay sections as many times as you’d like.

The rest is up to you. Happy writing!


For more on how to research for writing, try Writing Research: Setting.

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