Delectable Dialect

Thousands of expert fiction writers have given advice on dialogue, but few discuss dialect in particular. Jewell Parker Rhodes dedicates a section to dialect in Free Within Ourselves. She beautifully states:

“All people shift language–shift dialect usage, according to the social context. . . . Dialects have complex grammars and dictions and the variety within each language from is remarkable. Dialect is the study of contrasts: southern black dialect contrasts with hip urban speech; New Englander’s broad vowels contrast with Midwesterners’ twang. Language lives, fluidly changing, adapting to the changing nature and character of American society.”

Because Free Within Ourselves is written specifically for African American fiction writers, Rhodes considers the historical depictions of African American speech. While caricatures and stereotypes make the use of dialect slightly controversial, there’s no doubt that when done well it will breathe life into your characters. A story where all characters speak like each other in every situation is not an honest story. Rhodes encourages us to explore the complexity of speech just as we would explore the complexity of personalities:

“Clearly, [all] writers should use any and all speech variants which best express their characters. The range is enormous in terms of tenor, rhythm, tone, and the pattern of words.

Language is a dynamic, wonderful terrain for writers to explore! Historical time period, region, gender, class, age, and ethnicity all have the power to influence both the style and content of a character’s speech.”

You don’t have to have a PhD in linguistics to harness the power of dialect in your writing. Rhodes advises that:

“When reading, pay attention to differing representations of speech-dialogue. Also, listen to those around you. Use your journal to record snippets of interesting dialogue. In time you’ll learn to trust your own ear in re-creating sounds.”

To help you practice, here’s a modified version (you’ll have to get the book for the full version) of an exercise in dialect:

Spend two days listening for a person whose speech interests you. Record in your journal why you think certain voices appeal to you. Ask the speaker if you can tape record their dialogue. If this is impractical rely on transcription and memory. Then write a monologue using your newly captured voice.