Dialect. Stan sounds different than Joe who sounds different than Amy who sounds different than Beth who sounds . . .. Dialects are found in every language and in every country. In Sweden, for example, it’s easy for even a non-Swedish speaker to hear the difference between a northern Swede and a southern Swede. In 2000 Lund University and Umea University put together a project, Dialektprojectet SweDia 2000, where you can listen to native speakers from across the country. (It’s in Swedish but just click around and you can figure it out.) TV chef Nick Stellino had me belly laughing the other night when he said “I’m going to the store to buy a tomato,” in different Italian dialects. Even with my rudimentary Spanish, I can differentiate between Dominican, Puerto Rican and Mexican Spanish. In New England we say “wicked,” west coasters say “hella,” and when mid-westerners order a “pop” in Boston they are on the receiving end of a confused look. Dialect is everywhere.
My question as a writer: how do I express this on the page? How do I get those sounds onto paper so the reader can hear Amy just like I hear her? How do I write dialect?
One school of thought, put forth by my self-editing book (Browne & King) is not to butcher the spelling but to let the dialect come through with the cadence, word choice and placement. The writer Sarah Duncan advocates this method and advises the writer to “Forget funny spellings, forget apostrophes, it’s all in the rhythm of speech, phrasing, grammar – and use of dialect words….”
Of course, dialect can be an important tool in conveying a characters emotions, thoughts, and personality. Sevastian Winters encourages writers not to shy away from offensive words and swear words if those words are true to the character.
The characters in my novel don’t swear and so far no one seems to be found of swearing (at least not on a consistent basis), but my major challenge is conveying the distinct dialect of the West Indies. (As if there were only one dialect in the West Indies…my island is fictional so the dialect is my imagining of many different dialects mixed together.) Mr. Winters provides a good framework for me to study in Part 2 of his article on phonetic dialect and profanity. Use dialect to differentiate characters; avoid using highly phonetic spellings of dialect, but rather give each character a word or two they always use. Beth says: “I’m gonna,” instead of “I’m going to.”
Again, it comes back to needing to mix up cadence, word choice, and timing to get the Green Island dialect to shine through. I like my funny spellings, but am reconciling myself to the fact that they may be distracting to the reader who may not hear them the same way that I have written them.