When the dialogue is done well, we all enjoy a story in which the characters speak in their local dialect, especially when the dialect is unique. On the other hand, few things detract from a story more than poorly written dialogue, and one way to ruin dialogue is to attempt to introduce dialect by simply spelling words phonetically according to the local pronunciation.
A dialect is more than simply a colorful way of pronouncing words. Dialect starts with vocabulary. Different regions use different vocabularies. In the southern US, all soft drinks are called cokes. In other parts of the country, all soft drinks are called soda pop or simply pop. When I lived in Western Massachusetts, pop was the commonly used term, but 90 miles to the east in Boston, the same soft drink was called a tonic. In Great Britain and former British colonies, a wrench is a spanner, an elevator is a lift and the spare tyre is stored in the boot of the car. In the Southwest, a cement block wall is a fence. When rainwater erodes a field, to form a channel that is only wet when it rains, it is called a gully, a gulch, a wash or a ravine, depending on the part of the country. In New Mexico, with its Spanish heritage, it is called an arroyo.
Idioms are also regional. In Massachusetts, my daughter might have said, “I like ice cream.”
Her friend, who also likes ice cream would have replied, “So don’t I.” She was agreeing. I don’t know where the idom came from, and I have never heard it outside of New England.
Thus one can not write dialect without using the right words.
In some parts of the country grammar and word order are part of the dialect. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, there were many first and second generation German and Polish immigrants. Thus inverted word order was frequently heard.
The most obvious feature of a dialect is pronunciation. Here the writer is tempted to change the spelling of a word to reflect the local pronunciation. During my childhood in Wisconsin, I would have said, “Let’s go fishing in the creek.” (Creek spoken with a long e sound.) In Tennessee, my wife as a child would have said, “Let’s go fishin’ in the crick.” (Creek spoken with a short i sound.) My wife and I have argued for years about how to pronounce the name of that small strip of flowing water. When done well, it is effective, but the writer had better know the dialect and have a good ear.
In a previous posting, I wrote about how a trip to Australia inspired a thriller. Australia has a colorful and interesting dialect. For years, Australia served England as a penal colony. Many of the convicts came from the lower class districts of cities such as London and Liverpool. Likewise some of the guards would have been recruited from the lower class populations of England. Thus the Australian dialect appears to be a mixture of London cockney (as used in My Fair Lady) and Liverpool (as the Beetles spoke) that has evolved over the years to become a similar yet distinctly different dialect. Obviously one can not write a book based in Australia with Australian characters speaking American English, but how could I effectively put Australian dialogue on the printed page? I will admit my ear is not good at phonics.
My wife and I spent a month in Australia celebrating our 40th anniversary. Our base camp was our son’s house. At the time, he was employed in Sydney. Part way through our stay, the idea for a story hatched in my imagination so my wife and I tackled the problem of dialect. Having been in Australia on business and having a business contact in Melbourne, I was familiar with some of the Australian words. Knowing I wanted to write a book, we began collecting Australian words. The first week, my son took us to a parking garage (car park in Australian) where a sign with an arrow said, “Way Out” obviously the direction of the exit. We laughed ourselves silly because in the slang of teens used when we were in high school, “Way Out” translated into “Spectacular”. My son got into the fun by finding a glossary of Australian terms in a guide book. We kept our eyes and ears open. By the time we left Australia, I had an entire dictionary of Australian words on my laptop. I made good use of this Australian to English dictionary when I wrote the manuscript.
The best language lesson was on the bus coming home from a concert at the Sydney Opera House. A very drunk fellow sat down next to us. In a very thick accent, he told us how he was in his cups because he had stopped at the bottle shop after losing too much coin on the bloody ponies even though he had thought one of them was a fair dinkun champion. Of course, his intoxication influenced his accent and his choice of words. We strained to understand him. My son sat there chuckling, and I am sure the rest of the people on the bus were mortified that one of their countrymen would make such a bloody fool of himself in front of American guests.
It would have been great fun to have spelled all the words phonetically. After all, when an Australian (or digger) talks about his friend, he calls him his mate, but the word comes out of the digger’s mouth with the A sounding like a long i. Should I spell the word mite or maite? I recognized that I could never do justice to trying to write Australian phonetically. I explained the pronunciation of a few words, and left the rest of the pronunciation to the reader’s imagination.
Rather, I salted the dialogue of Australian characters with the Australian vocabulary. It made quite a contrast to the dialogue of Americans who, of course, were speaking American English.
At the time of the American Revolution, the United States broke with England both politically and linguistically. Not only do Americans have our own vocabulary and idioms, but we have our own spelling, distinct from spelling in the part of the world more recently aligned with England. Thus a car in Australia not only has its engine under the bonnet, but it has its spare tyre, spanner and lift in the boot of the car. All traffic drives on the left of the centre line. A short drive allows passengers to enjoy the local colour. In this story the point of view is always one of the Americans so I wrote the prose and the dialogue of Americans in American dialect with American spellings, but when Australians speak, they speak with the Australian dialect using Australian spellings. Of course, this gave fits to my proofreader, but those who have previewed the manuscript approve of the results.
Here are a couple of examples:
Jerome fired a shot toward the target’s car. “Come on, get closer.”
Cedric cranked the wheel into the next turn and felt the wheels skidding slightly. “I can’t go any faster on these turns.”
“I thought this was designed after a race car.”
“A Porsche is a race car by design, but this one doesn’t want to take right turns the way it should. I think the suspension is messed up.”
Jerome leaned out the window to take another shot that shattered the rear window of the target’s car even at that distance.
Cedric said, “I hate to admit it, That driver is good, even if he is over the centre line most of the time. Say, you’re bonzo with the nine millimeter.”
Jerome replied, “My favorite weapon.”
“I think we almost had them on the last straight stretch. Try for a tyre shot the next chance you get, but don’t use up all of the ammunition. Sooner or later, we’ll get a straight enough stretch that I can come alongside of them. You shoot at the driver, and I’ll try to bump them off the road.”
“Don’t push them off the cliff. We’ll never find the computer in the wreckage.”
“I’ll try to get on his left when he cuts over the centre line.”
“You gave me three clips. I still have two in my pocket.”
“A tyre shot would be best. That will slow them down, but the next best thing will be to shoot the driver. We know the computer is in the car with them. We saw them carrying the computer case. James saw them put it in the car before they left Port Douglas.
* * *
Terry was back with a crow bar and a sledge hammer. He pushed the crowbar into the door jam and struck the crowbar a few times with the hammer. He leaned heavily against it. “Pull on the door latch, Mate.”
The door latch mechanism clicked and the door creaked. Jill appeared and threw her weight on the crowbar along with Terry. Without warning, the door swung open. Jill fell against the side of the car, and Jack fell half out of the car.
Terry caught Jack by the shoulders and lowered him to the ground beside the car. “Blood Hell! Your shoulder is all torn up.”
“They shot me,” Jack said weakly.
Terry examined him closely. “How bad does it hurt?”
“I’ve never been shot before. I’m not sure how it’s suppose to feel, but it hurts.”
“Good sign. The ones in Viet Nam who didn’t feel the pain usually carked it.”
Jill stood up. “Is he bleeding badly?”
“Just enough to make a mess,” Terry said. “He’ll make it.”
A police car from Port Douglas pulled up with its lights flashing.
Terry waved the officer over. “We’ll be needing two pressure bandages from your first aid kit for my mate here.”
Jill pressed a cloth against an open wound. “Just relax. I think the Lord protected us again. We both seem to be OK. The car’s a wreck, but we’re going to survive.”
The police officer returned with a large bag of medical supplies and began applying pressure bandages to both entrance and exit wounds, “I have a call in for an ambulance. What happened?”
Terry said, “The blighters were chasing him, shooting at him, and trying to run him off the road.”
“Oh, where are the blighters?” asked the officer.
Terry pointed toward the bluff with his head. “Over the edge. Here, I’ll finish taking care of him. Nothing I didn’t do enough times in Viet Nam. You take a look over there. See what happened to ’em.”
The important thing is I had fun writing story. I hope I injected a little of the Australian dialect into the book. When the book is published, I am sure my friends down under will let me know about all the mistakes.