Using Dialect in Dialogue

So you want to write a book set in Asia. Wonderful! This is a momentous event, especially if, like many of the up and coming authors of tomorrow, you’re not Asian. One of many questions you should have already asked yourself is how do I convey my characters’ culture in their speech?

I guarantee one method that will never get you anywhere is to write out their dialect. Don’t do this whether your setting is in China, England or the Texas panhandle. We are a long way from Mark Twain’s dialogue with Jim the slave or Emily Bronte’s Joseph from Wuthering Heights. The use of dialect in those books makes reading difficult and causes the reader to assume the involved characters are stupid, which is the last thought you want directed at your characters.

However, using dialect is not the same thing as use of colloquialisms. This is one method of letting your reader hear your characters without talking down to either party. Debra McArthur, in “Look Who’s Talking: Dialogue, Dialect and Minority Characters” uses Christopher Paul Curtis’ book, Elijah of Buxton as an example of colloquialism use:
“‘So whilst you’s out here rolling ’bout in that ditch enjoying the tormentation you caused your ma and that toady-frog, why don’t you save us all some trouble and go in them woods and break off whichever switch it is you wants her to beat you with.’ (15)”
Words like “tormentation” and “toady-frog” will put the reader where they need to be for this story. I feel other examples of dialect in this passage are still a bit heavy-handed and close to what Twain used, but the Newbury Honor and Coretta Scott King Award panels did not feel that way.

Play around with this trick. If you write in an Asian setting, look up the proverbs and beliefs of your chosen country. It was much more effective for one of my characters to explain his actions with: “Elephant tusks cannot grow out of a dog’s mouth” than by having him use a well-known western equivalent, “A leopard can’t change his spots.”

McArthur suggests other methods as well. Use “speech patterns that communicate the sound of the characters’ language”, for example in Shana Burg’s “A Thousand Never Evers,” much of the flavor of Mississippi dialect in 1963 [is carried] through the first-person narration of Addie Ann Pickett:
“Ever since that cross burned, I’ve been hoping my best friend would come up with another good prank to cheer us all up. But these days, I reckon no one feels like laughing, not even Delilah. So I’ma try to make folks happy myself.” (42)
The words “reckon” and “I’ma” are strong enough to let the reader hear the character’s distinctive voice and feel grounded in the time and locale of the story without destroying the narrative flow.

Another method is to use an occasional word in your setting’s language and indeed, sometimes you may be forced to do so. For instance, in Asian settings, you won’t be able to use words like “mile” or “pound”. Employ the closest equivalent, “li” and “cattie”. Make sure to use your author’s notes to inform the reader what those measurements are equal to in western terms.

McArthur comments on a particularly adroit method used by Lawrence Yep in “Dragonwings”:

“Because the main characters are all Chinese immigrants, they speak in Chinese most of the time. To the reader, this seems normal and natural, just as it would to Moon Shadow and his father, and their speech is in normal English syntax. When they speak in English, however, their words are italicized. Then, their imperfect English is apparent.
“Look at this boy,” he said in exasperation, “He eat enough for four pigs.” He started to apologize to the demoness, but she only smiled prettily again.
“There’s only one real compliment for a cook, and that’s for her guests to eat everything up. You must take the rest of the cookies with you.” She smoothed her apron over her lap and winked at me secretly.
“You too kind.” Father spread his hands. “You make us ashame.” He kicked me gently under the table.
“Yes, ashame,” I piped up. (104)
Consistent with this technique, Yep never gives Chinese names in English. Moon Shadow, Windrider, Lefty, Black Dog all are in standard type, not italicized. When spoken by English speakers, they are still in regular type, indicating that they are pronounced in Chinese, although no phonetic approximation is shown. Interestingly, no Chinese words are used in the book, yet the reader is given amazing insight into Chinese culture and values through Moon Shadow’s narration of his experiences in America.
Yep’s technique is both clever and useful. In this way, characters can converse in their own language so that readers know they are intelligent, but also communicate with English speakers in a way that shows they are still learning English. They can also express their reactions regarding the English-speakers to each other.”

I have seen effective use of both Chinese names (Alma Alexander’s “Secrets of Jin-Shei”) and a conversion to their western equivalent (Lisa See’s “Snowflower and the Secret Fan”). This may be a genre break issue as Yep’s “Dragonwings” is for children and See’s “Snowflower” is a literary novel, while Alexander’s “Secrets” is considered a fantasy. However, take this consideration to heart: western readers have trouble keeping Asian names separate. It may be easier on them if you use “Beautiful Flower” as a name instead of “Mei Hua.”

In the end, the best method for writing in a foreign setting is for the author to be immersed in that culture. Learn the language if possible, travel to the country, eat the food, and maintain friendships with people from your chosen culture. These are just the basics of what you’ll need to do to gain believability. If you’re unable or unwilling to do any of these things, reconsider your setting. You don’t want to use pejorative or insulting methods to top of your five hundred page epic novel.

Works Cited

McArthur, Debra, “Look Who’s Talking: Dialogue, Dialect and Minority Characters.”
Hamline University, 2008.
Burg, Shana. A Thousand Never Evers. New York: Delacourt, 2008.
Curtis, Christopher Paul. Elijah of Buxton. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.
Yep, Lawrence. Dragonwings. New York: Harper Trophy, 1975.




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8 Responses to “Using Dialect in Dialogue”

  1. Jessica says:

    Great post Victoria! I read Uncle Tom's Cabin, loved it, but couldn't understand a thing the white gentlemen said because of their accents. And some of the slaves I couldn't always get either.
    I like the colloquialism thought. That seems as though it would be really effective.

  2. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for dropping in again, Jessica! I'm glad it was food for thought. 🙂

  3. Jeannie Lin says:

    Excellent tips and thanks for the wealth of references to check out!

  4. Dara says:

    Thanks for the post! I always wondered how in the world to make any sort of dialect, so I just avoided it and would occassionally use the technique of using a proverb very sparingly.

    In my one book, I had a particular issue with demonstrating the change in Japanese dialect from Tokyo to the northern Tohoku region; it's often said that it can be incredibly difficult to understand if you speak a dialect outside of that region.

    Obviously I can't put that in the book in its true Japanese language so I would just mention how my character would have to ask them to repeat themselves because of the difference (she's of mixed heritage who speaks English and Japanese but grew up in Tokyo).

    I know I'd love to learn Japanese; it's just a matter of actually finding a class around where I live. And to travel there would be a dream…alas, I don't see that happening any time in the near future. A plane ticket to Japan isn't exactly cheap and the country itself is notorious for being one of the more expensive ones to travel to. It's still a goal of mine though.

    The best thing I can do is research, research, research and try to network with others who have considerably more experience and knowledge.

  5. Victoria Dixon says:

    Hi, Dara and Jeannie Lin! I hope the extra data on research funds helps. I know I would have loved to know years ago. It would have saved us some grief. *Sigh*

  6. Sabrina says:

    My mother's first language is Italian–she immigrated to the US when she was about ten. Although she speaks English well, she's trying to read Huckleberry Finn and having a hard time of it for exactly that reason you mentioned.

    I read/heard years ago (I've no idea where at this point, though) that for dialect, it helps to use just a few words here and there. It gives the impression of an accent or dialect, without overwhelming the reader.

  7. Victoria Dixon says:

    I remembered early this morning while editing someone else that the book called "Magician," I forget who the author is but the novel has Nicholas Flamel, John Dee and Niccolo Machiavelli in it in a modern day Paris. My French is lousy and I still finished reading that novel speaking with a French accent because the author was so detailed with street names, cafe, food names, history of the locale. Of course, it's still difficult because the two young people in the novel WERE speaking English, but it still struck me as excellent grounding in Paris.

  8. MAGGI says:

    I might read that book Victoria. I've been to France a few times, but as a tourist it isn't very helpful.

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