Ach-Man! Writing Dialogue in an Dialect

Most editors today agree that writing in an accent is a no-no. Perhaps that’s because very few writers can pull it off.

My husband and I started watching the crime TV series “Taggart,” which is the longest running TV show in Scottish history. After the first episode we watched, we turned to each other and admitted we only understood about 40% of what was said. I know it’s “English,” but besides the accent, there are also the colloquialisms to try to grasp in the millisecond before the next actor speaks. But we like crime shows. The bad guys usually get caught and then get their comeuppance at the end. Yay, justice, even if it is fictional. So we’ve kept watching the show, and after going through two seasons, I can now proudly say that I understand about 95% of the actors’ dialogue. (No wonder kids moving to the USA watch hours of “Sesame Street.” I get it now. Really, I do.)

“Taggart” is film — listening to the spoken word. But what about the written word? Mostly I would agree with editors: very few people can pull off writing in a dialect. That said, two authors come to mind, one familiar to Americans and one perhaps not so much. Harriet Beecher Stow pulled off Uncle Tom’s Cabin using a southern dialect in her dialogues. I got so lost in reading Stow’s book that I forgot where  was. And then there are the Irish folk tales by Samuel Lover, which I love. The first time I tried reading a Lover story, I only made it through the first paragraph before I found something else. And then I was sick this summer, and wanted something to distract me, so picked up his tales once more, determined to muddle my way through. Only, this time there was no muddling, only laughter as I understood it all and could hear in my mind the storyteller telling his tale.

Now, I would never attempt to write in a southern drawl or Irish accent. I don’t know them well enough. Where I grew up in Ohio, we dropped the “g” off the end of words, like eatin’, jawin’, actin’. But I don’t think that’s as interesting to read as a real dialect. Oh, we also added an ‘r” to the word wash, but were I to write, “Get ye goin’ ‘n warsh yer hands,” into a story, I’m afraid people would put down the story before the end of the first paragraph.

So, are there written dialects or accents you’ve come across? Did you read more than the first paragraph? Have you ever written in one? Would you like to try it, eh?

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2 thoughts on “Ach-Man! Writing Dialogue in an Dialect

  1. Interesting post, Sandy. Coincidentally, I considered writing a post on dialect this week too. IMO, a light touch is best. The rhythm of the dialect is more important than the phonetic spelling of the words. A few colloquialisms and a few grammatical usages that aren’t quite standard go a long way. The reader hears the voice in his or her head without having to struggle with every word.

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