Writing and Dialect

This Saturday (yes, you read it correctly, a SATURDAY ) I attended an event at uni, ‘Justice and the Arts’. The key-note speaker was former MP, Chris Mullin who gave an absolutely fascinating account of his involvement in helping to quash the convictions of the Birmingham Six (it was well worth sacrificing my lie in to hear this man). In the afternoon, we split into groups and I met with other students and staff from Stirling and Strathclyde uni to discuss issues related to creative writing and publishing. There was a lively debate and the topic I was most interested in was how other writers address the concept of authenticity in their work. This got us talking about the use of local dialect…

My WIP is set in a fictional suburb of Glasgow and I have to decide how much dialect to use in my writing. This is tricky.  I ask myself the question (because I’m used to talking to myself), have I included too many or too few vernacular words and phrases? Do you stay true to your ‘voice’ and pepper the prose with words like glaikit and dreich or is it, in the words of Chewin’ the Fat’s lighthouse keepers, “Gonnae no dae that, jist gonne no” and leave it free of Parliamo Glasgow?

I loved the film Trainspotting but I wonder if many people out with Scotland found reading the novel hard going? But the characters of Renton, Franco, Spud and Sick Boy couldn’t have spoken any other way.

Another great example of the use of dialect is one of my favourite books, Anne Donovan’s , Buddha Da where not only is the dialogue in broad Glaswegian dialect, but so too is the narrative.

And one of the most recent examples of an international bestseller with strong use of the distinctive deep south dialect is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I couldn’t imagine reading it without phrases like, ‘Law’ for ‘Lord’ and AIbileen’s narration, “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime” being included in the text (although Stockett has been heavily criticised for using dialect which trivialises stereotypical characters).  So what’s the best way to use dialect?

A fantastic performance  by Viola Davis as Aibileen in the superb film adaptation  of The Help

Surely you need dialect to create a sense of place? But will lots of dialect limit the audience? I suppose it’s a question of getting the balance right to make sure the writing isn’t bland and lifeless.  I think the use of signpost words and phrases to help ground the work is probably the best way to set the tone without making it too difficult for readers.

Does dialect help or hinder the reader? Is it a case of less is more with colloquial speech? Let me know if you think it’s a “pure dead brilliant” idea to use local slang words and phrases in fiction or would it leave readers crabbit and scunnered with it?

7 thoughts on “Writing and Dialect

  1. Hello Helen, I really enjoyed this post – very interesting indeed!

    I’m pretty keen on Scots dialects, and one of the things I think is important is that the words used in dialect are often very rooted in the place they are from. Is there a better way of describing some Scottish weather than dreich? I don’t think so, and I think there’s heaps of scots words that are so tied in to the character and landscape of an area that it makes a lot of sense to use them in literature. I know that it can make things difficult for readers to understand if they aren’t familiar with the words, but I always think the success of Clockwork Orange sort of proves that this isn’t as important as you might initially think.

    Good luck with the WIP!

  2. Hi Helen, I think Roddy Doyle does it well. I wrote a post about this back in October/ November after reading The Help-I found The Help difficult to read initially but after a couple of chapters it didn’t matter and I really enjoyed the book. The same issue arises with languages. I have this problem with Italian in my novel and after reading out my work in writing classes, the consensus seemed to be to keep it to a minimum but add enough to make the reader feel as though they’re in Italy and to translate in a subtle way when it’s not obvious to the reader what the word means.

  3. Hi Helen. This is a very interesting post and something I’m grappling with as well. After a little experiment with my 2 daughters I’ve come to the conclusion that readers are unpredictable in terms of the impact dialect has. Being Welsh I wrote a 500 word piece of flash fiction that was in a sort of Welsh lilt, with some Welsh phraseology (although no actual Welsh words). One daughter, aged 29 and a voracious reader, thought it was brilliant and very impactive, the other, aged 23, thought it was ‘too Welsh’ (even though she is Welsh and has studied the language), and that anyone who was not Welsh just wouldn’t ‘get it’!
    I do think it’s possible to get into the flow of quite complex dialect in a book. The best example for me of this of this would be ‘Sea of Poppies’, much of the dialogue of which is in an eighteenth century Anglo/Hindi seafarers’ dialect but which is understandable after a while.

  4. Such an interesting topic and post. I think it all comes down to the writing. Good writing will out, in dialect or not. Some writing does ask more of a reader. Some readers appreciate having more work to do! If you have lived the language and write it with love and respect, readers will respond positively and in empathy.

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