Speaking of Dialect—Yea or Nay?

I’ve had a number of people ask me lately about dialect in fiction. Next week we’ll talk about how to do dialect well, but for today, since I’m at the Oregon Christian Writers’ conference in Portland, Oregon, sitting in a hotel room with my roomie and buddy, Susan May Warren, writer par excellence and the mastermind behind My Book Therapy (pause to take a breath) I figured this was the perfect time to have a talk with said mastermind.

KB: Susie, tell me, what are your thoughts on using dialect in fiction?

SMW: It was used a lot when Christian fiction first got started, in Janette Oke’s books and others, and some people loved it, some were repelled by it. I think dialect can work well, but it’s important to use it only when it adds depth to the character.

KB: So when you say “adds depth to the character…”?

SMW: Dialect can show where a character is from, not just the country, but the region, even—as is the case with London—the specific area of the city where they live and were raised. It can also show the kind breeding the character has. Diction betrays class, especially if they have a higher education.

KB: As does vocabulary.

SMW: Exactly.

KB: My blog next week addresses the how-to of dialect, and one of the things I’m recommending is that they just sprinkle dialect in rather than having it overwhelm the book.

SMW: That’s what I do. And dialect is more than just accents, it’s key phrases that a character, and only that character, will say. So one tool is to pick certain phrases or terms used by my character because of where he’s from or the time period, and incorporate that into the story in a light way that shows the inflection.

KB: Any examples?

SMW: Diana Gabaldon does a great job of using dialect in her Outlander series. She has the Scottish hero use words like verra, dinna, wee—the kinds of words that give the sense of inflection. When we read it, we can “hear” the character is Scottish, but the reader’s mind doesn’t have to stop and sound it out.

KB: So, lady of Minnesota, what might someone from your area say?

SMW: Minnesotas might say You betcha, or If  guy were—as in, “If a guy were to buy an ax, where would he go?” Oh, and here’s one I use in my books: “For cryin’ in the sink.” Very Minnesotan.

KB: In Southern Oregon, we use terms like just a tad bit—which is more than a scosch, but not as much as a glop. And this confirms what you were saying about dialect showing what part of a city or state you’re from, because in Southern Oregon we sound different from the folks up in Portland. Another example is that in Southern Oregon, though we’re not south of the Mason-Dixon, you will hear y’all.

SMW: Oh! Y’all is a great example, because it’s diction, but it’s clearly regional. No one in the north would use it, not unless it’s an affectation.

KB: So, to summarize, yes, use dialect but only when it will enhance or add depth to your character. And when you use it, don’t overdo. Right, Susie?

SMW: You betcha!

So there you have it. Tune in next week for the how-to portion on doing dialect well!

Until then, why not share some regional words or phrases from your city, state, country?


34 Responses to Speaking of Dialect—Yea or Nay?

  1. Jackie Layton August 12, 2015 at 4:05 am #

    What a fun post. I look forward to next week.

    Here’s a couple I hear at least once a week in Kentucky…

    He’s handier than a pocket on a shirt.

    Flatter than a flitter.

    Ain’t no thing.

    And all soft drinks are Cokes. Even if you drink Pepsi. I don’t know why. I’m sure there are lots more you’d pick up on, but since I’ve lived most of my life here, it seems normal.

    I hope you and Susie have a great time at conference. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Lisa Evola August 12, 2015 at 5:24 am #

    I’m not sure there is anything purely Michiganian as far as dialect goes….I’m probably wrong there….but I do know that if you ask any Michigander where they live, they will put up their hand in the shape of the mitt and show you! 🙂

  3. Pegg Thomas August 12, 2015 at 5:26 am #

    I’m from Northern Michigan. We don’t have an accent. 😉 But you’ll hear the “eh” associated with Canadian speech quite a bit. And we tend to butcher the English language. Examples:

    I seen (makes me cringe)
    youse (yes – the plural of you)
    the total neglect of “are” substituting “is” everywhere

    “I seen on Facebook youse is going on vacation next week, eh?”

    **heavy sigh**

    • Lisa Evola August 12, 2015 at 6:32 am #

      I agree Peg….those bother me as well!! Ugh!!

    • Iola August 12, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

      I’m from New Zealand, and many of the Maori people use “youse” as the plural of you (which probably dates from when the early missionaries were teaching them to speak English. They learned the “add ‘s’ for a plural” rule, but didn’t learn the exceptions).

      You also make a good point in saying people from Northern Michigan don’t have an accent. You do. We all do. But we all think it’s everyone else who has the accent, which makes word choice the better option for displaying dialect.

  4. Stephen Schwambach August 12, 2015 at 5:33 am #

    I loved this piece, Karen – and Susie! So helpful. As with Pegg, we Southern Indiana residents also speak purely, without accent. I ain’t got time to go into it, but yaknowwhatImean?

  5. Aaron DeMott August 12, 2015 at 5:44 am #

    A real quick way to show where a character is from is how he refers to carbonated beverages: pop, soda, or coke.

    • Carol Ashby August 12, 2015 at 7:36 am #

      I’m from Idaho, but I’ve lived 5.5 years in Minnesota (6 winters-that’s what counts), 4 in Illinois, and >30 in New Mexico married to my Texan, so I’ve done some sampling.

      The first time my Minnesota sister asked my New Mexico kids what kind of pop they wanted, they looked at her like she was crazy. They already had a father, and they called him Daddy, not Pop.
      There is a map showing by county which term is used for carbonated beverages. http://popvssoda.com/countystats/NE-stats.html

      People in Illinois and some other parts of the Midwest pronounce words starting with “un” as if they started with “on.” It’s a dead giveaway of a Midwest origin (dead giveaway is eastern Idahoan).

      As my Texan husband tells our daughter, using y’all simply shows you understand the concept of plural versus singular. You is for one, y’all is for two or more in Central Texas. When my Texan told the wrangler in the Tetons in western Wyoming that there was a moose in the branch, the wrangler was looking everywhere except down by the creek (pronounced crick in Idaho).

      When I order huevos rancheros, I usually get Christmas (half red, half green), and if you have to ask “red or green what,” you’ll get looked at as strange here in green chile country. The correct spelling is chile for the best member of the pepper family. Chili is that bean-based stuff they serve in Texas.

  6. Jo Huddleston August 12, 2015 at 5:45 am #

    Never knew Southern Oregon folks say “y’all” as we do in the Deep South. In Alabama, we not only carry things, but we carry people to appointments: “I carried Grandma to the doctor’s.” Enjoyed the post, looking forward to next week’s.

  7. Janet Ann Collins August 12, 2015 at 6:37 am #

    One of my college Linguistics professors said he knew another professor who could talk to someone for a few minutes and tell within 20 miles where the person was from – unless he or she was from California. Since people have kept migrating to that state from everywhere in the world there’s no specific dialect. BTW I’m a Californian.

    • Carol Ashby August 12, 2015 at 8:01 am #

      I asked my Texas mother-in-law once if I had an accent. She said no. I sounded like the people on TV, but my husband had an accent because his Texas accent was only obvious with a few words like “oil” and “boil,” which still come out close to “all” and “ball” after more than 30 living outside Texas. Part of that is speed. When we visit, his speech slows down, and the Texas accent that I found so cute when I met him returns.

  8. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 12, 2015 at 7:21 am #

    Here in New Mexico one finds Spanish and English mixed to various degrees, and following a rapid-fire conversation can be tough for an outsider. It’s generally more prevalent among those whose primary language is Spanish.

    I’m not really from anywhere, so I can’t identify too well with a regional dialect, but here are some which I’ve encountered, and which made me take note.

    Pidgins or creoles can offer some of the richest dialect I’ve heard. For example, New Guinea pidgin refers to an elbow as “screw bilong hand”, and a piano as “bigfella bokis e get teeth you bangem e sing”. Repetition is also used, especially for emphasis…if you want to emphasize that something must be kept as it was, use “same-same”. Such as, “You givem me same same tucker like man bilong God” means “I would like to have the same meal the minister is having”.

    South Africans and Rhodesians tend to talk through what seems to be clenched teeth, and don’t really draw out vowels. “That” become “thit”, and concrete is “CON-crit”. “The Afrikaans “ja”, replaces “yes”, and ja, many do frequently end sentences with ‘man’.

    Differences in dialect can lead to some interesting situations. My brother, who lived in Pietermaritzburg, went into a grocery and asked where the kefir was (kefir is a kind of drinkable yogurt, if anyone wondered.).

    Unfortunately, his accent rather altered the word, and it came out as ‘keffir’, which is the rough equivalent of the n-word here.

    He received an icy glare from the chap behind the counter, and was told, “Ja, and we call thim blicks here, eh, man?”

  9. Jennifer Zarifeh Major August 12, 2015 at 7:39 am #

    First one that comes to mind?

    “Eh” IS a Canadian thing, but not for every sentence!!!

    “Hey, Karen, eh? I’d like to pitch my book, eh?”

    I used “y’all” in a singular form and nearly got smacked by my Southern born editor.

    Sing it…”oh be careful little hands what you type…”

  10. Carol Ashby August 12, 2015 at 7:51 am #

    Parental names are another place where regional origin might appear. My mother was born in Manitoba to a mother born in England. She was “mom” when I was an adult, but she pronounced it halfway between “mom” and “mum.” I had mom and dad (or pop) in Idaho, but my husband had mother and daddy (even as an adult) in Texas. My kids’ grandparents were grandma and grandpa on my side and grandmother and granddaddy on the paternal side.

    • Jenny Leo August 12, 2015 at 10:06 am #

      Carol, it sounds like we have some geography in common. My mom was born in Manitoba too, in Killarney (southwest), as was her mother. She, too, said “Mum,” and two of my grandmother’s oddities (to my childish ears) were “timepiece” for “watch” and “tomahto” instead of “tomayto.”

      I live in northern Idaho now, where I hear a lot of “you bet.” Coming from Chicago, I get teased sometimes for the dangling “with” (“You want to come with?”) and the all-purpose “by” (I’ll come by later”), as well as my nasal vowels (i.e., ducks swim in the “pahnd” vs. “pawnd.”).

      In novels, dialect is like hot pepper–great for spicing it up, but a little goes a long way.

      • Carol August 12, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

        More than you know, Jenny! Mom was from Waskada, I graduated high school in Lewiston, got my BS in Moscow, Ph.D. in Champaign-Urbana, and have a bit of land outside Santa near St. Maries.

        I bet you know to use a serviette instead of a napkin when you want to wipe your hands while eating, too. Do you sit on a davenport, chesterfield, sofa, or couch? For Mom, even after more than 60 years in the States (never “the US”), the sun shone (shawn) instead of shone (shown) and you came from where you had been (bean) rather than where you had been (bin).

  11. Kari Trumbo August 12, 2015 at 8:01 am #

    This post has proven the stickiness of dialect to me. I’ve lived in MN my entire life, through central MN and the Twin Cities area and I’ve never heard anyone use “you betcha” except in the framing of a Sven and Ollie joke. I have honestly never in my life heard “for cryin’ in the sink” either. In central MN we say “for cryin’ out loud” and in place of “you betcha” it’s “yup, or uh huh”. So even making broad generalizations about a phrase being very “any state” might be pushing it.

  12. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 12, 2015 at 8:22 am #

    And then there’s Cockney, with its rhyming slang. If you hear, “Oh, he’s scooby.”, it means that the person in question in clueless.

    The structure’s quite formal; a word is replaced with a two-word rhyme, and the second word of the rhyming phrase is dropped.

    The operative rhyme is Scooby Doo / hasn’t got a clue, by dropping ‘Doo’, you wind up with Scooby…which can also become a nickname.

    Rhyming slang is pretty young, originating around 1840 or thereabouts, and it changes constantly.

  13. Sarah Bennett August 12, 2015 at 8:39 am #

    Thanks for the excellet interview, Karen. I knew exactly what SMW meant when she mentioned Diana Gabaldon; I ended up saying those Scottish words out loud a few times so that I would “hear” them as I read (although I’m sure my Scottish brogue leaves much to be desired).

    And I hear you on the Southern Oregon comment! Northern California is much farther north than San Francisco!

  14. Linda Riggs Mayfield August 12, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    As if learning not to offend by misusing local dialects in the US were not enough, I got into trouble with dialects when we were missionaries in Chile. We lived and worked in the capital city of Santiago (pop. 5.5M then). A common expression was “mas o menos,” an exact equal of English “more or less.” In normal conversation in the city, the final s sound was commonly softened almost to non-existence on both words. Traveling in the deep south of the country, however, I purchased something in a little country store, engaged in conversation, and used the phrase with not much s sound. The storekeeper pulled herself up to full height and imperiously announced, “HERE, we say ‘maS o ‘menoS’. HER s’s practically hissed! 😀

  15. Jeanne Takenaka August 12, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    What a fun post, Karen. And I can just hear Susie saying, “You betcha!” 🙂

    We Coloradans do not have an accent. And, Colorado is pronounced “Col-o-raw-do” not “Col-o-ra (as in Alligator)-do.”

    My hubby spent growing up years in Hawaii, and he learned a little pidgin. One of the phrases you hear there is “Whassup, brah” as a greeting. “Da kine” which is a phrase used when one isn’t exactly sure of the word they want to use.

    And one that makes me kind of grin, “buss up.” As in busted up, or broken. 🙂

  16. Nick Kording August 12, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

    I’m originally from the Burgh… Pittsburgh. We talk really fast… so we abbreviate a lot of words and blend words together… some Pittsburghese: nebby, come mere (come here), haaja (how did you), kimon (come on), Stillers (Pgh Steelers), Needs warshed (needs to be washed), ready (as in to make ready…you ready up or read up your room), liberry (that’s where you go to take out books), pigs in a blanket (not hotdogs in a roll but stuffed cabbage), ungions (I don’t know where the g got into an onion) and my favorite squeet (let’s go eat), to name a few. We also say things like he beat the living daylights out of the guy… I’m goin’ dunton (down town) and pronounce iron like arn… referring to an old Pittsburgh beer called Iron City Beer. We pronounce file like fowl, tile like towel and feelings like fillings. Needless to say, I don’t write a lot of Pittsburgh characters… though the dialect would be an easy way to distinguish a character if yinz guys could figure out dat when the kid rode the sliding board, he just went down a slide. Now that was fun!

  17. Carolyn Miller August 12, 2015 at 1:32 pm #

    Love this post! Australians use a lot of shortened phrases, but to clarify some for my North American friends: g’day is only ever used as a hello, whinge is our form of whine, a barbie is not a doll, fizzy drink = soda/pop, we have takeaway not takeout, oh the list goes on! (If ever you write something set in Australia PLEASE check with an Aussie first!) ((and that’s pronounced Ozzie – though NEVER spelled that way – not Ossie:) ))

  18. Lisa Taylor August 12, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    The Aussie 😉 must not know that Kiwis will spell their country (a.k.a. the West Island) as “Oz.”

    We also share “cuppa” with them (a coffee, but could also be a cup of tea), “mate” (not your spouse, but your friend), and “chooks” (hens).

    The quintessential Kiwi phrase (which I’ve never heard from an Aussie, so I think it’s unique): “Sweet as!” — showing enthusiasm.

    When it comes to dialect, “fill yer boots.” (i.e. “go for it”).

  19. Karen Ball August 12, 2015 at 4:42 pm #

    This is so much fun! Live all the great words and phrases.

    My dad, who was raised in different parts of Idaho, says Sarah, not wash, and pronounces satan as santan. When I tease him about those, he’s quick to point out that a crick is what you get in your neck, not a stream of water (yes, I pronounce creek as crick). And if you come visit my state, do NOT pronounce the name as Ore-ee-gone. It’s Ory-gun. We even have ORYGUN t-shirts to make that clear.

  20. Rachel Newman August 12, 2015 at 6:55 pm #

    People say “fixin’ to” round these parts.

  21. Natalie Monk August 12, 2015 at 9:36 pm #

    What a fun post!!!

    Like Rachel Newman mentioned above, I say fixing-to a lot.

    In Mississippi it may sound like “Fiddentoo” or Fissena” depending on the sentence structure. 🙂

    One thing I had to get used to when we moved north in the state was the use of “like.” In North Mississippi, if someone asks you “how much do you like,” they aren’t offering an amount of something, they’re checking up on your progress. I grew up saying “how much do you lack?” or “how much is lacking?” But around here, they pronounce and spell it “like.”

  22. Jason Hague August 13, 2015 at 8:04 am #

    What a fun post, Karen. I loved meeting you at the OCW conference!

    My wife is Minnesotan, and I was always amazed by “Oh, fer…” Like when you’re playing with your new phone and someone says, “oh fer cool!”, or when a puppy in a sweater walks by it might be “Oh, fer cuuuute!”

    • Sarah Bennett August 14, 2015 at 9:54 am #

      Reminds me of my friend in Minneapolis, when she visited my family for the first time and wanted to go, “Out in a boat.” We were totally confused since we didn’t own a boat! Exasperated, she spelled her meaning: “Out and a-b-o-u-t. You know, like drive around?!” Years later, we still laugh “a boat” it.

  23. mobile no tracker August 20, 2015 at 6:57 am #

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