On Dialect, Dialogue and Good Books.

This Came Up in a Google Search, Ain't it Cute?

The conversation last week about Ebonics got me to thinking about Faulkner and James Baldwin, and the way certain dialects in this country get no respect.

I’m teaching undergrad creative writing for the first time, and this summer I spent a good amount of time wondering whether I knew enough about writing to provide an adequate introduction to a bunch of 19 year olds. To this end, I got a hold of a teaching tools packet from my TA coordinator. It was a collection of over-Xeroxed tip lists that had been handed down from TA to TA since time immemorial. It was pretty useful, but one thing in the Writing Good Dialogue section gave me pause, the gist of it being: “Be careful when writing dialogue. Reading dialect in dialogue is tiring.”

And so I pose this question to all of you: Is it?

I’d say this thinking can be traced to xenocentrism and laziness. The notion is that one shouldn’t have to wade through another person’s speech patterns to decipher meaning; everyone should speak and think like I do so that my job as a reader is easy. I just don’t buy that. In my experience, the dialogue that borders on tiring (which really isn’t the right word — I’d say challenging) is that which focuses on spelling words differently to highlight pronunciation (phonology) instead of taking the time to depict how a dialect is syntactically different.

Example (made up by me): “Dey iz headed to da pictsha show.”

Because misspelled words require the reader to slow down to get the gist of the pronunciations the author is aiming for, I can see how this kind of dialogue is challenging. It’s also a bit condescending; my paternal grandmother is from Arkansas and never finished eighth grade, but just because she pronounces “they” with something akin to a “D” at the beginning doesn’t mean she’d spell the word accordingly. There’s also a consistency problem with relying on the way words are spelled. Does one just put a Z on “was” to indicate a Black English pronunciation, or must one write “wuz” to get the point across? Do you use apostrophes when droppin the “G” on a verb, or no? It’s a tricky business, and I’d say most of the books that fail in the dialect department get caught up in these issues of spelling.

Of course, a good writer can train a reader to understand a lot  (see J.R.R. Tolkien, or, for less of a stretch Sapphire’s Push), but I still think the best dialect dialogue focuses on syntax.

From James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”: “He don’t want to die. He wants to live. Don’t nobody want to die, ever.”

That sentence is money. It follows the rules of typical AAVE, yet it doesn’t assume that readers need to see words spelled differently to imagine the speaker’s inflection.

Writers like writing dialect. The tradition of dialect in literature is a long one. And it isn’t just a black one. See William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy or Eudora Welty for proof. But then also see E.M. Forster, Charles Dickens and Roddy Doyle, because dialect in literature is not limited to this side of the pond. If good dialect in a story is considered tiring, perhaps it’s because we don’t read enough of it. If we did, we might be more inclined to look at people who speak a specific dialect in real life differently as well.

I’ve added understanding dialogue with dialect to my list of teaching goals this semester, even if it means I have to hand out a grown-up version something like this. I’m also looking for more stories that do a good job of depicting speech patterns that aren’t the norm to add to my assigned reading. If any of you have suggestions, I’d be much obliged.

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  • Russ

    Slightly off topic, but this reminded me of a translation of Lysistrata I read where all of the Spartans spoke with a “southern” dialect while the Atheanas used SAE. Talk about questionable choices. Within the play it was extremely difficult to read the Spartan lines because of the overzealous use of punctuation to shape your reading so I agree that keeping standard spelling but utilizing different grammars and word-choice is preferable.

    For a suggestion on speech patterns, Junot Diaz “The Brief Wondrous Life Oscar Wao” is a wonderful example and has a lot of great code-switching and nerd speak.

    • I have a translation of The Brothers Karamazov that made a similar choice. The “peasants” speak with a Southern drawl that’s pretty hilarious. In both cases I wonder if the translators used southern dialects just because they needed an alternative to SAE, or because they wanted to imply a certain group’s lack of education or “culture.” Something tells me it’s the latter. Nobody praises Sparta for their book-learnin.

      And thanks for the suggestion! I’ve got a Junot Diaz short story assigned, but I might hand out a section from his novel as well.

  • young_

    Interesting post. Do you discuss the scouring criticisms that Richard Wright and other’s laid on ZNH for her use of dialect in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”?

    BTW, that Baldwin quote actually bothers me though, in that “Don’t nobody want to” doesn’t feel as real as “Don’t nobody wanna”… but I defer to the master.

    • I forgot about the Wright/ZNH beef! I always a bit confused by it. ZNH wasn’t the first black writer to include such dialogue in her writing. Paul Lawrence Dunbar did it in his poems in the late 19th century. I guess Wright and Co felt the way Hurston spelled words in dialect was condescending, but she was clearly one of the exceptions where the writer, through establishing and sticking to their own patterns of spelling and syntax, makes the reader understand how to read their work.

      “wanna” would have been awesome, but I too, defer to the master, lol. I generally enjoy all “nna” forms (Imma, finna, gonna, wanna) and try to find excuses to put them in dialogue and my daily internets parlance if at all possible.

      • April

        I always felt the criticism leveled by Wright et al. against Hurston was sexist to a large degree. (For instance, she was criticized for her reliance on a white benefactor…the same person who bankrolled Langston Hughes’ work.) That might explain why similar use of dialect in other (male) writers’ work got a pass.

  • lsn

    I can find it harder to read when it’s a dialect that I’m not as familiar with and can’t “hear” as well. It took me a while to get the voices in “Trainspotting” into my head for example, because I don’t hear Edinburgh accents that often and I was having to mentally read it aloud to get the words and the flow until my brain picked it up. I often find that for me it’s dependent on how much slang is in the dialect, if that makes sense – I can follow speech patterns up to the point they use a word I have no idea about, at which point I have to google. (Mind you that’s the same if it’s written in “proper” English as well, but for slang there’s sometimes less context to guess by, especially for nouns!)

  • Well, there’s Clockwork Orange (and similar sci-fi books that write in fictional futuristic slang): I find it tiring, but it’s very effective and has the added benefit, from the pov of discussing dialect in an English class, of being a non-stigmatized form (and therefore maybe a useful way of getting past the “bad English” reaction). Along the same lines, the free indirect discourse in Jane Austen (which no one is going to call “bad English”) is an early way of mirroring syntax in order to portray both speech and character.

    Poetry, too, is good for talking about dialect as more than “just” imitation, but an important tool for communicating a world view.

  • J

    Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. is a good book to use not only to teach students about dialect (Selby captures a range of speech patterns and he’s more adept with sustained use of AAVE than any white American writer I’ve ever read), but also typographical experimentation. Its stylistic range demonstrates pretty clearly how works of fiction have their own internal logic, both in terms of the worlds they create and the language they use. Selby’s method is mainly phonetic, but I think there are good ways to do this.

  • Ulysses Not Yet Home

    Well written dialect “reads” effortlessly. Done well, it helps to construct the character by being a short hand for any number of aspects of the individual, that necessarily have to remain outside of the explicit narrative. Dialect that imposes a burden on the reader (and the work) simply isn’t written as well as it could be.

  • Darth Paul

    I’m no lit major/critic, but as a consumer, dialect in writing helps me in processing context and tone. It works just as well for AAVE as it does in rural Northern Bronte English.

    However, “writing how you talk” is just stupid in essays and nonfiction. Even worse are the kiddos who think text shorthand is acceptable, but that has little to nothing to do with race or class, just age and laziness.

  • bec

    I was pretty stunned by the Jamaican dialect in some of Nalo Hopkinson’s short stories, especially “Fisherman” from Skin Folk. “Fisherman” is probably too hot for a class, but she has other stories in dialect in the same book.

    • bec

      Er, I think it was a Jamaican dialect. I read it a year or so ago.

  • It was Trinidadian. Even though I was born in Jamaica, I left there as a baby the first time, and subsequently spent a few years in Trinidad as a child. Trinidadian English comes much more easily to me.

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