Dialects in dialogue

Posted by on September 04, 2012

My earlier post on irregular verbs mentioned brung and holp – forms excluded from the current standard language but that survive in local speech. Regional dialects are also a great store of unusual words, such as guddle (rummage), dimpsy (twilight), and bishybarnabee (ladybird).

Variation in language goes beyond inflection and vocabulary, of course. In everyday encounters it is most noticeable in our accents. As children we learn sounds from the people around us, typically our families, neighbours and peers, and we imbue our accent with qualities all our own. The signature sound of our voice is the result of a unique anatomy, personality, and social environment.

Centuries ago, people were more likely to spell words as they spoke them. As a result, common words often had many variant spellings: night had more than sixty spellings in the Middle Ages, including nite, nyght, nicht, and nihte. This example comes from David Crystal’s article in the Guardian about English spelling, which he calls “the story of thousands of people – some well-known, most totally unknown – who left a permanent linguistic fingerprint on our orthography.”

The silent gh in night, by the way, is a relic of the letter yogh used in Middle English for words pronounced with the soft ch of loch. Compare with modern German Nacht (night), Licht (light) and Tochter (daughter), all of which have kept the sound.

Spelling became largely standardised as Middle English developed gradually into Early Modern English. But authors continued to exploit the features of regional speech, which retained – and still retain – old grammatical and phonetic variants. Some pronunciations in Irish English that differ from standard English echo pronunciations that would have had currency in the England of Shakespeare’s time.

Charles Dickens and Mark Twain are renowned for transcribing their characters’ non-standard speech patterns, creating what are known as eye dialects. Many of today’s novelists do likewise, with some writing entire books this way; Irvine Welsh and James Kelman, for example, write phonetically in Scottish dialects. Recently I read M.R. James’s story ‘Lost Hearts’ (available online at Project Gutenberg), whose Mrs Brunch has a very distinctive way of talking:

And the pore child hadn’t no one belonging to her – she telled me so her own self – and here she lived with us a matter of three weeks it might be; and then, whether she were somethink of a gipsy in her blood or what not, but one morning she out of her bed afore any of us had opened a eye, and neither track nor yet trace of her have I set eyes on since.

In this short passage we are treated to a great range of non-standard variation: double negatives (hadn’t no one), verb omission (she out of her bed), irregular inflection (she telled), and anomalous determiners (a eye) and spelling (pore for poor, somethink for something, afore for before). In this fashion, James recreates the rhythms and departures of a minor character’s idiosyncratic speech to skilfully tell a story while bringing her entertainingly to life.

Comments (6)
  • Stan:
    Speaking from a personal point of view, I find eye-dialectical writing simply annoying. I recently picked up a copy of Huckleberry Finn and read some of Jim’s dialogue. After a moment, I closed the book and walked away. Twain was a master, and his use of dialect has historical-linguistic relevance; that said, and I’m speaking stylistically, a word or two in dialect is sufficient to set the mood and delineate that aspect of the character. Reading a massive dose of dialect is rather like reading a post in IPA. It’s informative, good practice, and very much like remembering to take your meds on time; you feel virtuous when you’re finished. At least that’s MY opinion.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 5th September, 2012
  • That’s fair enough, Marc. The practice doesn’t appeal to every reader, and sometimes a little goes a long way. But done skilfully, it can enhance the narrator’s voice in one’s head, I find. It may take a moment’s deciphering here and there, and slow the reading experience, but these aren’t necessarily demerits. A book such as Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban is as memorable for its unique dialect as for its story; the two aspects of the book may even be inseparable.

    Posted by Stan on 5th September, 2012
  • [...] pudding. Stan Carey clarified why people misspell just deserts. At Macmillan Dictionary blog, he dialogued on dialects, and Orin Hargraves was reminded of past participles and irregular verbs. At Lingua Franca, Ben [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Lying, Eastwooding, YOLO | Wordnik on 7th September, 2012
  • For me, eye dialect depends a great deal on what I think the author’s purpose is. For instance, quoting someone as saying “I wuz down” is annoying because the author seems to be deliberately stressing the substandard elements – and really, how does “I was down” SOUND any different?

    Posted by The Ridger on 24th September, 2012
  • Karen: I’m the same. “I wuz/woz down” seems to add little or nothing to how a character’s dialect is transcribed, and may instead indicate laziness or a failure to think things through. Maybe I’ve been lucky in my reading choices, but the eye dialects I encounter tend to be effective and faithful.

    Posted by Stan on 25th September, 2012
  • [...] Dialects in dialogue continues the theme, briefly discussing regional variation, how conformity squeezed it out of the emerging standard variety of English, and how authors continued to convey it through the technique of ‘eye dialect’: Variation in language goes beyond inflection and vocabulary, of course. In everyday encounters it is most noticeable in our accents. As children we learn sounds from the people around us, typically our families, neighbours and peers, and we imbue our accent with qualities all our own. The signature sound of our voice is the result of a unique anatomy, personality, and social environment. . . . [...]

    Posted by Irregular verbs, dialects, and sockpuppets « Sentence first on 12th November, 2012
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