American Dialects Stew

Writers know how a character speaks lays open her educational and socioeconomic level, region or country of origin, ethnic identity, attitude, status and roots. Much of that information is revealed when the character speaks a dialect that deviates from common vocabulary and grammar. It’s a challenge for the writer to add this dimension to dialogue, so let’s look at how Americans speak and write in dialects.

Recognized American Dialects

Quite a few dialects are spoken in America, and a growing portion of them end up on the written page. A dialect is some variation of Standard American English used by people of a particular region, social or ethnic/cultural group. Since some dialects will be unfamiliar or odd to certain readers (mostly because they differ from the reader's speech pattern), the writer has to choose whether to use dialects. There are a group of readily recognized regional American dialects like Southern American English, “Y’all go over yonder”, Northern Minnesota English, “Yah, ya betcha, oh yah, yup", or pop culture slang, as in California’s "like, totally sound like a valley girl", or black urban speak, “Let’s roll in my new ride, homey. Done spent a buncha benjamins on it.” These dialects are understood by most because they have been widely heard across America over a significant period of time and because the reader understands the essence of what is meant.

For ethnic characters with dialects that have not made such progress into the national consciousness, the writer has to decide how to portray the character’s speech. Here, we’re not talking about accent, which is the specific pronunciation of Standard English, as Bostonians say “Pock the cah” for ‘park the car, dropping the r.  Rather, dialect deals with non-standard vocabulary, expressions and grammar.

 At issue is the authenticity of how the character is drawn versus the ability of the reader to understand what is said if the speech is unfamiliar. There seem to be as many approaches to the treatment as there are ethnic stories being written.

Some feel that heavy use of ethnic dialects can be a drawback for at least two reasons. As an author, you will need to decide where to set that bar for your own stories.

  • The first drawback can be reinforcement of negative stereotypes that are demeaning to that ethnic group. Certainly, not every black person speaks in des and dos, nor do all Chinese-Americans use non-standard sentence structures.
  • The second reason not to use dialects heavily is that the unfamiliar reader may not be able to follow and become distracted from the story itself. Consider Huckleberry Finn, where the slave Jim says, “…I uz right down sho’ you’s dead agin. Jack’s been heah, he say he reck’n you’s ben shot, kase you didn’t come home no mo’…”

America has the somewhat familiar language stews of Spanglish (Spanish/English), Chinglish (Chinese/English), and Ebonics (Black English Vernacular). We’ve all heard these blends when bilingual and multi-cultural individuals speak, moving back and forth between languages. Now, newer immigrant groups including Haitians, Africans and Latin Americans’ dialects, patois and slang are getting in print more often as well.

 Some of those immigrant stories have won major awards, with newer dialects and stews used in varying degrees. A Pulitzer went to Junot Diaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where sentences appear in untranslated Dominican Spanish, (“Mama, me matron a me hijo. Estoy sola, estoy sola") along with a healthy portion of nadas and fuku curses in Spanglish.  He also sometimes writes the same sentence in English followed by Spanish, as in …"a man of considerable standing. Un hombre muy serio, muy educaso y muy bien plantado."

Edwidge Danticat, who won an American Book Award, uses Haitian Kreole liberally in Breath, Eyes, Memory (“Krick?” called my Grandmother. “Krack!” answered the boys. “Tim, tim,” she called. “Bwa chech,” they answered). Both Diaz and Danticat say the reader can follow the general meaning without explanation. Both have reported battling publishers because they do not want to write their native words and dialects in italics.

Here are several ways of handling dialect you will find in the writing of ethnic and immigrant writers. Many write the story in Standard English, and temper it with a few chosen words, or dialects to represent their roots. Here are three different approaches to using foreign words or dialects:

  • Walter Mosley in The Gift of Fire.  His method is to write the ebonics dialect phonetically in full sentences he expects the reader can make out. (You cain’t he’p CC…His body cain’t move.)
  •  Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club actually translates each sparing Chinese word right where it appears in the story. Some translations are single words and some are sentence long cultural context as well (suanle - “forget this, or tang jie - “sugar sister”, the friendly way to refer to a girl cousin)
  • Esmerelda Santiago has just a spattering of untranslated Spanish words in Conquistadora, offered perhaps so the reader can get a feel for the meaning (jodienda, querida, Cobarde!)

My guess is that readers can expect to see more of our American dialects and English mash-ups in the future, just as pop culture transplants new phrases into our everyday language. We’ve learned bodega and burrito (Spanish) and Yo! Whatzz up? (from the ever evolving Ebonics), just the way Americans adopted Mazel Tov (Yiddish), Delicatessen (German), and fiasco (Italian) in generations past.

 It seems our evolving American language mélange (French) is just beginning to blend.

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About the Author

E. Dolores Johnson is working on her first book, a memoir about inter-racialism. After extensive research including personal interviews and pre-internet document searches, a journey to find her secret family, and a review of anti-miscegenation history and law in the 1900s, she changed her manuscript from fiction to nonfiction. She has taken writing classes at GrubStreet and at Harvard with Neiman Fellows. A former high tech executive, Dolores lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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