“W’en old man Rabbit say ‘scoot,’ dey scooted, en w’en ole Miss Rabbit say ‘scat,’ dey scatted. Dey did dat. En dey kep’ der cloze clean, and day ain’t had no smut on der nose nudder.” Uncle Remus – A Story About Little Rabbits, Joel Chandler Harris.
We have a long literary tradition of writing dialogue in accents and
dialect. Mark Twain comes to mind, as a master of the written idiom.
Dialect instantly gives characters authenticity and offers insight into
their attitudes, background, and education. An accent allows the reader
to use their sense of hearing and gives text depth and flavor.
On the other hand, using dialects and accents is often a distraction.
When accented words are spelled phonetically, they can frustrate and
slow the reader down. If accents are inaccurate or inauthentic, they
can stereotype or even insult. With all of these risks, writing dialects
has largely gone out of fashion. So what is a writer to do instead?
The first step would be to describe patterns of speech in prose. For
example, “her honeyed accent melted off of her tongue, slowly, sweetly,
and with the same elongated syllables that her mama used.” Already,
the character has an established geographical place and a hint of her
history. From then on, the reader can hear and even visualize the
Another tactic is to reflect dialect with commonly spoken words in
commonly spelled ways. A writer could insert “gonna” for “going to.”
The reader registers these words easily but the speech pattern can also
convey information about the characters.
Finally, a writer can pay close attention to phrases and idioms that
pertain to a character’s geographic location or time in history.
Phrases, such as “she’s dumber than a bucket of hair, bless her heart,”
places someone in the American South. “The craic is mighty,” puts
someone in modern day Ireland. When carefully researched and used
advantageously, simple colloquial phrases can carry as much weight as
paragraphs of complicated written dialect.
While we don’t want to lose the art of conveying speech patterns
through the written word, in today’s world, there are more subtle ways
to illustrate character traits.