Dialects are unique ways that people speak within a language. They may be distinguished by special grammar, words, sentence structure, and pronunciation. Dialects may emerge in languages due to differences among regions, classes, or ethnic backgrounds. Many writers use dialects to enhance realism in their stories, especially for characters in specific locations. However, it’s easy to overuse or misuse dialects if you aren’t careful. To use them correctly, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
Know the Dialect
American and British English each have many dialects. Although dialects deviate from standard language, they do have their own rules of grammar. People grow up learning their regional or ethnic dialects as their normal speech. Writers who imitate dialects need to really know the dialects they’re using. They need to be aware of the ways in which specific dialects are different from standard speech. They should also be sensitive to these differences, and avoid making a parody of both the dialect and those who speak it.
Dialect is so important in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, that Mark Twain explains it in an introductory note: “The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.”
Although writers should have a thorough knowledge of the dialects they use, they shouldn’t attempt to render them exactly as people speak them. Precise phonetic duplications of dialects can cause confusion. Readers may give up if they find it too difficult to understand what characters are saying. Instead, it’s best to make a few key changes to standard speech to suggest a dialect. At the same time, you should maintain the narrative rhythm of your sentences.
Changes in syntax (or sentence structure) can suggest dialect. Writers can also hint at dialect with unusual variations in grammar. For instance, the first sentence in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” The unusual syntax and grammar here reflect the speech patterns of the American South. Despite the variations from standard speech, the passage is easy to read. Readers also begin to understand the character of Huckleberry Finn from his voice.
Unusual words and intentional misspellings can also bring out dialects. In the example above, Huck says that ain’t no matter instead of that isn’t important. In another part of the book, Twain writes sivilize instead of civilize. Because Twain follows standard English spelling and vocabulary rules in most of the novel, these differences grab readers’ attention.
Have Characters Speak Differently
If everyone speaking in a piece of writing uses dialect exactly the same way, the writer risks creating stereotypes or caricatures instead of real characters. Instead, characters should have unique ways of speaking that set them apart. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and his companion, Jim, are easy to distinguish. Jim says, “We’s safe, Huck! We’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels. Dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it.” Huck replies, “I’ll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn’t be, you know.” You can tell by the way they speak that they’re clearly different people.
Because dialects are very personal and special things for many people, it’s important to handle them with care. These are some best practices, and can help you to create unique and realistic characters. The rest is up to your best judgement.