Poaste number ten! Wow, that went quickly. When I started this blog, I worried that I would have nothing to say. Of course, anyone who knows me knows that’s not entirely true!
At a loose end, I was paging through some old school papers and found a hilarious English assignment that apparently was about colloquialisms, the countrified version in particular, although I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what the assignment was. About ten years ago (boy, time flies), I dated Farm Boy, who lived in a rather rural area round these parts. Their family was close-knit, practical, loyal and hilarious. I learned a lot of new words from them.
There was you’uns, as in “You’uns come over here for Christmas.” I had NEVER heard that before I met Farm Boy. I reckon is another one, but I hear that from my dad, who hails from Texas and says rinch for rinse and warsh for wash, as well as light bub for light bulb. Most of these seem to be a matter of pronunciation and not words in themselves, as do others like cain’t, aigs (eggs), and idear (idea).
Holler is another one, as in “You’uns go down in that holler and get a deer.” Crick is a good one, as in “Get them cows across the crick.” That’s another one my dad says. Other assorted phrases include “Git’er done,” “Rode hard ‘n put up wet,” “I gotta pee like a rushin’ race horse,” “I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age!” and, said in response to someone’s glee that the speaker didn’t share, “If I had a feather up my ass, we’d both be tickled.”
Entertaining, no? A bit much for fiction, however. I’ll explain why.
The use of colloquialism and dialect in writing adds color and character to dialogue, but a writer must be careful not to go too far. Probably the most famous (and the most parodied) is the slave dialect in Gone with the Wind. Mitchell’s dialogue may or may not be authentic, but it’s certainly hard to read. Critics have said that her portrayal of slaves is racist. All I know is reading all those gwines and Ahs drove me bats the first time.
Pages of phonetically-spelled dialogue require the reader to concentrate and can thrust him/her out of the story. Dialect should never be obvious; when you’re striving to capture a character’s voice, it needs to reflect that character, not exaggerate or parody him, unless you’re trying to poke fun. Exaggeration is irritating, stereotypical and even insulting.
Mark Twain was well known for using dialect; he could be heavy-handed with it at times. For example, in Chapter 14 of Huck Finn, Huck is educating Jim:
I read considerable to Jim about kings and dukes and earls and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister; and Jim’s eyes bugged out, and he was interested. He says:
“I didn’ know dey was so many un um. I hain’t hearn ’bout none un um, skasely, but ole King Soller-mun, onless you counts dem kings dat’s in a pack er k’yards. How much do a king git?”
The first paragraph, Huck’s first person narrative, is relatively free of hyperbole, but in the style of the day (and still perhaps in Margaret Mitchell’s time), the slave dialogue is rendered in such a way as to emphasize the difference between the two. It’s too much and has also been vilified as racist. But dialogue aside, Huck Finn was a landmark work in that it portrayed the black character, Jim, as a real person and not a caricature, albeit seen through Huck’s (a young white boy) innocent eyes.
Twain did not use a great deal of dialect in his book Roughing It, but the language is colorful. He wrote character-revealing dialogue which was almost as good as a tape recorder. Take an exchange with the ruffian Arkansas in the protagonists’ mining company:
“Mr. Arkansas, if you’d only let me –“
“Who’s a-henderin’ you? Don’t you insinuate nothin’ agin me! – don’t you do it. Don’t you come in here bullyin’ around, and cussin’ and goin’ on like a lunatic – don’t you do it. ‘Coz I won’t stand it. If fight’s what you want, out with it! I’m your man! Out with it!”
It walks the line, but Arkansas is still perfectly understandable and his voice is clear in the reader’s head.
When writing dialogue using colloquialisms or dialect, you still need to follow the rules. What many writers don’t realize is that it needn’t be written the way people actually talk. This is never truer than for dialect; the idea is to suggest a regional or cultural flavor in speech. If your character has a Southern accent, for example, you don’t have to write this:
“Well hay-ell, Honey, you-awl don’ need ta put yaselves ahwt on mah account.”
when this will do:
“Well hell Honey, y’all don’t need to put yourselves out on my account.”
Y’all is familiar Southern speak. It lets us know a bit about the speaker’s regional origins. He could be from Georgia or Texas or somewhere else below the Mason-Dixon Line, but we know it as soon as he opens his mouth. Or if you’re writing a mystery, his right-on-the-money phony accent completes his disguise and conceals his sinister intent. If you combine the cultural elements with other traits consistent with the character’s personality and upbringing, you can achieve your local color without straining your readers’ eyes.
Stay away from stereotypes. Not all Southerners are polite and not all New Yorkers talk fast or broaden their A’s. Stereotypes cheapen your characters; they should have traits that are uniquely theirs, including their speech. In Stephen King’s latest novel Under the Dome, the power-mad second councilman refers to people he doesn’t like or respect as “cottonpickers.” It’s a tag that is peculiar to him and tells a lot about his personality. (By the way, read that book. SK is in fine form and I couldn’t put it down. I hope I learn how to build tension that well someday.)
Read as much as you can. Pay attention to other writers’ dialogue. See what works for you and what doesn’t. If you’ve noticed a stellar example of dialect and colloquialism in fiction, or a terrible one, tell us about it in the comments.