D is for Dialect

How many times have you seen a film in which a character reveals his origins the second he opens his mouth?  Some areas have their own language or a version of the common language.  We can also recognize the origins of many English speakers by their accents.  However, dialect is more than just accents; it also encompasses things like phrasing, vernacular, and slang.

“WHOOOOOOOOOO!” -- international slang for “Our festivities are fast approaching the extremity of fun; let us now indulge in a bit of exuberant expression.”   

“WHOOOOOOOOOO!” — international slang for “Our festivities are fast approaching the extremity of fun; let us now indulge in a bit of exuberant expression.”

Image:  photostock / freedigitalphotos.net

In some cases, the differences are simply regional variations, such as calling soda pop or using idiomatic expressions that may puzzle your character at first.  In others, whole other languages may dominate.  In the United States, many cities and towns have immigrant areas where almost no one speaks English.  This presents not only a challenge to anyone who lives and works near or in the area, but to the residents themselves, in terms of obtaining housing, employment, and social services.

The variation of language enriches your story.  It adds color.  I’m not saying you have to become a linguistics expert to write a good story; it’s just something you should be aware of.  Whatever you choose, it should be appropriate for your setting, its period, and your characters.  You can use existing language, or if you’re writing a fantasy, make one up.

This guy did both.  #goals

This guy did both.  #goals

Image:  medievalists.net  

I’ll give you a sample of the latter.  In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, (yes, I’m re-reading and I’m obsessed!) he gives the inhabitants of Mid-World a variance of speech, Low and High.  The Low speech is the everyday language, with regional differences like the Quaker-ish thee and thou Roland (the gunslinger) encounters in the barony (region) of Mejis in Wizard and Glass.  The High Speech is more formal and denotes something like gentry, as in Gilead, where Roland is from.

Though Mid-World folk use some words across the board, there are differences, and different words carry more importance.

Low Speech

  •  Cully – a jerky young guy, or mayhap just an inexperienced youngster
  • Bumbler (High Speech: throcken) – a small animal like a cross between a dog, a raccoon, and a groundhog. It is capable of imitative speech and though bumblers used to live with humans, by the time the book happens, they’ve mostly gone feral.  The character Oy is a bumbler.

I love this representation. It’s almost exactly as I pictured Oy. :)

Image:  SlateGrey / deviantart.com

They had better not leave out Oy in the films, and he had better be right!

  • Stuffy guy – A human effigy burned on a bonfire at the Reap (harvest) festivals. In days of yore, long before Roland’s time, they burned actual people.
  • Graf –beer made from apples; as ubiquitous as ale in The Lord of the Rings.
  • Cry off – cut it out, stop.
  • Sai (like sigh) – a polite term of respect, something like sir or ma’am. If you want to express gratitude to someone in Mid-World, you would say Thankee-sai.  A crossover used in both Low and High Speech.
  • Threaded – in the ancient history of Mid-World, radiation (nukes?) from the violent conflicts of the technologically advanced Great Old Ones left genetic damage among the living beings, resulting in things like cats with extra legs and fantastical mutant creatures in the Wastelands, for example. Threaded stock is unaffected by these mutations and thus more valuable. You’d hear this among livestock drovers, breeders, and anyone with a vested interest in such things.

High Speech

  • Ka-tet – one from many; refers to a group (tet) coming together with one goal, fate, or destiny (ka), good or bad. The little band of people (and one bumbler!) Roland collects on his way to the Tower is a ka-tet.
  • Glammer – a Low Speech crossover, it means magic, or something that isn’t necessarily real but that dazzles and enchants.
  • Dinh – a leader. A dash-dinh is more like clergy.
  • Gilly – a mistress. The virginal Susan Delgado is tapped as Mayor Thorin’s gilly in Wizard and Glass, but she and Roland fall in love before this comes to pass.

(WARNING:  Do not read this book when you are heartbroken because it will kill you!)

  • I cry your pardon – another crossover; it means, “I’m sorry; please forgive me.”
  • I (you) have forgotten the face of my (your) father – I am ashamed; I have brought dishonour on myself but also on my father and all my ancestors. (Or you did.)
  • Char – death.
    • Chary man – one who deals in death.
    • Charyou tree – the bonfire at Reap.
  • Sigul – sign or symbol. The Crimson King’s sigul is a red eye, similar to the evil eye found in ancient art.
Gee I wonder who else used an eye to represent the evil dude. *KOFFTOLKIENKOFF* And incidentally, Barad-dur means “dark tower” in Sindarin.

Gee I wonder who else used an eye to represent the evil dude. *KOFFTOLKIENKOFF* And incidentally, Barad-dur means “dark tower” in Sindarin.

Image:  lotr.wikia.com


  • Fist to forehead – Using the right hand; a bow, a gesture of respect.  For extra humility, do it on bended knee.
  • Tapping the throat – a respectful gesture of greeting /acknowledgement. Three taps on the throat with the right hand is the proper address to women; on the breastbone with the left hand is to men.

You can find many of these at this Dark Tower glossary.

Heh, so I got a little carried away there, but you see what I mean.  The words and gestures King used reflect a broad variety of influences in his grand fantasy, which incorporates elements of classic Westerns, the modern world, and fantasy and science fiction (the Tower as an anchor for space-time, the Beams, robot Guardians, etc.).  They also give the setting a unique feel.  Every place you go, you’ll find a variant of thank you, but nowhere except Mid-World will you say thankee-sai. 

You probably won’t have to get this elaborate for a story set in modern times.  But language, verbal or non, is important—we cannot communicate without it, and neither can the inhabitants of your settings.  Misunderstandings between your characters and those who surround them are a fun source of conflict, and they can have catastrophic consequences in your little world.

Do ye kennit?

Image:  Michael Whelan / Wikipedia.com

Further reading:


6 thoughts on “D is for Dialect

    • Give it a go anyway, Ellen! :) There are tons of resources online–you can listen and transcribe. It shouldn’t be too literal anyway–dialogue isn’t written the way people actually talk. If it were, readers would get bored with all the *ums* and* likes* and digressions. :)

      I think I posted about that a couple of A-Zs ago. Dialect works best when you just suggest it–no need to reproduce it phonetically. Listen for speech patterns and recurring words, and go from there. If it doesn’t work, you can always cut it. :)

      On Tue, Apr 5, 2016 at 7:13 AM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:


  1. In my 1940s teen novels I went to old copies of Seventeen magazine and pulled slang from the letters to the editor. The novel I’m working on now is set in the late 1800s and from my research I’ve noticed there isn’t as much slang, but the sophistication of language seems much higher than today. I’ve been reading the writings of the mill girls from Lowell and am surprised at their vocabulary.

    • Ooh, what a great idea for source material. I’m working on a book set partially in Britain between 1950 and 1970 and boy, is it hard to find slang I can identify as specific to that period (or that isn’t too early or too late). The obvious ones, sure, but they tend to be rather trite. I did spend several days in the British Library reading old newspapers, but journalistic writing is of course different. I wish I could get back there before my reader pass expires this month. :(

      We used to have some very old textbooks from the nineteenth century when I was a kid, and I have some etiquette and cookbooks from the period too. There really is a distinct difference in the way people expressed themselves then, in writing especially. It’s fun to read them. :)

      On Tue, Apr 5, 2016 at 12:08 PM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:


    • I did too, when I moved to California where everyone called it soda. Then I started calling it soda and never went back. :)

      It can be hard, but it’s fun. Especially if you do something like Stephen King did. I had fun just writing that illustrative list. I got a little carried away, LOL.

      On Tue, Apr 5, 2016 at 5:51 PM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:


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