Using Dialect and Vernacular
Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, and the new year is off to a good start.
Regional dialect and vernacular are commonplace. Here in the United States alone, we have Appalachia, the deep south, Texas, the Midwest, and the northeast just to name a few. We speak English, but many of our sayings differ.
For instance, in Texas and many parts of the south we use the word “y’all” when referring to a group of people. People on the west coast might use the term “you guys,” and those other parts of the country are known to say “youin’s.” I’ve even heard the term “yous guys.”
Regional dialect and vernacular are what make each area unique, much like accents. I’ve found folks from New Jersey have slightly different accents than those living in the neighboring state of New York. A southern drawl is different than a Texas twang.
Texans often say, “I’m fixing to…” when they mean, I’m about to…” or “I’m going to fix dinner” instead of “I’m going to prepare dinner.” We know what we mean, but other people might not understand.
This brings me to today’s topic. Using dialect and vernacular in writing.
We all want to be true to our story’s setting, and often will insert regional dialects or sayings into our books. In my opinion, Mark Twain was a master at it. Consider these quotes from Huckleberry Finn.
“Doan’ hurt me—don’t! I hain’t ever done no harm to a ghos’. I alwuz liked dead people, en done all I could for ’em. You go en git in de river agin, whah you b’longs…”
“Well, I warn’t long making him understand I warn’t dead. I was ever so glad to see Jim.”
Two different characters, two different voices. The author was true to each. However, some people might find these words hard to understand, particularly the first quote.
Jan Karon, author of the popular Mitford series set in the mountains of North Carolina used dialect for some of her characters.
“You ought to lay hold of ‘im sometime when he’s chasin’ you, and call th’ animal shelter,” suggested Velma.
This wasn’t hard to understand, but I had difficulty with some of her character’s verbiage.
Last year, I attempted to read a book that was set in another English-speaking country. I’ve read tons of books written in British English and I understand the difference between that and United States English. The author frequently used her country’s dialect, some of which I was able to interpret, but most of the time, I didn’t have a clue what the characters were saying. When I asked someone who lives in a neighboring country about a particular passage, she couldn’t help.
I finally gave up and the book went into the did not finish pile. A shame because otherwise, it was a good story.
Another novel I read had a character from Texas. The author frequently used the term “y’all,” a term familiar to me. However, the character often said, “y’all” when referring to a single person. This was confusing. I grew up in Texas and have never heard anyone say that word when referring to one person. I kept going back to the first of the scene thinking I’d missed other characters being in the same room.
Dialect can be a powerful tool in distinguishing characters. However, it can be overdone to the extent you lose the reader. That’s not something any author wants to do.
From the standpoint of a reader, I’d like to offer a few tips about using dialect:
- Use it sparingly and only when necessary to distinguish certain characters.
- Make sure you stay true to regional terminology and use it correctly. If you aren’t from that area, ask someone who knows.
- Consider your audience. Is your readership limited to the country where your story is set, or do you have a national or international following? If the latter, readers may not understand what you’re saying.
As a writer, do you use regional dialect? As a reader, how do you feel about it? Have you ever stopped reading a book because it was too difficult to understand? Please share in the comments.