Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dialect: Make it Authentic

Nothing irks me more than a non-southern writer trying to capture the 'real south' through the use of nontraditional dialect. Well, that's not fair. There are some non-southern writers who write southern dialect just fine, and plenty of southern writers who massacre it, so let me just say it's irksome to read inauthentic southern dialect regardless of who writes it. (Don't get me started on movie actors that butcher southern accents...!)

I'm easily irritated by this because I'm from the south. If the dialect isn't right, it rings untrue in my ear and it's hard to feel any connection to the story or the author. I quit caring about the character too, the story no longer matters. It's especially offensive if the character speaks like a cartoon character instead of a real person. If a writers judgements and prejudices shine through, forget it. I'm out.

According to this Literary Vocabulary website:
Dialect is the language of a particular district, class or group of persons. The term dialect encompasses the sounds, spelling, grammar and diction employed by a specific people as distinguished from other persons either geographically or socially. Dialect is a major technique of characterization that reveals the social or geographic status of character. 
Dialect is different from accent. Charles Carson, managing editor of the journal American Speech defines accent as referring to how a character pronounces their words. Whereas dialect is about what words are used, how the words are pronounced and how the sentences are constructed (emphasis is mine).

 Margaret Mitchell's use of dialect in Gone with the Wind has long been a topic of discussion. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a classic example of authentic dialect.
What are some of your favorite examples of dialect?

Sources embedded.
For more on characterization, check out this Character Chart for Fictional Characters.


  1. I can't think of any examples of dialect. I do agree about writers and actors murdering dialect. I haven't seen it in books so much, but being from the South, I know that southerners don't sound as crazy as movie actors make them sound. I just laugh when I see it on TV.:)

  2. Langley, you hit the nail on the head! Bad dialect is just ...bad. It makes me want to stop reading.
    An example of dialect I like would have to be Sookie Stackhouse in the Harris' Southern Vampire mystery series. She uses unique words, grammar, etc. Fun!

  3. Over the years, I've been in a few "discussions" about the difference between dialect and idiolect. I've had people not believe where I was from because I didn't say things the way they expected me to say them.

    There was also the belief that I should talk like the TV and movie characters who were supposed to be from my area, which, as you know, is often completely wrong.

  4. I love how Mark Twain did it in Huck Finn. He studied it extensively and altho it all looks the same, each one is distinct based on where they were from. Dialect is out of vogue now but I think it's good as long as it doesn't distract the reader and yes, it is correct!

  5. I notice it immediately when a writer writes kids' speech incorrectly. I've owned and operated a daycare for decades, so when a phrase comes out wrong, it sticks out.

  6. Not being from the south, I wouldn't notice. but I do notice bad accents. :)

  7. I agree on the Huck Finn bit – very good stuff. A bad Southern accent or dialogue can really ruin a good book/movie. Also, Cajun and Jamaican stuff is butchered a lot. My personal bother is when someone slaughters a Brooklyn/NY accent. Not real hard to do, but very obvious when done wrong. Great write-up!

  8. It's true - when the dialect - especially one that I know and love (like Southern) is butchered I actually lose all interest in reading. It shows that they didn't do their homework.

  9. i think Cormac McCarthy does a good sounthern.


  10. Excellent blog. Great explanation of the difference between dialect and accent.

  11. I enjoyed this piece immensely, Langley. Murdering dialect can definitely suck all the power out of a book or film.

    I've just finished re-reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, a jarring book in today's world with it's portrayal of blatant racism. Your post has me wondering about the authenticity of the author's attempts at dialect. I'd appreciate knowing what you think about this....


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