A Few Thoughts On Dialect

The subject of the use of dialect in fiction has been getting a fair amount of airing around the blogosphere of late. I’m very happy with it, as you might guess from my support for Nalo Hopkinson. I also note that one of my favorite SF novels is Iain Banks’ Feersum Endjinn (which is apparently just phonetic spelling, not dialect). Other people, however, seem less happy.

It is worth noting here that in British fiction dialect has often been used to denote class, and as a shorthand for regional stereotypes. If you encounter someone in British fiction who speaks in dialect that’s a good indicator that the character is intended to be seen as working class. The precise dialect used may also indicate aspects of character. Most notoriously there is Mummerset, the faux West Country accent used to indicate an ignorant bumpkin.

In such cases the actual dialect is rarely rendered authentically. Instead the author will slip in the occasional “eee by gum” or “them thar hills” as an indicator of the sort of person we have encountered. To write in full and authentic dialect would suggest that the author had actually spent time with working class people doing the research. Worse still, it would suggest that the reader could understand the dialect, which would be tantamount to accusing the reader of being working class. This would not do.

Thankfully people are far less stuffy these days, especially since the BBC has taken to valuing regional accents when it comes to picking newsreaders. However, British writers do still have trouble. At the Murder Most Magical event on Friday night both Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell (whose books are set in multi-ethnic communities in London) both complained that their editors kept “correcting” dialect in their books, thereby making the characters all sound dreadfully middle class, old chap.

It is a long battle, but I think it is one we are going to win.

3 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts On Dialect

  1. I love dialects and other linguistic quirks! I haven’t been following the discussion (apologies if I’m repeating the obvious), but I have been thinking about dialects in fiction for a while, especially two aspects:

    1) How much do I miss, when I don’t recognise the dialects. Usually when I’m reading in English I’m not so sure if an expression or an unusual word or spelling is a dialect or slang that I’m supposed to associate with some particular region or culture. It’s just a kind of detail that I think I often just don’t notice, or understand. I still think it’s a good thing to have variations in the kinds of language used in literature, but some of it unfortunately will be lost on this reader.

    2) How much is lost in translation? When fiction is translated into Swedish, the dialect elements are often just removed, so the only way I know that someone is supposed to speak in dialect is when it is explicitly mentioned in the text. I guess this is because it’s difficult to translate a dialect into some corresponding other dialect. I’m not even sure what that would mean, since every dialect comes with it’s own context, and translating for example a dialect from northern England into a dialec from northern Sweden would just be weird.

    1. 1) holds true even for other English speakers sometimes. I, being an American, certainly don’t pick up the full cultural meaning of specific British dialects, and if I’ve ever encountered writing that made use of regional Australian or New Zealander ones, I probably didn’t even notice. I expect the same is true for English speakers from outside North America reading American shorthand for our regional dialects.

    2. Translation is not always necessary. If only a few of the characters in the story speak in dialect then the translation needs to find some means of distinguishing them. However, if the story is written entirely in dialect (as is the case with Midnight Robber), there is no need to provide a dialect in the local language, you are just translating from a different version of English.

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