Thursday, July 24, 2008

Do you want to take on dialects?

I was thinking about writing a little on dialects, and then lo and behold, Bill Moonroe over at Asimov's board asked me to write about it! So that was perfect timing.

Dialects can be really fun to work with, and they can also be very challenging to work with, depending on how they're approached (especially the real-world ones). It's awesome to find a story where dialect is done really well - gives the whole thing a lot of flavor. But if it's done badly it can be insulting, as I'm sure many of you know.

Here is one useful principle of dialects: since language is constantly changing as it's being used, the longer a population has lived in a given area, the more that pockets of language use in the area will diverge. Some real life populations that come to mind are China, where the dialects are very often mutually unintelligible, Japan, which has a vast variety of dialects, and England. All of these are populations that have been in place for a very long time. In the US we have many dialects that originate from other parts of the world, but it's interesting to observe how many fewer accents there are on the more recently populated West Coast than in the East.

Intercommunication will not eradicate dialects, but it can slow their divergence. This is a useful thing to keep in mind if you're designing a fantasy world, or a SF planet, where the population has been around for a long time.

Dialects also reflect social status. (Don't get me started on social status! Today I have to stick with dialects...) There once was a study done in New York by Labov (earlier I said England, but my visitor Byron kindly reminded me of the real source) where different department stores had slightly different English usage (in pronunciation of "r"), and this was seen as an indicator of status (how classy the store was). So in your world/universe a particular profession, say, mariners or spacefarers, could easily develop their own dialect because they're relatively tight-knit, often isolated, and have a lot of pride in their own community. These regional dialects can simultaneously conflict, and coexist, with "standard" dialect (i.e. without disappearing), because social value is placed on being able to speak to the public, as it were, but a different kind of social value is placed on being able to mark yourself as one of the insiders for any particular language group.

If you want to work with a real-world dialect, there are different ways to approach it. Using alternative spellings of English can be clunky, both to write and to read, if it's not done just right (and for me, sometimes even if it is done right). Fortunately there's a lot more to dialect than just accent (phonetics and phonology, for the linguistics buffs). You can also work with vocabulary, or usages of words that are particular to the dialect. And you can also work with sentence structure, or with rhythm (prosody). Sometimes the easiest approach is to develop a feel for word-flow with a dialect speaker, and then use the surrounding text to imply the accent rather than trying to render it in spelling. In any case, for using real-world dialects the best bet is not to make any guesses. Find yourself a "native speaker" of the dialect and use them to help you grasp its patterns, and if you can, get them to proofread at the end. This is the best kind of insurance against inadvertently making an error that seems to belittle the dialect.

If you're not working with a real-world dialect, you can have a lot more free fun - though I will note that if the dialect appears to resemble a real-world dialect, or has "developed in the future" from one, then you might want to "hang a light on it," or bring attention to the fact that this is a dialect that has progressed on one hundred years since the cockney dialect, etc. so that people won't make wrong guesses.

My last thought would be that it's important to consider the ease with which the reader can grasp the dialect in question. My critique friends will laugh at me for saying this, after all the odd things I've asked them to try to read, but it's true. I just recently designed a language for a short story, but my main concern was less what the language itself sounded like, and more how that language could be rendered comprehensibly in English while still retaining the feel of an alien language. I think my friends would kill me if I actually ever tried to alter spellings, so I always try to go for using sentence structure and rhythmic patterns to indicate the difference. This is because I'm asking them for a real commitment, i.e. to read a whole story in this style. In "Let the Word Take Me" I did a similar thing with the gecko-girl Allayo, which is to say didn't worry much about what her language sounded like, but gave her a different rhythm of speech to contrast with the voice of David Linden.

If you've got one guy who talks funny, that's one thing, but the more extensive the use of dialect is, then the more reader effort it requires. It's worth putting in some effort as a writer to make sure the audience's comfort is being considered.

Because believe me, I don't want to make anyone suffer.


  1. Dialect can be some of the most painful things to read sometimes, even if the author put a lot of work into it. I like your recommended approach--it is nice to think of the comfort of the reader!

  2. Thanks for coming, Elizabeth. I appreciate the comment.

  3. I'm not a big fan of dialects, either. Even when done well, I feel that I end up spending too much time reading them.
    Rhythm and word choice is a very good way to get them across (must learn, must learn :) )

  4. "Dialects also reflect social status. (Don't get me started on social status! Today I have to stick with dialects...) There once was a study done in England (I wish I could remember the names) where different floors of a department store had slightly different English usage, and this was seen as an indicator of status."

    It sounds vaguely familiar to me, but I think I may be confusing it with Labov's (1972) study of postvocalic /r/ at Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's, and S. Klein in New York City.

  5. Byron,
    Thank you so much! I think that was the one, but it was in one of my early linguistics classes and I couldn't bring up Labov's name. I'll change my note to reflect the proper location in New York.

  6. Actually, I'm still not sure it's the same study. The way you describe it sounds different. In the Labov study, it wasn't different speakers on different floors. In the study I cited, Labov went to three different department stores, some considered "classier" than others. He then got the employers there to say "fourth floor" by asking where X can be found where X is something he knew could be found on the fourth floor. He then found that employees at the "classier" estalishments pronounced /r/ more than the employees at the "lower" class department stores in New York City.

    Like I said, I have a vague recollection of another study involving department stores, but I can't remember it. Still, that would be an interesting kind of study the way you describe it, to go to the same department store and look into language variation among those working in different sections like gardening, sporting goods, clothing, etc. Repeat the study on different stores.

  7. Byron, I went and looked up the study, and it was indeed individual stores. Though I agree it would be interesting to see if different departments spoke differently. I bet they do - or at least, they speak differently depending on their clientele.

  8. If it's true that "a language is a dialect with an army", what does that make creole languages?

    My current interest is with Hawaiian pidgin. It's made the leap to the web via places like, and is pretty infectious. As I recall, it's got a Hawaiian structure with vocabulary from Japan, Korea, the Phillipines and the US. It's a short leap to me to add bits of Maori and even some Aussie slang. The trick is to know at what point it's being put on a little thick--it seems to me that with star names, for example, some would have their Western designations, while others would be referred to by their panpacific names.

    There's a ton of great baby name sites out there that can help with picking appropriate character names.

  9. Good to see you again, Mr. Moonroe. The place I remember seeing Hawaiian pidgin was in Lilo and Stitch. I've been to Hawaii, but have not heard it spoken in person. It sounds from your comment like you're trying to extrapolate it into an SF setting? Hard to say when one has gone too far, but a good thing to do would be to find a reader unfamiliar with the dialect and test out what you've got. They'll be able to tell you if it's hard to read!

  10. In that case, Juliette, no problem. ;-)

    And Bill, it's been ages ago, but I found Hawaian pidgin fascinating enough myself to write a brief paper for my graduate sociolinguistics class on it. Don't remember a whole lot about it other than what you said, though.

    I have plans to mention about the sad fate of perhaps my favorite author Avram Davidson of whom Ursula K. Le Guin said, "Avram's ear for weird ways of talking was wonderful" and how it may relate to this topic, but I'm short on time.

    However, speaking of creoles like Hawaiann Pidgin, here's a Davidson tidbit to ponder, perhaps feel horror from, annoyance, or maybe wonder:

    "'Een de w'ol' days,' the voice from the back said, 'every good 'oman, she di know which bush yerb good fah wyes, fah kid-ney, which bush yerb good fah heart, which bush yerb good fah fever. But ahl of dem good w'ol' 'oman, new, dey dead, you see. Yes mon. Ahl poss away. No-body know bush medicine nowadays. Only _bush-doc-tor_. And dey very few, sah, very few.'"

    --From "Manatee Gal Won't You Come Out Tonight?"

  11. Wow, Byron! Out of context I find that a bit tricky to process, but it sure has flavor!