I'm sure most of you have read books where the author changed the spelling of words in order to express the pronunciation of a particular dialect. It used to be done all the time (Huckleberry Finn, A Little Princess etc.). Even now it can be done well, and even brilliantly (I think immediately of the dialects invented by Mike Flynn for The January Dancer and Up Jim River). However, if it isn't done right, it can be embarrassing, inconsistent or even incomprehensible.
is why I don't do it. I still do dialects, though, so this article is
about how to make dialects sound different without actually changing
spelling to reflect pronunciation.
Fortunately, there is a lot
more to dialect variation than pronunciation alone. There are also
variations in pronoun usage, variations in syntax, variations in prosody
(intonation and meter), variations in the use of the verb "be," and
variations in vocabulary. Because I'm talking about writing in English,
I'm going to stick to these - but it's good to be aware that in other
languages, you can also have variation in other parameters (in Japanese,
verb endings also vary by dialect!).
So let's do these one at a
time, with some concrete examples. Pronouns (I/you/he/she/they/etc.) are
a wonderful tool. Any change you make in the way you use them will be
highly visible, because they resist change rather wonderfully (it's
extremely difficult to get a reader's mind to accept a new made-up
pronoun unless it resembles an existing pronoun very closely).
great science fictional example of pronoun change comes from the work of
Aliette de Bodard, who works with the Xuya Empire, a wonderful
far-future version of the Chinese empire. In this universe, the Emperor
is always referred to as "The Emperor ytself." I'm not sure about you,
but the moment I see this I know that I'm looking at a genderless
pronoun. There are two things working for me when I interpret this. One
is that the pronoun would be pronounced just like the pronoun "itself."
The second is that it has a very simple spelling change that tells my
brain "look out!" This spelling change also leads me not to expect the
default interpretation of "itself," i.e. that there is some kind of
genderless object running the empire. There's a lot of mystery
surrounding the person of the emperor here, but I don't immediately
guess that the place is being run by some sort of machine.
decided to change pronouns when I was designing the undercaste dialect
of Varin, but in a more extensive way. These people start using plural
pronouns for each other as soon as they reach adulthood. Now, surely
most of you are familiar with the pronoun "y'all" from the American
south. When I first learned it I thought it was used as a plural form
of "you." Interestingly, though, at least in some regions it is a
y'all = you (singular)
all y'all = all of you (plural)
was a good thing, because I knew that the idea of pluralizing a pronoun
wouldn't push people too far outside their comfort zones. However, I
pluralized more than just the second person.
I => we
we => all-we
you => ye
you => all-ye
he/she => they
they => all-they
result is extreme, but comprehensible once you get the hang of it. I
was trying to make sure I introduced it in a very comprehensible
context, so the first line that contains one of these pronouns is this:
"Give it to us, then."
you notice the similarity to existing English dialects from the UK?
This was fortuitous, but I'm ready to use it to the hilt, and you should
be too, so remember this: the dialect you create may well evoke
existing Earth dialects, and if it resembles one that bears some social
similarities (casualness, lower-class) to the group you are working with
in your world, this will really help your readers to get the picture.
in syntax are cases when you change the order of words. For most of
you, I'm guessing Yoda will leap to mind. He's weird (and possibly
annoying) but he is comprehensible. One of his main strategies is to
take the object of the sentence and promote it up to the front of the
sentence, so that instead of Subject-verb-object, you get
Your father he is.
Now, if you go in
and start doing an analysis of everything Yoda says, you'll find he's
not particularly systematic. However, when you're altering syntax for
your dialect, I encourage you to be so. If you can stick to a particular
pattern, then the learning and comprehension burden is reduced for your
I did my own syntactic alterations when I was designing
the alien voice for "Cold Words" (Analog, Oct. 2009), and I've analyzed
it here on the blog, so I'll direct you to that article if you want
lots of details about how it was done. That was a case of rendering an
alien language in English, so it had a lot of different feature changes!
[An Introduction to Aurrel]
in prosody can be huge. This is intonation and stress, and all you have
to do is choose words carefully and put them in a particular order to
get it done. You don't have to change spellings, and you don't have to
use special words. I have at least a couple of characters whose dialects
are distinguished only by word and rhythmic patterning. Here is one
Pelismara (standard) dialect:
"You're all right now. How do you feel?"
Safe Harbor sea level dialect:
"Oh, young Master, sir, please tell us now you've not gone deaf or blind, and ease us all our worry?"
shouldn't forget to mention "be." This is a verb that does a lot of
helping but isn't very heavy on content, so perhaps that's why it ends
up changing so much. Some dialects of English don't conjugate it at all.
"I be going..." "They be good people..." etc. Change your default
language on Facebook to "Pirate" and see what happens! This means that
not only are people accustomed to seeing the word "be" used in variable
ways (and thus will tolerate your alterations more easily) but that
using the unconjugated "be" gives a very particular flavor to the
dialect you're creating. This can definitely work to your advantage.
next one to look at is changing vocabulary. In fact, if you're writing
in another world, you're probably doing this already. Science fictional
neologisms like viewport, commlink, etc. all would fall into this
category, and so would created words for objects in fantasy worlds like
"laran" psychic power in the Darkover world of Marion Zimmer Bradley and
Deborah J. Ross. The thing to watch out for here is not to create so
much new vocabulary that you're interfering with comprehension. SF
neologisms have the advantage that very often they're pieces of existing
words, like "mods" for modifications. However, if the context is not
clear, they can also become confusing. One great thing you can do with
vocabulary is create a sense of judgment and perspective. I've mentioned
before that any object in a world will tend to be called different
things by different people. A weapon used specifically by one group of
people will tend to have the name of that group associated with it (in
Varin, Arissen weapon or Imbati shot) - but only when being referred to
by an outsider group. Arissen would never refer to their energy weapons
as "Arissen weapons," because that wouldn't make any sense. They would
have intimate knowledge of the variations in these weapons, and so would
categorize them based on their function, as bolt shooters vs. arc
zappers. Their familiarity with the types would show in the casualness
of the terminology. We see similar things in our own world when we're
looking at how laypeople versus clergy refer to objects having to do
with the church, or how laypeople vs. medical practitioners refer to
As you can see, changes in vocabulary can hint
about attitudes and culture within the group that uses those words. The
terms we choose will have flavor, so as you make these alterations,
think through which flavor it is you want to impart to the dialogue. If
you want to go even further, you can think about how the usage of a
particular dialect reflects historical developments, or cultural
developments, in the community you're working with (the undercaste
plural pronouns have a cultural and historical motivator, for example).
this is just to say that if you restrict yourself from using spelling
as a major tool in creating a dialect, you're really not "restricting"
yourself much at all.
Now, go forth and have fun creating dialects!