Sunday, July 16, 2006

Q & A 73 Dialects


I understand that when writing a novel about a specific region of the world, it's irritating to others to read it in the dialect of that particular area. When writing about a specific region set centuries ago, however, I'm unsure how best to present it. I get the feeling that writing about 18th century London in a modern tone would have the same anachronistic effect as going to a Renaissance festival and seeing one of the peasants wearing a watch. On the other hand, I don't want to resort to using the language of that time and confusing a modern audience.What's a good way to approach this to still give the feel of the time period? Write with a modern style but still throw in words and phrases of the time? Any advice would be appreciated.

Sure 'n' win th' tale's tole in th' speakery 'o th' times, 'twill be a bit noyin t'read but leastways then y' get ta make up words like neeps 'n' balmagowry and hole sentences kin be gibberified like sentuff slimber hie th' winferr'd benks ta Zinedine Zidane .

Or, to put it another way, unless you want to try a gadget like a modern person finding a journal and translating it, or a time traveler going back and observing, you might read a few books set in your time period, and written near that time, and see if they hold up. A Tale of Two Cities takes place in the 18th century, so see if you find it difficult to understand. If so, modernize a bit. If not, your only concern is getting rid of the cars and televisions.

Of course if the only book you can find written in your time period is The Canterbury Tales, I don't recommend adopting the style.

14 comments:

msjones said...

Oh, you are so wrong, E2. Some of the best writing can be done in Chaucerian English. If you don't believe me check out Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, at http://houseoffame.blogspot.com/ - the interview with Parys is hilarious. Excerpt:

GC: What occupacioun dide ye dreme of whanne ye were a yonge girle?

PL: Saynte. Kanst thou beleve yt? Y totallye wantede to be a saynte. But thenne Y dide discouer that seyntez aren supposid to yive up the worlde and to spende their lives in werkes of devocioun and charitee. And so Y thoghte: ‘that sucketh’ and Y decidede to be riche insteade. So nowe Y haue bought manye a beggare, who Y do feede at my cost, and eftimes Y do commaunde them to thanke and prayse me so that Y feele lyk a seynte - but Y kan yet swyve and drynke depe of wyn and snorte the poudre of cockayne, the whiche no Seyntez do. For telle me, litel man, who beth the patron seynt of cocayne?

GC: Ther beth none, my ladye.

PL: Exactemundo, Jeffie.

tristram said...

18th century prose is very close to our own, esp. toward the middle of the century and later. Pick up Boswell's London Journal, for instance. The language is not only completely transparent, but very modern sounding.

The same could be said of lots of 18th c prose--esp. in novels and other demotic genres. Tom Paine's Common Sense also springs to mind.

Bernita said...

Decide whether you want to be authentic in whatever "dialect" you're considering using or whether you want to be understood.
Most readers don't care to
thumb through a glossary of thieves's cant every page or so, for example.

Anonymous said...

EE, Were you knocking Zidane? I couldn't tell, but if you were...I am shocked!

Mad Scientist Matt said...

Rendering dialect phoenetically is a royal pain for the reader. Getting the grammar and idioms is a bit easier to understand... usually!

Kanani said...

What you want is to convey a dialect without resorting to phonetic spelling as much as possible. Such things are difficult to write, hard to maintain the consistency of and equally hard to read for a long period of time.

Dialect has a lot to do with cadence, word choice, and where you put those words to convey race, class, period and culture. Even names will help you do the deed.

ex: Alice Walker: "My mamma dead. She die screaming and cursing."

Flannery O'Connor: "Because you're a good man!" said the grandmother at once.
"Yes'm, I suppose so," Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer.

RK Narayan: "Have we a sense of humour?"

Writerious said...

Dialect in writing should be used like cayenne pepper. Just enough to wake it up and add flavor, not enough to overwhelm, and certainly not enough to send your reader running away, screaming.

Catja (green_knight) said...

Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson were contemporaries. Austen might just make you hesitate over a five-and-twenty or a couple of archaic spellings; Stevenson can be damn near impenetrable.

'Authentic' isn't always the answer. 'Readable' is.

Writerious, yours is a fantastic metaphor.

Anonymous said...

You need to aim for readability without jarring readers with anachronisms. If they're available, read letters of the day, plays, and literature. It depends upon the class of the character, too (You really don't want a King talking like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing).

From my perspective, seasoning judiciously with some language and syntax that is usual to the period without adding later words is a good thing. The Oxford English Dictionary is my friend.

Anonymous said...

Annoying as hell, msjones.

Poohba said...

Diana Gabaldon does a wonderful job with Scots dialect in her "Outlander" novels. It is all in the cadence and the OCCASIONAL "y'ken."

ojvtke said...

Re: RLS: My copy of Kidnapped has a glossary in the back. Best-thumbed part of the book.

Jo said...

Thanks for the help, guys. I really love this time period, but I remember picking up a book written IN that time and then immediately putting it down because I had to spend ten minutes translating each sentence.

Anonymous said...

Hey jo, I had another thought. Right at the beginning of Once and Future King there's a hilarious part, just in passing, where one character says something, and the author is like, "Well, in the Dark Ages it would have been something else. But that's the general idea." After which all the dialogue is in modern English. Check that out, and then keep reading, because the book is awesome.

-the one up there with Kidnapped