My Realization That Dismissing Dialect In Books Is a Form of Privilege

16 June 2014 by 68 Comments

I kind of had to put myself in check, today.

check yourself

The backstory:

Susie’s started doing The Reading Report (which I totally dig and you should all be reading cos it’s fab), and this week’s post contained a link to the Strange Horizons review of Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.  I was super happy to read this review, cos I’d watched the Kickstarter for the anthology with interest (I don’t support Kickstarters cos Amazon, but that’s another story), and was pleased to see that the reception was mostly positive. Like most anthologies, it seems Long Hidden has some good stories and some not so good stories, which sounds about right.

I noticed that there were some comments on the review, so I clicked to read them. I was totally shocked to see that the reviewer’s stated preference for not enjoying phonetic dialect (“a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred”) had been called out.

Like, called out enough that there was something of an uproar on Twitter and the whole thing was Storified.

After reading that, I got up, walked away and did some serious handwringing and a bit of soul searching.

Cos, you guys?  I also don’t enjoy phonetic dialect in my fiction. I can only think of two times in the last year (hell, the last several years) where use of such dialect hasn’t grated on my mental ear. And I’ve always been super outspoken about it, too. But when I read that collection of tweets and saw how passionate people were about the subject, I realized that there’s another way to think about dialect.

You guys, the fact that my dismissing dialect out of hand equalled denying Authors of Colour their voice hadn’t even OCCURRED TO ME.

And then I felt…well, ashamed to be honest.

Because I realized that my stated preference was a form of discrimination I wasn’t even aware I held.  Not necessarily with regard to my reading material (not everyone likes everything and THAT’S OKAY), but regarding the authors THEMSELVES. If you’d told me five years ago that I engaged in any sort of white privilege on a daily basis, I’d have laughed right in your face.

Exactly like this, ‘cept my boobs aren’t that big.

I swear I’m not trying to appropriate anything, but this is an issue that I was not even aware of. And I now feel like the hugest ass.

How unfairly dismissive have I been in the past?

How many times have I noped a book right back onto the shelf at the first hint of dialect?


Help me out please, guys.  Give me some examples where the dialect isn’t just a “literary trick” (or appropriated by a white person trying to sound “multicultural”). I have some catching up to do.


sj (never SJ) hates everything. Except books and music. Sometimes she hates those too. Ask her about drinkalongs.

68 thoughts on “My Realization That Dismissing Dialect In Books Is a Form of Privilege

  1. I feel the same way about phonetic dialect, but I’m trying to broaden my horizons. I find it extremely difficult to read, so usually if I run into a title with a lot of it, I’ll try to find an audio book version instead, so that I can understand it a bit better.

  2. Reading the Storify. Thinking, digesting. Wow.

    I don’t always enjoy dialect in a story, especially if it is one I’m so unfamiliar with that I can’t “hear” it as I read, and it seems false. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I had never thought about it being white privilege, but you’re totally right. If we don’t read it, we’re dismissing an entire culture. The tweet about people reading Dothraki but not wanting to read AAVE hit home.

    I’m beginning to recognize its importance as a writer. I’m working on a MG novel that is ALL in dialect. It’s told from the first-person, and it would seem completely inauthentic for a young protagonist in a rural setting to use proper grammar. Dialect is used to teach us about people and cultures. I need to be a more willing pupil.

  3. The last tweet – “The author and I [the editor] exchanged so many emails about walking the line between authenticity and inaccessibility to a wider audience.” – really sums up my struggles with authors using dialect. If I can’t read it, I can only assume that I’m not the intended audience… and that’s fine if I’m not, but is it then fair to judge me for dismissing it? (Not that that’s exactly what happened here, but that’s my perspective.)

    I haven’t read this particular story, so I don’t know the extent to which the author uses dialect. The “‘chil’ren’s and ‘yo’self’s” that are mentioned in the Storify, I’d consider that a great use of dialect; I see those words and know exactly what they mean. It’s when I’m struggling to “translate” as I read that I have a problem. The Scottish dialect in Steve Alten’s The Loch is the worst I’ve come across in that regard.

    Still, it’s worth reminding myself that these opinions are definitely colored by the fact that I’m a white girl from the suburbs.

      • It’s been a while, so I can’t even remember if it was just the accent, or if there were idioms and such that I didn’t get either. (I also have no idea if the author is of Scottish descent or has spent enough time there for it to be authentic… but either way, it got in the way of an otherwise entertaining story.)

    • I can’t read it, I can only assume that I’m not the intended audience… and that’s fine if I’m not, but is it then fair to judge me for dismissing it?

      That’s my yardstick.

      Heck, there are people who ostensibly speak English, whose vocabulary and pronunciation are so alien that I can understand about one word in three.

  4. I’m all for dialect and foreign words in my fiction. But as I’ve been actively seeking diverse writing I’ve noticed that sometimes I have a harder time connecting to the story. My reviews always blame me because I know it’s my privilege causing the problem. What I find puzzling is that I have no problem in real life (well sometimes I have to ask someone to slowdown or translate a word) but I have no connection problems in real life only in written words.

    I supported Long Hidden but I’m having to read it slowly. I’m finding I can’t read more than two stories at a time before I’m overwhelmed. Some of the stories speak to me. Others I’m having a harder time with.

    I don’t know if dialect is used as a trick anymore than elvish or Vulcan.

    • y reviews always blame me because I know it’s my privilege causing the problem.

      In all seriousness, it sounds like you’re a lot more self-aware than I was. :)

      • I’m 47 so I might have a few years on you… I also grew up surrounded by new immigrants, multi-generational POC, just visiting/owners of international companies/exchange students, I was an exchange student, and I went to strange schools that taught critical thinking rather than rote learning. All of that gives me an unfair advantage. LOL. I’m told I can suck the fun out of any book, TV show, or movie as I point out sexism, racism, classism, etc., – the ability to pause & replay is a great teaching tool… Which makes my personal problems with dialect really embarrassing and shocking to me when I realize its happening.

        Trying to separate whether my problem is cultural or personal dislike is hard. It was only after reading a number of Japanese authors that I was able to pick up on my bias and realize that it was a cultural thing based on my many years of exposure to Japanese culture through a company my mother worked for.

        I really owe a lot of my awareness to the great teachers at The Cambridge School of Westin as well as my parents who had a wide variety of friends so I did not grow up isolated.

  5. That discussion got me thinking a lot, too. Have you read Mindscape by Andrea Hairston? The character Lawanda speaks in dialect throughout the book and I love her. You can see a bit of her way of talking in my review.

    My biggest challenge reading dialect? That would be the character Joseph in Wuthering Heights. I fail at Yorkshire accents.

    • Oh. Oh, holy shit. This bit really got me.

      Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time.

    • Mindscape is a great example. Also a great novel. There are words from Yoruba and German thrown in together with English, there’s Lawanda as you say, and much more. It works. At no point is any of that used to stereotype or belittle a character.
      Often I’ve read work where one character has phonetic dialogue and it seems patronising as though that character is less educated, cultured or civilised than those using Received Pronunciation.

  6. If you ever want to challenge yourself with a book that is really, really dialect-heavy, but is beautiful and just .. mmph.. go for Their Eyes Were Watching God. It seriously reads like a much more authentic version of Detta Walker (well, a LESS FOUL version of Detta) but … once you get into it and the story, it’s wonderful. Well, I loved it, anyway. It was an early Black feminist work, and pretty thoroughly rejected by her male contemporaries.

    • I was going to suggest Hurston’s TEWWG, too. Fabulous book and great for teaching how to read dialect because it has several different versions of the early 20th-century southern American black dialects (some African-American and some Bahaman). Even though the dialogue is nearly all in dialect, the major characters all have different voices and different verbal features. Also just a really interesting story, focusing more on the differences between men and women than on the differences between black and white — which I mention as interesting because TEWWG is widely taught in schools in the US and many of the African-American texts taught in my part of the country (if not everywhere in the US) focus largely on the theme of racism.

  7. I feel like a big part of the problem with the dialects of PoC is when white people try to imitate it. It’s not theirs and they don’t understand the nuance, the ins and outs that make it a language instead of just a style. Like, I can immediately tell in a book when someone non-Southern is trying to use Southern dialect. It reads completely wrong. So that can turn people off of books that have dialect.

    • Yes, and I think the (mis)appropriation of voice can be off-putting and even offensive. In the case of the Strange Horizons review, the reviewer seemed to be treating the dialect usage as if this were the case (a “trick” by the author), when it was a writer using an authentic voice he was very familiar with.
      It’s a different kind of issue, but I can remember when rehearsing a series of plays by Horton Foote, we Manitoban/Canuck actors had a hell of a time trying to get the “right” sound of a Texan accent. Our voice coach had us concentrate on the rhythm and cadence of Foote’s writing and not try to reach too hard for the accent. That made it a lot clearer where the emphasis and stress of the lines were. I’m not saying we would have fooled any Texans in the audience — but it certainly underlined how little of the manner of speaking was obvious, how little would be achieved by our imposing a “twang” on it, and how much better it would be to let Foote’s writing just come through.

  8. I honestly never thought of it that way, and I generally don’t mind dialect in books unless I actually can’t understand what they’re saying.

    In high school, we read Huckleberry Finn for English, and I remember being one of the only kids who didn’t struggle with reading the dialect whenever Jim was speaking. This, after these same kids told me that I “wasn’t really black” because I don’t talk that way (another story entirely). I did, however, have a hard time with “Beloved”, and I’m not sure why, although it could have been that the story content was hard as well, but I’d love to try reading it again.

    Either way, I think that it’s true that it’s privilege, even if it’s not across racial divides. I think especially in America we’re pretty shut off from what the rest of the world is like unless we actively seek it out. Like what Charleen was saying, some of those accents would be hard to “hear” if you don’t know what it sounds like.

    Random aside: The only reason I can hear Scottish accents pretty well is because they’re variable to dwarfs in World of Warcraft. :3

  9. Very interesting.

    I had an awesome English teacher in high school. We also read a lot of things with dialect. Whenever we struggled, he’d tell us to read it out loud. That helped so much that we mostly stopped struggling with things written in Southern dialect.

    Then I read Harry Potter. I couldn’t understand Hagrid, and that might be why he pissed me off. I slowed down and read him out loud. It helped, but I still hate Hagrid. I didn’t think of it as an “I speak better English” privilege. I think I hate him because he told some complete stranger how to get past one of the obstacles guarding something that Dumbledore thought was super secret, brought a fire breathing dragon into a wooden house, sent kids to murderous spiders, thought students might enjoy learning about flobberworms ad nauseam or exploding and stinging creatures that he bred, sent kids to play with giants, etc.

    I also tried reading The Golden Compass, which also had a kind of dialect. This bothered me because, if I recall correctly, everyone spoke in this dialect. When learning about dialect in high school, we came to the conclusion that it was only an effective technique when it’s used to set characters apart from others. Hagrid is the only one who talks like that. Otherwise, it’s just the author showing off. And that’s how I felt when reading TGC (which I couldn’t finish),

    I’m friends with a Scottish guy who is an English teacher in England. He was telling me about how hard it was for his students to read Huck Finn. I felt pretty smug about that because of my great teacher and how he taught us to do it. But then I remembered struggling with Hagrid. I wonder if his students had similar trouble there too.

    • I would like to be able to say that’s why I hate Hagrid, but really I just think he’s a dumbass who should’ve been sacked years ago. <.<

  10. Like Susie said, I really think it depends on how the dialect is portrayed/how authentic it is. If it’s just used to stereotype a character and/or make them seem humorous, then I’d definitely have a problem with it.

    I personally liked the use of dialect in Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman: “‘When you earn his confidence, which I guarantee you won’t be long, you will draw long bench with Maas Paul and with his own mouth he will tell you all bout the woman, his own auntie, who grow him up.'”

    Basically, when done right, dialect makes a character feel more real to me, and sometimes more relatable — like when you sometimes quote your 3 y/o, I can practically hear her and it makes sense that a 3 y/o would talk that way, whereas if I’m reading a story with a pre-schooler who uses perfect Standard American English (and if there’s no believable explanation for such an advanced vocabulary), that just pulls me right out of the story.

    Well-written dialect also individualizes a character — i.e. you don’t just get a sense of “This is how [insert group of people] speak.” Because even two people of the same age, same gender, same culture, etc. won’t necessarily talk the same way; one 3 y/o girl might say “It does not taste.” :-) Another girl I knew of at that age would always switch certain letters, so she’d say “ksool” instead of “school,” “tsick” instead of “stick,” and “psecial” instead of “special.”

    • Very much agreed–dialect gives characters dimension (when done in a non-hateful way, of course). I mentioned below that I really like the sort of “down home Maine” dialect Stephen King uses a lot, especially in books like Dolores Claiborne, where she narrates the entire story entirely in that particular dialect. Great point! :)

      • Thanks! Yeah, I like the way dialect can give me both a sense of the cultural setting and of the individual characters’ personalities. For instance, I like how Ginny Rorby presents her characters’ speech in Dolphin Sky,, which takes place on Chokoloskee Island just south of Florida — how the pre-teen characters speak vs. their parents and teachers, island residents vs. someone from Miami, how Buddy and her grandfather speak vs. how her father thinks they should speak… it’s a very interesting part of the story.

  11. I am Hawaiian, and grew up in Hawaii. Pidgin was everywhere, though I was taught from a young age that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to learn proper English. I needed to suppress my dialect in order to be acceptable. Successful. I was taught this by my Hawaiian father and my Guamanian mother, and every teacher I ever had. Island dialect was scrubbed from my mouth thanks to the success of internalized racism and now I have to struggle to communicate with my own cousins. Just so I can be more acceptable to a bunch of people I’ve never met. Hooray.

    My point is that it worked, and for years I also dismissed dialect as unreadable. I didn’t make the effort because I had been trained to accept a certain kind of writing as proper, better, whatever. As a reader I gravitated towards the same established writers that many people read. Where you see your privilege in your preferences, I see internalized racism in mine. It all comes from the same place, and none of us invented our prejudices. I’m glad that you’re addressing yours. This stuff can be tough to wrangle.

    With that being said:

    Blu’s Hanging by Lois Ann Yamanaka was the first book I read that felt engaged with the dialect. This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila is a more recent favorite. I recommend both of these books if you are interested in Hawai’i dialect(s),and I think everyone should be!

  12. It might be worth noting, too, that not all writers write dialect well. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said some rule about writing dialect, that you should pick only three things to change to give the essence of the accent? I think that’s what and who it was. Anyway, the idea was that if you want to write dialect well, you have to respect the character’s intelligence. Don’t just randomly misspell words or be inconsistent about how you change things, because then the character comes off as an idiot, and that’s not what dialect is about.

  13. Wow. You make a really good point. I’ve never thought about it, either, mostly because I read very few books which involve dialect. But I was most definitely taught via the many podcasts, writing groups and other things I grew up with that dialect in books = bad and/or foolish. So I’m experiencing a lot of “holy shit, I was an asshole” right now too, because I never had to challenge my assumptions and was, in fact, REWARDED for making them.

    The most recent example of dialect I can think of is a sci-fi novel written by a former friend of mine. He has a character who speaks with a strong Irish accent, and he writes this out phonetically in the book. I remember it really bothered me at the time, mostly because I watch a lot of British YouTuber LPers and to me, the accent sounded very “Americanized”, and not particularly authentic. There weren’t any Irish turns of phrase, or slang, just the “accent” which sounded very much like something you’d see in a cheap action flick. And yet I was the only one of his readers to question it, as far as I know.

    At the same time, I remember thinking that I appreciated his effort at making his book a bit more diverse–and the fact that I, at any point in time, considered the addition of a minor character with a supposedly Irish accent “diverse” pretty much says it all.

  14. The fact that you have to say in your post that you’re “not trying to appropriate anything”, as if adding your voice to a discussion could possibly be construed as some kind of crime, is honestly rather disturbing. Please don’t ever apologize for speaking up! That’s part of the point of advocating equality–everyone’s voice should be heard, not just a few “approved” voices.

    In any case, that Storify is incredibly problematic, IMO. @djolder attempts to paint personal reading preference–which comes from not only race but also personal experiences, socioeconomic background, national and cultural identity, language, religion, education, mental and physical ability, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera–as racism (“What the reviewer here is explicitly doing is coming at a Black author”), as if only one demographic could possibly not appreciate dialect in fiction, as if the only reason a person might dislike dialect in fiction is because they dislike a certain demographic, and as if there is only one demographic who speaks in a dialect (whereas all speech is divided into dialects, and only ethnolects specifically correspond to racial/ethnic identities) or even a specific dialect (any individual can speak any dialect, though they may be a minority within its sphere; saying only African Americans can speak AAVE, for example, erases those of mixed-race origin and children of other races who were raised by AAVE-speaking stepparents, grandparents, etcetera, as well as those who are closely associated with AAVE speakers and who learn the dialect through exposure–such as neighbors, friends, romantic attachments, teachers, volunteers, etcetera).

    But most importantly, @djolder is attempting to shame people for their reading preferences, going so far as to say his opinion is the only correct one (“It’s fine if you don’t get shit, but really, until you do maybe don’t be so fucking public about you not getting it, cuz our lives at stake”) and implying that somehow his life is in danger because of someone dislikes a specific writing style. That’s about as disingenuous as you can get.

    That’s not to say that he doesn’t have a point; disliking a dialect can DEFINITELY be racist, classist, xenophobic, etcetera. If there are people who dislike dialect BECAUSE it brings representation of minority demographics into fiction (and I’m sure there are, because the world is never as friendly a place as we would like to think it is), those people should be ashamed of themselves. That’s hate, period, and it should be condemned at every opportunity. But disliking an aspect of a book on its own merits is not hate, despite what @djolder apparently believes. You’re as entitled to your personal opinions and reading preferences as he is–and as everyone is, regardless of their demographic.

    Disliking dialect in fiction is not a privilege, either, as no one is getting any special advantages from it. Nor is “not having dialect” a privilege; if you can speak, you have a dialect. (And if there is anyone reading this who is mute and/or deaf, I would LOVE to hear what you have to say about dialects in fiction.) If you think you don’t have one and you happen to be a U.S. citizen, your dialect is most likely “Standard American English”, which is the dialect taught in American schools. Speaking “Standard American English” fairly obviously falls under the umbrella of “privilege”, and I’m not sure that anyone could reasonably contest this; in mainstream American culture, you will almost undoubtedly be treated with preference if you are speaking “Standard American English” instead of a minority dialect such as AAVE or Southern Appalachian English.

    But that is a different ballpark altogether from reading preference. Consider that the dialect taught in American schools is Standard American English. Most children who achieve literacy are taught to read primarily in public schools, which teach children to read Standard American English. They do not, however, teach the various ways that an author might try to translate a dialect onto the page; so while a person might speak any dialect from Standard to AAVE to Yeshivish, they are most likely to read in Standard. So if reading in Standard and having a preference for doing so is a privilege, it would have to be an education/literacy privilege, not a racial one.

    Where does the argument go from there? I don’t know. But honestly, I think that’s where it ends for me. Being able to read is a privilege, period. Being proficient enough at it as to be able to read “quirks” such as cursive, unusual font styles, representations of minority dialects and accents, backwards text, mirror text, etcetera, is further privilege. But is disliking a specific quirk a privilege? I honestly don’t think so; I think it’s the ability that’s the privilege, while the dislike is just a preference.

    Either way, the only fair way to address the issue–that I can see, at least–is to read and review honestly and to attempt to broaden my horizons in ALL respects whenever I find the opportunity.

    • Being able to read in America is supposed to be a right not a privilege. Standard American English is not really a dialect unless you are comparing it to UK, Australia, other places that were colonized. Boston Massachusetts has a dialect, South Carolina has a dialect, Texas has a dialect, Yiddish (not yeshivish) is a dialect, AAVE is a dialect.

      Many of us are unaware of our racist bias. Until we are aware of our bias we can’t know if we don’t like something due to inherent racism/classism/*-ism or if the writing is bad or not to our taste. Based on a full reading of the review I can’t discount unconscious bias.

      As long as institutional racism/classism/sexism/etc. continues people’s lives are at stake.

      • “Many of us are unaware of our racist bias. Until we are aware of our bias we can’t know if we don’t like something due to inherent racism/classism/*-ism or if the writing is bad or not to our taste. Based on a full reading of the review I can’t discount unconscious bias.”

        Just seconding this and all of your comment. I think it’s naive (at best, maybe even disingenuous) to look at it solely as a matter of taste without considering unconscious bias.

    • Since the Storify is linked to above, I won’t try to sum up Daniel’s remarks, but the offending phrase in the review that sparked the discussion was the dismissive remark that the use of dialect in Troy L. Wiggins’ story “A Score of Roses” was a “literary trick.” Yes, it can be difficult to render any dialect in a way that will be immediately understandable to readers unfamiliar with that dialect. But Troy was not doing it as a “trick,” he was writing in a voice he was very familiar with, to evoke characters of a particular time and place. To have that criticized without acknowledgement on the reviewer’s part that perhaps the reviewer isn’t the intended audience and therefore had difficulty with it in effect marginalizes the writer and the story. Saying “the dialect in this story doesn’t work” IS NOT the same as saying “I’m unfamiliar with this dialect so I didn’t quite get it.” The reviewer at Strange Horizons was saying, essentially, the former. And that IS a form of pushing that story to the side, implying the limitation is in the story, not the reviewer. And given that Standard English is a language of those in power in the English-speaking world (true in the U.K., the U.S., Canada, certainly), to use it as the basis for aesthetic judgment for a work is, in fact, exercising that power over writers who choose to write in dialect regardless of how well they do it. If Standard English is the version of English you speak natively, then yes, you are privileged, because everything from street signs to government correspondence to newspapers to drug prescriptions are written for you.
      I’m well aware there are variants of Standard English in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere — but in each country there is a dominant form of the language that is meant to be standard, and regional or ethnic variations are seen as lesser.

      • …there are variants of Standard English in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere — but in each country there is a dominant form of the language that is meant to be standard, and regional or ethnic variations are seen as lesser.

        Right. And, to respond to one of Tasha’s points, I think that not counting the Standard version as a dialect furthers the idea of other dialects as “other” — as deviations from the norm or center. If, say, the Texas dialect was used as the default in school/politics/etc, would it no longer be considered a dialect? I guess I’d personally rather think of “dialect” as any variation of a language, including the one chosen as the standard in a particular country.

  15. I jus’ come in here fer t’say that thar’s one ver’importan’ book been a-missin’ from this here conversat’in, an’ them as ain’t likin’ books wid accents’d do best fer t’read it: The Color Purple.

    (And as a white, educated person who’s privileged enough that I can feel comfortable using my “native” Oklahoman/Ozarkian dialect pretty much whenever I like without any serious consequences, I do definitely prefer that written accents be more hinted-at than completely written out (Mark Twain style, as mentioned above). After all, even “standard” English looks quite odd if written completely phonetically. Not going to be too bothered either way. But for a PoC author whose dialect is a significant part of their culture? Definitely something to learn to appreciate much more than so many of us currently do. Rejecting a book simply because I don’t like the way the words are spelled seems a rather nasty little moral slope to fall down…)

  16. The first “dialect” that came to mind, actually, was Stephen King’s use of the “down home Maine” dialect he grew up with, and then I thought of the servant in Wuthering Heights — Joel? I remember the first time I read WH, Joel’s dialogue was nearly impenetrable, but when I read it a few years later it was easier for me to understand.

    I’ve never really had a *problem* with phonetic dialect in prose, but it has definitely tripped me up on occasion. I definitely have to slow down to parse what exactly the author/character is trying to say, but that’s okay because I am a skimmer by habit so anything that forces me to slow down is probably good! It’s not necessarily easy for me to really hear it the way it’s meant to be heard, though; I think in a lot of cases I just sort of translate it in my head into whatever I think it should be, if that makes sense.

    Also, I studied linguistics in college, so any sort of regional dialect of English really fascinates me. I remember studying AAVE and Hiberno English in a few of my classes and then arguing with people about AAVE in particular and whether or not it’s “ungrammatical.” In truth it probably follows more rigid rules than “standard” English does, believe it or not! It just has different rules.

  17. Here’s a secret that doesn’t often get spread to young writers: A novel isn’t a script. You don’t use language the same way in a novel as you do in a script. It’s not experienced the same way, so why would you expect to write it the same way?

    People don’t talk the same way in books that they do in real life. In real life they get distracted, they pause, they say Um and Er, they take breaths in strange places, they mispronounce words, they munge words together, and there are little misunderstandings that require repetition or clarification. This sort of thing nearly never shows up in books.

    Similarly, the author does not have to present the dialect in a completely realistic way in order to portray the character. Like anything else, it only needs to be suggested in order to get the idea across.

    There are many ways to present dialect. Changes in spelling can reflect pronunciation, but there’s also word choice, rhythm, and sentence structure. It’s a dial that the author can twist, trading off how much effort the reader will expend in deciphering the dialect with how much flavor the character has. Individual readers will come to the text with differing levels of tolerance,

    Going heavy on dialect is like going heavy on metaphor, or action scenes, or description, or internal dialogue.

  18. On the subject of not seeing one’s one privilege, can I add an (I hope) relevant example?
    I blogged about this when talking about submitting a story to Long Hidden and working with an editor on the story. I’d tried very hard, getting help from a translator, to incorporate phrases and words from Island Lakes Dialect Ojibwe into the story that were appropriate and I hoped would add more to the context and voice of the story. And you know what I did without even thinking? I italicized every single Ojibwe word.
    As a copy editor of many years, the practice of italicizing non-English words is something I do automatically. And yet, in this story, which was meant to centre the Ojibwe-Cree main character and his family, and in an anthology that was expressly meant to give marginalized people/characters a voice, I had basically flagged every instance of the character’s first language as “other.” Especially in the context of what Canada has tried to do to indigenous languages (ie. eradicate them), this is just so wrong-headed.
    I was surprised when I got page proofs and saw no italics, and then FINALLY the light went off: there was no need for them. The idea was to let the words speak for themselves. That copy editing decision alone on the part of Rose and Daniel has made me rethink how I approach voice in a story.
    And, though I was writing about a culture not my own, this is a habit I would have applied to any Icelandic word I would use in a story, even though Icelandic is part of my background. (It’s not my first language, but I think my habit of flagging those words via italicizing is born of a similar bias.)
    Anyway, great post sj, as always, and the discussion sparked by that review is one that deserves to keep going.

    • For Ojibwe, I can see it; the word structure is entirely unlike English, and it wouldn’t introduce any problems most of the time.

      Sometimes the purpose of the italics isn’t to signal to the reader, “This word is other” but rather “No, this word isn’t misspelled.” Taking out those italics might not work in every instance.

      Whether or not to italicize non-English words is a style choice. A rational editor probably shouldn’t italics in every single instance, or not use italics; it depends. In this instance, it makes sense.

      In other circumstances, it can be critical to indicate that the language is not English:

      • Perhaps saying “no italics, ever!” is taking it too far, your point is well taken. But now, when writing, I do question whether italics are actually needed, whereas before I never gave it a second thought.

  19. Flowers for Algernon. Riddley Walker. Precious. The Bone People. Oscar Wao. All of these are written in a language that could be called non-standard, whether to communicate a bilingual character’s experience (Wao, Bone Ppl), a distinct culture, whether real or imagined (Precious, Riddley Walker) or a character’s mental functioning (Flowers for Algernon). All are challenging in their own way. All are incredibly powerful reads.

  20. I took issue at the time with the phrase ‘literary trick’ for the implication that this was a bad thing.
    On one level every authorial choice is a trick. Sofia Samatar’s use of a Catalogue format, in a story highly praised in the review iirc, is a ‘literary trick.’ Use of First or Third or Omniscient viewpoints is a trick.
    Writers use a lot of tools, for a lot of reasons.

    • Totally agree. While dialect can come off badly in the hands of a writer who is unskilled at writing dialect, so can any literary device. Some authors suck at dialog in general, some suck at foreshadowing. Some use repetition too much. Etc.

  21. Recommended books with intrinsic use of dialect: for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

    Obnoxious literary trick: the “quaint molespeech” in the Redwall books.

    Everything more nuanced I’d want to contribute has already been said, so suffice it to say that I am having many yeses about this conversation. Many, many yeses.

  22. Hi, one of the supporters of the Long Hidden Kickstarter here. Came over from the link they sent around in the last update to backers, and just wanted to say that I’ve just read both this post and the Storify link and I very much appreciate this discussion happening. Trying to listen and learn, both as a reader and a writer. Thanks to all involved.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by! I was wondering where all the people were coming from. I’m glad this post has opened up such a great discussion, I really didn’t anticipate that happening when I wrote it.

  23. Hmmm.. this whole discussion is interesting and I don’t think that I have any suggestions of books to add. I came in thinking “oh shit, I don’t really like dialect, either – I’m subconsciously a racist!” and then I realized that some of the books that have been suggested are also some of my favorite books, so what I don’t like is poorly done dialect because it takes me out of the story.

    After looking through the lists of suggestions and thinking about my recent reading, I actually read a lot of stuff with dialect in it – probably because I read A LOT of science fiction. I tend to pick up dialect fairly quickly and it rapidly becomes second nature to me (if it’s done well) and I generally stop stumbling over it by the second chapter. I think that it’s all the musical training – I’m also notorious for picking up accents.

    With that being said, I agree that it’s often easier if I can hear the words – so, just like when tackling Shakespeare, I’ll often read tricky passages out loud to get into the rhythm of it and then I can go on my merry way.

    Also – Detta Walker’s dialect drove me INSANE – but I think that’s because my recent experience with it is in audiobook form and the profanity is more disturbing when listened to than it is when read. Also, it comes across as a bit of blackface – which it’s SUPPOSED to because Eddie mentions several times that black people don’t REALLY talk like that, but it still bugs me. Although I think that Gasher’s dialect bothers me more – again because it’s just so foul.

    Meh.. I’m not even sure where I’m going with this anymore – other than to say that, while reading things out loud often helps me, sometimes audio books are helpful (The Golden Compass) and sometimes they can make me hate a dialect even more (The Dark Tower). But… if the story is good enough, I can move passed it.

  24. Pingback: A few things make a Sunday post |

  25. Pingback: The Weeky Verse: Who Said It Was Simple by Audre Lorde - Insatiable Booksluts

Talk to us!

Get Us In Your Inbox

Hot Discussions

%d bloggers like this: