The Woods Warn’t Thick

Dialect cartoonThis topic is so big I find my ideas marching multiple armies toward every visible horizon. Or maybe that’s just my incoherent way of thinking. Sometimes I have trouble telling the difference. I’m thinking about dialects, and rather than say all I want to say, I will try to stay focused on the use of dialect in literary writing.

First, however, it’s a very pertinent question to ask what is a dialect? Most educated English speakers have a notion that there is “proper” English, with the belief that everything else is dialect (as long as it is spoken by someone else). Or as one very nice definition expressed the difference between a language and dialect: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” The difference, in other words, is a question of power. We have an army, and therefore the way we speak is the proper way. Are you going to disagree with us?

For people who study languages, every version of a language is a dialect, including proper English, whatever you conceive that to be (and if you live in London, you conceive it differently than if you live in Chicago). If dialects interest you, English may be an especially interesting case. As the international language, and as the native language of at least a dozen countries—post colonialism, that is—English may have many dozens of dialects, depending on how you define a dialect.

And how might we? In fact, we probably cannot draw a clear distinction between linguistic practices so as to know that here is Proper A and there is Dialect B. There are a number of language characteristics that we can notice, though:

  • pronunciation
  • grammar
  • vocabulary
  • idioms
  • other linguistics practices (such as being very polite in certain situations)

When you mix these things together, you can get a remarkable amount of variety. In fact, listen to this story about people whose native language is English. Once my aunt, from the south and living in Alabama, was driving in a car in Alabama with a man and his wife who were both from Scotland. At one point the Scottish couple were talking just to one another, and afterward my aunt asked, “What language were yall speaking?” The surprised Scots replied, “English.”

As writers we sometimes have a desire to represent reality as closely as we can, especially in our depiction of people. We want our characters to seem real and to be individual, and it can make our writing more interesting to have diversity of people. So sometimes we decide to write in “dialect”, that is, a different dialect from Standard English. This is interesting, but there are two obvious problems. The first is that non-Standard English does not have defined ways of how to spell the words, so the writer must make up the spelling. The second problem is that if the writer closely imitates a dialect that is very far from standard spelling, many readers are likely to say, “What the hell are you doing? I can’t read this shit.”

Let’s look at a few examples. The most notable thing, immediately, is the weird spellings as the writers try to imitate pronunciation. Then we start to notice unusual vocabulary or idiomatic phrasing.

From Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neal Hurston)

(1) “Youse a mite too previous for dat.”

(2) “You’se jus’ sorter hypnotized, dat’s all.”

From Middlemarch (George Eliot)

(1) “Niver you mind what he’s done,” said Dagley, more fiercely, “it’s my business to speak, an’ not yourn. An’ I will speak, too. I’ll hev my say—supper or no.”

(2) “I’m no more drunk nor you are…”

From Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

(1) “You’d a ben down dah in de woods widout any dinner, en gittn’ mos’ drownded, too; dat you would, honey.”

(2) “and give it to me and Buck” [“give” as past tense]

(3) “The woods warn’t thick, so I looked over my shoulder to dodge the bullet, and twice I seen Harney cover Buck …”

For most readers of this blog, some of the dialect features here are more obvious than others. The words (imitating sound) “youse”, “niver”, and “warn’t” may jump out at us, but do you notice the usage “twice I seen Harney” as non-Standard? That’s also dialect.

Because there are no rules for “dialect” writing, it is hard to be perfectly consistent. Look at the first word in the two examples above from Hurston. She is also inconsistent in how she renders certain sounds, but that’s a road we won’t drive down, ‘cause we ain’t got no need.

Literature would be less real, and maybe less fun, without dialect, but it’s tricky, and it definitely does increase difficulty. I can follow what Hurston did because her heavy black dialect is close enough to my own southern speech, but what do people in Scotland think when they read her?

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