Thanks to Binzy in my writing group for raising the question of dialect:
My fascination with dialect remains a long, ongoing flirtation, but I have never thought too much about use of dialect in written prose. This may be because most prose I have written has been academic or factual, where dialect has little place.
However, it seems that even Shakespeare found dialect interesting; he incorporated many aspects of Warwickshire rural dialect in his play “The Merry Wives of Windsor” which rather lends it an air of respectability.
British linguist, David Crystal, makes the point that dialects are not fading away but that, with social and geographical mobility, new urbanised ones are also developing, so there is scope for creative writers to introduce some degree of dialect to their characters.
Crystal also suggests that many people see dialect in a negative way, yet in so doing, we fail to take on board the complexity of the language used. That said, increased use of dialect among celebrities, especially comedians, has perhaps promoted wider understanding of them, and shown they can be used to good comedic effect, or to make characters seem ‘real’.
Check Out Some Dialects In Use by comedians (Brummie, West Country, Mancunian)
Indeed, prior to YouTube and TV reality shows, some authors have included dialect to very good effect in their novels. Take Pat Barker in Union Street, as this blogger commentates.
See a snippet here. She also writes stonkingly good social realism novels.
Barker’s use of Teesside dialect is really appropriate for writing a gritty novel about working class women. It also reflects and situates her own locality. Stan Barstow wrote to similarly good effect about the industrial north in A Kind of Loving .
When writing, however, as effective as dialect can be, you do need to be careful with it.
While I might manage some Brummie or even Black Country speech (and still manage to make sense to the rest of the world) I would struggle if I introduced, for example, Scouse, Cockney or Geordie in any significant way. Despite living in the south west, I would still struggle with Devonian or Cornish, though I have picked up the odd word and phrase, such as ‘up country’ and ‘dreckly’.
Using dialect well requires a certain familiarity; if that is absent, then dialect just becomes clumsy, and lacks authenticity.
So, the upshot of this piece is: dialect can be used in creative writing to very good effect but you need to be very familiar with it, familiar enough to know it thoroughly but also to be able to ensure it makes sense to the rest of the world. It is quite a skill, but a fun one to play with.
Done to excess or badly, it can be a distraction, so best not to attempt a Mark Twain unless it comes naturally to you!
Advantages of dialect in creative writing
- Adds authenticity.
- Creates a sense of background/education in characters.
- Simple colloquialisms can be more direct than long sentences.
- Gives text depth/insight though beware of stereotyping.
- More generic terms can be more useful than highly specific ones.