This week, we’ll look at how characters’ spoken dialects might be rendered in fiction, the effects these different portrayals might have on readers, and the relationship between dialect portrayal and social justice.
Dialect and Power
The term dialect is a slippery one. We have to be careful with how we talk about language variety, because of the real issues of language prestige and privilege that continue to impact our world. Let’s start with a bit of linguistic theory, which will help us make sense of our brilliantly diverse linguistic world.
Dialect most generally refers to varieties of a language spoken by particular social groups. Dialects can be spoken by people in a particular geographical region (New York City English, Western English, Scottish English), an ethnic group (African American Vernacular English, Chicano English), or a socio-economic class (Cockney English), and they can vary in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.
Within English (as well as many other languages) a long history exists of privileging and denigrating speakers of various dialects. In fact, in common usage, the word dialect often refers only to non-standard varieties of a language and is frequently pejorative. The play Pygmalion and its inspired My Fair Lady dramatize this through dramatic dialect changes that result in change in social status.
Professor Higgins in the above video argues what many people tacitly accept: that the dialect spoken by upper-class socially dominant groups is more correct than others. Such an issue was at the center of the 1996 debate in Oakland about the acknowledgement of African American Vernacular English (AAVE, also called Black English or Ebonics) in schools.
This relationship between language and power is by no means new. What we regard as “Standard English” today is largely derived from the dialect spoken in London in the fifteenth century. Government administrators conducting business in their London dialect set the standard to be followed by others; thus those with the power determined the status of languages.
The fact is that at a linguistic level, none of these dialects is more “correct” than another. Both Standard American English and African American Vernacular English follow specific grammar rules, can express a huge variety of ideas, and function with versatility for the people who speak them. That certain people’s native language is deemed inferior or incorrect by dominant power structures serves to reinforce inequality.
The reality is that particular ways of speaking, these particular dialects, they do impact how we are seen by others and, in consequence, the opportunities available to us. Speakers of AAVE, sadly, are required to learn Standard English for activities in public life and confine their native dialect to other contexts. This creates a huge number of multilingual people whose proficiency in two distinct codes is rarely acknowledged.
Most fiction in the English world is written in one of the standard Englishes, these languages of power. As we enter then upon how we might respectfully and affirmingly render other dialects in our writing, let us remember that the standard Englishes have no more intrinsic value than any other. They were backed up by money and armies long ago and by schools and respectability politics today.
Dialect and Fiction
The representing of non-standard Englishes in fiction ranges the extremes. At one end, colloquial expressions are standardized in writing, and dialogue variation disappears. At the other, dialects are painstakingly rendered through phonetic spelling. Much writing falls somewhere in between. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
I want to start with a controversial example, so that we can consider in sharp relief some of the issues dialect brings up in fiction. This is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has been variously praised and excoriated for its handling of race. Part of the criticism has involved its belittling portrayal of Jim, an escaped slave.
Twain writes Jim with a heavy dialect that some readers find challenging to understand and others find a caricature. The interesting thing is that Huck, the white low-class narrator, also uses dialect. Take a look at the passage below. I’ve identified features of both characters’ speech that deviate significantly from Standard American English:
Looking at the above example, it’s clear that a greater proportion (although not all) of Jim’s words are written non-standardly than Huck’s. Along with other elements of characterization, Jim’s strong variation from the standard pronunciation and vocabulary can be seen as a dehumanizing portrayal. Readers who don’t speak AAVE may need to spend extra time deciphering Jim’s speech, which can result in feeling a greater distance from the character.
This brings up one of the elements of dialect portrayal we must be careful of: a double-standard often exists between the rendering of white characters’ colloquial pronunciations, which may vary just as much from standard orthography, and the speech of characters of color. I want to point to one of Huck’s lines:
"And ain't you had nothing but that kind of rubbage to eat?"
If Twain had fully rendered this line in Standard English, it might read, “And haven’t you had anything but that kind of rubbish to eat?” A few elements of Huck’s low-class Southern dialect have thus been maintained, but in reality the version Twain actually uses is significantly standardized already.
Most English speakers (even supposedly “correct” speakers) would speak quite differently from Twain’s rendering:
"An' ain't you had nothin' bu' that kinda rubbage t'eat?"
In at least five places, Twain has chosen to standardize Huck’s speech. It’s difficult for me to imagine Huck articulating the full “kind of,” let alone the -g at the end of “nothing.” Yet these colloquial pronunciations, so common to native speakers of Standard English, have been omitted. Jim, meanwhile, is written with far more dropped letters and altered spellings.
I think this double standard is dangerous, because it essentially gives the privileged characters a free pass to have their speech rendered in the standard dialect, thus conferring respectability and “correctness,” whereas characters like Jim have their dialect differences emphasized.
If we choose to render characters’ dialects at all, let us beware of this double standard. Let us consider the impact our rendering of dialect might have on readers’ feelings towards the characters and the perpetuation of stereotypes.
The Color Purple
Let’s turn now to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which employs AAVE throughout the narration. In the following example, pay attention to where Walker chooses to include dialect features, and where she has standardized Celie’s speech.
But it hard to think with gitting married to Mr. hanging over my head.
The first time I got big Pa took me out of school. He never care that I love it. Nettie stood there at the gate holding tight to my hand. I was all dress for first day. You too dumb to keep going to school. Pa say. Nettie the clever one in this bunch.
But Pa, Nettie say, crying, Celie smart too. Even Miss Beasley say so. Nettie dote on Miss Beasley. Think nobody like her in the world.
Pa say. Whoever listen to anything Addie Beasley have to say. She run off at the mouth so much no man would have her. That how come she have to teach school. He never look up from cleaning his gun. Pretty soon a bunch of white mens come walking cross the yard. They have guns too.
I think there is something to do with privilege and power and identity going on in these questions of dialect. I think there is a difference between a person from a dominant social group writing in a minority dialect and a native speaker of that dialect doing the same. When portraying the identities of others, especially those bearing a history of systematic exclusion, we must be careful.
Toni Morrison chooses in Beloved to render African American characters’ speech in Standard American English. A few minor features of dialect are evident (namely Denver’s use of “don’t it” and Sethe’s “You forgetting”).
The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did.
“Grandma Baby must be stopping it,” said Denver. She was ten and still mad at Baby Suggs for dying.
Sethe opened her eyes. “I doubt that,” she said.
“Then why don’t it come?”
“You forgetting how little it is,” said her mother. “She wasn’t even two years old when she died. Too little to understand. Too little to talk much even.”
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas includes a range of dialects, the most noteworthy of which Mitchell created himself. I find this interesting, because it adds to the sense of strangeness of this part of the story, emphasizing the great changes that have taken place in society. Here is the opening paragraph of the central section of the novel, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”:
Old Georgie's path an' mine crossed more times'n I'm comfy mem'ryin', an' after I'm died, no sayin' what that fangy devil won't try an' do to me … so gimme some mutton an' I'll tell you 'bout our first meetin'. A fat joocesome slice, nay, none o' your burnt wafery off'rin's …
If we are trying to faithfully, respectfully, thoughtfully render non-standard Englishes, we must consider our methods. Too many dialect features can come across as a caricature and can overwhelm readers. A sprinkling may be more appropriate. Or, we might take Morrison’s path and render all characters’ speech in standard form, affording the same treatment to speakers of all dialects that we do to those of the standard.
What do you think is the right way to handle diverse ways of speaking in our writing? How can we give voice to language’s great multiplicity without essentializing characters in the process? How does the writer’s identity affect how dialects should be rendered? How do we discuss issues so important in our world without perpetuating harm?
Thanks for reading, and happy Sunday,