Wednesday, February 10, 2016

More Southern Dialect

Sometimes within the context of a story or novel I prefer to write a character's dialogue in dialect. In the old days this was often done with lots of hyphens and apostrophes. If you've read much of H.P. Lovecraft's work then you will have encountered this type of dialect written into his fiction. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this method of illustrating dialect kind of sucks. There are generally so many little marks and squiggles in the form of those previously mentioned apostrophes and hyphens that it seems as though what you are trying to read is hieroglyphics rather than English letters.

I try to avoid that method for transferring dialect to the published page.

For years I would work in some apostrophes, avoid hyphens, and then just use phonetics to translate the sounds. The first few editors to whom I submitted did not seem keen on this tactic and they tried to school me on writing dialect. Most of the time their advice was for me to just cut it the heck out and forget about dialect.

Yeah. Well. Fuck them.

Sometimes dialect is really hard to convey. The types of dialect I try to use in my work are the types of dialect I encounter in my life--mainly various southern dialects. One kind that is really hard to show on the page is one that I hear when I'm dealing with people who live in the lower foothills of Appalachia. Yeah, that's right. There are actually variations of the dialects of the mountain-speak one hears in the higher mountains. I suppose these are people who either went no farther than the upper edge of the Piedmont and were influenced by folk from lower elevations, or they are people from the Piedmont whose speech patterns have been altered due to relatively recent contact with those moon-shine makin' butt-fuckers from the mountains. Either way, it's a funny dialect that is so unique that I find myself wanting to use it in my fiction.

But damned if it is very easy to do. These people tend to make two syllables out of one-syllable words. Simple words like "and" become "AY-and". While "pan"turns into "PAY-an". Or "bit" is pronounced "BEE-yit". If you try to write anything like that within a line of dialog you are going to run into a Jupiter-sized world of trouble. So the best way to get the idea across is the all-knowing narrator to mention the facts of life of the speech patterns one or two times so that the reader gets it locked into their mind's ear, or to have one of the other characters think to themselves how the speaker of this dialect enunciates their words.

However, for sheer effectiveness, the best method I see is to write stretches of dialect phonetically with no goddamned apostrophes, hyphens, or commas that muck it all up so that the lines end up looking like something Jackson Pollock dribbled onto the page.

I had almost gotten it right a few times when I combined phonetics with apostrophes. My mistake was in allowing the apostrophes at all. The idea first hit me when an old friend of mine from Atlanta was showing me a batch of Civil War letters he had purchased in a collection. These were genuine Civil War letters written by a Confederate soldier to his family back home. In those days a lot of people were only mildly educated unless they could afford advanced schooling. What you ended up with were men and women who had a rough understanding of the written word but not the finer details. In those cases those people wrote phonetically. I'll give you an example from one of the actual letters I was allowed to read. It concerned the outcome of a horrible battle in which the soldier had been involved, and I will quote him exactly as he wrote the line.

"They was considerbel many killt today."

Now...we all know what he meant. What an educated man would have written was: "There were considerable many killed today."

And his letter went on and on in this way. Words like "Yalls" for "your", etc.

When I read this letter I knew how I'd write dialect from then on. The first story I wrote after that was set in the 1870s and was created using snippets of letters from a man in Colorado written to his parents in Tennessee, along with scenes of action and dialog between his compatriots. All dialog was written just as they would have said it--in phonetics. I did not use hyphens or apostrophes to butcher the written words as the characters were slicing and dicing the English language. The reactions I got from editors were less kind than my other methods--they all seemed to prefer Master Lovecraft's manner of conveying dialect.

Some years later I encountered the work of writers like Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews who were penning critically acclaimed fiction using just such a technique as I had envisioned. This felt good and I knew I had been right all along, and that the editors I'd encountered who had complained were full of shit.

Or SHE it, if you will.

This here is a house I encountered one day in 2008 when I was hiking to the top of a mountain in western North Carolina. Why is it here? Because the South, goddammit. This is an area where you can hear some really amazing, kick-ass dialects, while at the same time seeing some tremendous scenery where ol' Mother Nature works overtime. (On a side note, I have never wanted to own a house so much as I did when I set eyes upon this one. I stood at the edge of the fence and took photos and didn't approach any closer because southerners know not to encroach on private property--it just ain't done. But I would have bought this house instantly if it had been for sale and I'd had the money to complete the purchase. It remains the most ideal home in the most perfect of spots I have ever seen--at the edge of field and forest, just below the summit of an impressive mountaintop.)

This video has nothing whatsoever to do with my blog. I do listen to this guy's videos on YouTube from time to time because he talks often of camping and woodcraft. Also, I love the guy's dialect and try to think of how to translate it to the written page.


Rick Grimes said...

I find this sort of thing very interesting. I used to like to try placing someone's general origin from their dialect, people in movies or locals on Tv. I don't do it much anymore because there are simply so many specific variations beyond any possibility of my really knowing so much geography personally. Somehow I do feel I have a pretty good ear, tho I have no real proof.

As many decades as I've lived in northern Louisiana I can still tell the locals apart from 'my own people' from central Kentucky and Tennessee. So called station in life makes a difference too, of course. One of my grandmothers had a German American background. No particular accent was detectable to us, tho she did say 'Himmel' regularly. She had entertained some notion as a girl of being a teacher, and tho that never happened she had a precise way of speaking. My granpa was from a small hill town in Tennessee just across the border. He was a fairly quiet, but funny, man so I can't say I paid as much attention to how he spoke, but hearing his sister or my mother there was a definitely distinctive difference from say, eastern Kentucky.

It sounds to me like you found the best solution for conveying such. In my comics I will sometimes make up those very sorts of words, if it serves the sound I want. Usually I'm only portraying variations of my own self. My own Southern accent is rather submerged. I recall deliberately neutralizing it when I was young, mostly because of television; and after a minor bit of mimicky notice by a boyhood friend here, after I came back from being around my cousins for two weeks.

To me the (white) people here are much twangier and nasal and loud than those from my origins. I have never considered writing them down. I'm not even sure I like hearing them really, tho people here are friendly enough. One would definitely need examples, like the video, to play over and over and over, to get it down right at all.

You might consider a/nother cursory glance at Finnegan's Wake (I've never read but a bit of it myself)--at the other end of the spectrum, as far as actual spontaneity--for another visual take on contrived lyrical words. Tho that sort of idiosyncratic stuff veers into the unintelligible. But he was after the Irish version of what you're talking about.

James Robert Smith said...

I always pay attention to dialects. The only time I don't is when I am in an area where the dialect is uniform. There are all kinds of weird little quirks among smaller areas, neighborhoods, and even within families.

One word I grew up with and which absolutely no one else to whom I have ever spoken has admitted to using or hearing is "tump". "Tump" is kind of like tripped and dumped combined. As in the accidental dumping of something. "He tumped over." (He tripped.) "The plate tumped onto the floor." (Someone left the plate too close to the edge of the table and it fell off.)

Dialects are strange and often funny.

Rick Grimes said...

Well, let me be the first, then, because I know the word 'tump'. I'm sure I used to say it, too.

Usually followed by an 'it', though. More or less just as you use it, but, "I tumped it over...". I might not ever have said or heard it used with a person as the subject, as I tend to think of it in tandem with things.

It also possibly might have been a combination of tipped (over) and thumped (to/on the floor).

I can't say where I ever heard it; but as a kid most likely. Can't say my family used it a lot, but I'm sure they knew what it meant.

I'm afraid it's mostly been eclipsed by 'knocked' in my own usage. What's the use of 'tumping' if nobody's around to hear it? :)

James Robert Smith said...

Well, I'll be damned.