Thoughts On…Dialect and Terminology

thoughts on dialect and terminology

Dialect, when used well, can be the holy grail of writing stories. It is when authors use the spelling of words to indicate character’s accents. Terminology, dialect’s younger cousin, is just when authors make up certain words to integrate into characters’ speech as a world-building technique.

There are the obvious but powerful implementations of dialect. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck gives characters from different regions of America different speech patterns and dialects. It’s subtle, but the differences demonstrate the amount of work and thought Steinbeck put into the novel.

In his Chaos Walking trilogy, Patrick Ness utilized dialect better than any author I’ve ever read. The main character, Todd, begins the book speaking in a heavy dialect, with any word ending in “tion” being written as “shun” as well as other similar techniques. Ness’s use of dialect pushed past portraying an accent, however, to reflect Todd’s lack of education. As the series progresses, Todd meets more educated characters who speak without the dialect, and the effect is seen in his own speech pattern. By the end of the series, Todd’s dialogue is written in normal English, subtly representing his character’s growth.

Personally, I enjoy dialect simply because I am bad at reading characters in anything other than my own voice. I can’t speak in accents or read words in different accents–it is just something I’ve never had a grasp on. When authors physically show me how they intend for me to read their conversations, it gives me something to work with.

As a side note, one of my only complaints with Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle is that I have no idea what a Henrietta accent sounds like. There is a definite juxtaposition of the rich, privileged residents who don’t speak with the accent, and the poorer residents of the town, but no matter how many times Stiefvater metaphorically describes the vowels in the accent–I can’t get it. I can tell Stiefvater intended the accents to be symbolic, and I can get the symbolism from her writing, but not from an actual understanding of the sounds. It’s frustrating.

In regards to terminology, basically any book that doesn’t take place in either modern day or historical times will have different phrases and names added to the characters’ vocabularies as a part of the author’s world building. For some authors, weaving in new terms effortlessly enhances their story. For others, the first chapters of their books are crowded with unexplained terms that leave the reader confused and frustrated. I’ve read so many books that ended up being great, but that I spent the first fifty pages wishing the author would give me a clue what they are talking about.

I loved the way Beth Revis invented new curse words–among other things–for her characters to use in Across the Universe. On a spaceship that has had centuries to develop its own culture, it really made sense that they would have their own curse words.

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