On Dialects

Comments: 3

The other day, I submitted a chapter of my novel, "The Bridge Beckons" to my critique group. I'd rewritten the ending, making it more concise, tightening it up a lot. We have a new lady in our group who hadn't read any of my novel before, and I did not tell her one of the characters was an Italian immigrant. I simply wrote his speech using odd words and awkward sentence structures, speech patterns, idioms, etc., typical of Italian immigrants. I didn't mis-spell any words. I didn't even abreviate any words or add "a"s to the ends of his words, you know like "you know'a go to the store," or, "I like'a you be my friend," kind of stuff. No, I simply wrote his speech the way I think he should talk, and the new lady immediately picked up on it and complimented me on how realistic I'd made him sound. She could tell right off he was an Italian immigrant without all that dialectic mis-spelling.

I think that's what we should strive for. I know it's hard, but it can be done if we listen. Listen to foreigners and people from different parts of our own country, assuming you're from the U.S.A., such as Southerners, New Englanders, etc. Listen to how they talk, how they form their sentences. The word choices they use. For instance, only a Southerner would know how much a "mess" of beans is, or how far a spell is. And maybe I'm wrong, but I've only heard of a "frappe" (spelling is probably wrong) when talking to a person from New England. Or, how about a "hot ticket?" And what about those guys from the Bronx? How would you say, "Hey mister. You can park your car on thirty third and third street?" Would you be inclined to just read it as it's written, or would you almost instinctivelly add in the Bronx accent? (I'm not someone from another country would get this, but I'm hoping they will.)

So, you see, there are many things we can use, aside from laborious mis-spellings, to make a character "sound" like he/she is from some specific place. Try it. Listen to how other people speak, then try to copy it down on paper without using mis-spellings. It can work. I promise.

About Paul West

Paul West is a freelance writer and novelist. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul claims to be a "Prune Picker," though he now makes his home in Taylorsville, Utah.

You can follower him on Twitter: @PaulWWest

Published: Thursday, July 27, 2006

Share this PostPin ThisShare on TumblrShare on Google PlusEmail This


  1. I tried to comment on this last night, but the computer gremlins stole it and so I'm trying again.

    Anyway, Paul, I wanted to let you know that I completely agree with you. I've seen authors go so far overboard trying to convey what they think a character would sound like that they end up sounding like "Me Tarzan, you Jane" and also come off as being racially insensitive.

  2. Thanks for your comment Tristi. I've had some pretty heavy battles with people who would rather spell out accents phonetically. Reading stuff like that is dreadful, in my opinion.

  3. I'm glad I was able to help someone with this blog site. My best wishes to you in your writing.