Being a Better Writer: Dialects

When you go to the grocery store, what do you call the wheeled apparatus that you collect your groceries in? Is it a shopping cart? Or is it a carriage? Or a trolley?

I’m willing to bet that a good number, if not most of you said “shopping cart.” But if you were from the American northeast—say, Connecticut or Rhode Island—there’s a high chance that you said “Carriage” instead. Or that you might say “bubbler” instead of “water fountain.” Or “soda pop” instead of “soda.” Or crud, maybe you’re even one of those individuals who calls all sodas “coke.” You know, as in “Get me a coke,” followed by “What do you want?” and “Oh, a Pepsi.”

All of these differences (and many, many more, from snow machine to snowmobile) are examples of what are know as “regional dialects.” Which makes today’s post a bit of a companion piece to last week’s on accents. And, I must admit, this topic wasn’t on the list, but after a comment about the concept by reader ocalhoun (no, I don’t know how you pronounce that either, but I’ve always read it as “o-cull-hoon”) brought up the subject, I realized that it was worth posting about, rather than just giving it an offhand mention as I had previously done.

So, dialects! What are they, how do they come about, and—this part is a bit key—what separates a dialect from an accent? Because yes, they are two different things. You can have two individuals with the same accent but a different dialect.

So then, let’s start with the basics: What is a dialect? Well, as I mentioned above, it is not an accent. An accent can be part of a dialect, but a dialect is more than just the lilt we give our words. See, an accent is a specific form of annunciation, a particular style of pronouncing letters, vowels, and other components of a language. A dialect, by comparison, is somewhat larger in scope, being a method of speaking or subform of language that is generally tied to a specific region or a certain group.

Confused? How about I put it like this. An accent can be a subset of a dialect, but a dialect cannot be a subset of an accent. A dialect is more than just the way someone pronounces words, it’s how they say them, or where they say them. Crud, it’s even what words they use.

For example, by way of illustrating that accent and dialect, while often hand-in-hand, are not connected in a “correlation does not imply causation manner,” let’s assume you’re listening to a pair of engineers talk. Now, these engineers will likely have their own dialect that’s part of their profession. They will (and understand this isn’t a real life example in perfection, but based on it) have shorthand phrases for things, or particular tricks of the trade. While we ordinary laymen might say “Oh, that’s an electrical transformer” an electrical engineer might say “The box.” So if instructing someone to open the transformer and check something, they might say something like “crack the box.”

But the thing is, both of these engineers may have different accents. Say one is from Dublin, the other from Nigeria. Both will have wildly different accents. However, the shared dialogue of being electrical engineers means that when one tells the other to “crack the box,” they’re both speaking the same dialect: that of electrical engineers.

Right then, so an accent is not a dialect and vice-versa. So then, what counts as a dialect, if an accent can be part of it, but is not it? Well, as I said above, a dialect is a method of speaking, not pronunciation. It’s where words are placed in a sentence, or what words are even used. It’s a variety. For example, in the United States there are at least twenty different regional dialects. Possibly more, possibly less, depending on how you want to break things down. But these different regional dialects can include things such as word choice (bubbler or water fountain) and word order as well as the accents we more commonly associate with them.

To put it another way, a dialect is more than just what you sound like. It’s about word choice—diction. It’s about the way questions are phrased. It even ties in with local colloquialisms and sayings.

All these things come together to make up a dialect. You, no matter who you are or where, have a dialect. As do the people around you. And across your home country. Some will be the same, others will be different.

Okay, then, so that’s what a dialect is … but how does it come about? And before you ask, if you’re going into any form of worldbuilding, this is an important question.

Well, dialect comes about much in the same way that new languages and accents do: Evolution. Get a group of people in a specific geographic area, that share experiences and events, and they’ll start forming their own, specific way of talking about things different from any newcomers. Usually for ease, but there can be all kinds of social reasons at root as well.

For example, a group of people colonizing an island with an active volcano might start out referring to the local seismic activity as “earthquakes” or “tremors” but then just shorten things to “shakes.” The name for the volcano itself might go from being “Mount Blanchett” to “Blanch.” Someone might rhyme it, creating a personification “Aunt Blanch.” Further personification might start ascribing the seismic activity traits like, oh, say disease. And so suddenly, where the initial colonists might have said “Did you feel that earthquake last night? Mount Blanchett has been pretty active this week!” a few generations in you might get something like “Aunt Blanch is catching the shakes again. Did you feel that rumble last night?”

Both mean the same thing, but both are different dialects ways of approaching things. A dialect can be created or driven by all sorts of things, from educational systems to newspapers to local community or jobs. Or, more likely, some aspect of all those elements put together.

Okay, now the big question: What does any of this have to do with your writing?

First, realize that by default, you’re probably going to let your own dialect slip into what you write, especially when you get started. Ever read a book where all the characters, even the kids, talk like the author does? I sure have. It’s jarring and completely unreal, but I’d bet that the author doesn’t even realize what they’ve done most of the time. After all, how often do you think about your dialect?

But you should. And you should think about the dialects of your characters when you’re writing them (and when you’re editing; I can already tell you I’ll be punching up a few characters when I edit Jungle to make their dialects a bit more distinct). These dialects are a part of their character, their identity, not just to separate them from other characters, but also to show similarities, subtle ones, between those that share dialects for one reason or another.

Granted, it can still feel a bit, oh … vague, if you just tell yourself to focus on dialects while writing, so it may help to think about how a character speaks, what words they like to use, etc. All stuff we’ve discussed before when speaking about dialogue and the like. My point is, you can break this down if it feels a bit overwhelming.

But you will want to acknowledge dialects with what you write. They’re a vital bit of character for readers to latch onto—crud, they can even be clues. A murderer slipping into a bit of dialect from his home can be the clue both reader and detective alike use to solve the mystery. Or they can help a reader understand what kind of character the speaker is, such as a well-spoken character from a high-society background (or maybe not, maybe that’s the lie!).

Point being, dialects are a part of who we are, and we need to be aware of them. Both so that we don’t project our dialect into what we’re writing, and also so that we can give our characters their dialect and help them come to life for the reader. And in the end, that’s what matters: making that character live for the reader, real for the reader.

So, let’s recap. Accents are not dialects, but accents can be part of dialects. Dialects are methods of speaking, word choice, order, and phrases brought about by regional areas, work, or other factors, and you’ll want to know a little bit about these in order to make sure your character uses the proper dialect.

Having a character with proper dialect in turn creates a more realistic and believable world for the reader, and draws them further into to the story.

It’s a small thing, in the end, but as I’ve said before, the small details are what really can bring a story to life. If you learn to respect your character’s dialects, the ability to do so will be a valuable tool in your writer’s toolbox for identifying characters, backgrounds, and other interesting bits of your world.

So, there you have it. Good luck. Now get writing.

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4 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Dialects

  1. Kind of of like angelmass were Jereko Kosta said perfume in a place were perfume was named differently (at least I think perfume was named differently either that or it didn’t exist at all). Of course he was a main character not a side character or villain.


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