Degree of Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Faculty Advisor: Marsha Qualey, Assistant Professor
“Language is the culture – if you lose your language you’ve lost your culture, so if you’ve lost the way your family talk, the way your friends talk, then you’ve lost your culture.” –James Kelman
When developing a special character, the author likes to give him or her as much authenticity as possible by indicating where he is from and how he speaks. But giving characters the proper dialect can be a challenge. The use of dialect in writing has changed over the years as writers responded to criticism and acceptance of its use in literature. The negative response has increased over the years to the point that now little American literature is written using the technique, with the exception of children’s literature, where in some degree dialect is still used in recent and current novels and picture books.
I will look at the history of the use of dialect, using early examples from the nineteenth century (Brer Rabbit and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); a mid-twentieth century novel (The Cay); three late twentieth century novels (Dragonwings, Penny From Heaven, and Somewhere in the Darkness); and a twenty first century novel (The Sweet Far Thing). I will also examine several current picture books that use dialect and I will discuss the critical and popular response to books written in dialect. Craft issues that authors face when considering its use will be examined. Finally, the current consensus on the use of dialect and how it is best used it will be discussed.
To begin, we need to know what is meant by writing in dialect. Dialect may be defined as placing transliterate sounds onto paper to intentionally create an identity for a character or to situate the character with respect to geographic origin, social class, ethnicity, and gender. But there are degrees as to how this may be accomplished. In the order of the most extreme case to the least:
1. The most extreme case is to use misspelled words to replicate what is being said. In this case, the words are written exactly as they sound. It reads like a transcript of what is being said and is the most difficult to read, as in “en he sorter let Brer Rabbit ‘lone”, from Uncle Remus (p.776).
2. A bit easier to read is the use of what is known as “eye-dialect”. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture calls words like fur (for), tu (to), frum (from), deth (death), wuz (was), uv (of), and sez (says), “eye dialect” – nonstandard spellings that represent perfectly standard pronunciations. They are pronounced phonetically the same as their counterparts.
3. Depicting dialogue may have little to do with verbatim phonetic transcriptions as much as the features that the author chooses to include or exclude from the dialect. For example, dropping the “g” from endings of words while spelling all the other words correctly may be all that is necessary to depict the appropriate dialect. This, by the way, is the most stereotyped phonological feature of nonstandard speech in the American language (Balhorn, 55). Twain used it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to differentiate between Jim’s speech and Huck’s speech. Twain probably used it to show a greater difference between their accents since both would likely have dropped their “g”s at the end of words. But Twain needed more of a differentiation between the characters and it’s a simple way to put social distance between the two.
“What’s the matter with you, Jim? You been a-drinking?”
“Drinkin’? Has I ben a-drinkin’? Has I had a chance to be a-drinkin’?” (116).
4. The next level uses local phrases or colloquialisms and only occasional misspellings. It also relies on a combination of word cadence, selected contractions and a sprinkling of slang to set the location and time period. Many regions have phrases unique to them, like “ey?” used in Canada and northern regions and “y’all” in the south. Cameron Michaels gives a great example in her article “Writing Dialect: It’s in the Rhythm”: “A seventeenth century English gentleman’s dialogue whilst appeareth quite different than that of my friend Bubba’s, who’s fixin’ to get him a Moon Pie” (3).
5. Dialect at the next level focuses on the rhythm and word usage while spelling all words correctly. Michaels states that “most dialects are ‘heard’ through the proper cadence, or rhythm inherent within perfectly pronounced words,” and that “it has more to do with timing and word placement than actual pronunciation” (2).
6. The method easiest to read simply mentions in the text that a character is from a certain place or has the accent of a certain place, and in this way allude to the dialect being spoken.
To understand the current trends in and use of dialect by authors today, it is necessary to look at its history. The acceptance of writing in dialect has gone through many stages. Literary representations of black dialects were being used as early as the 1770s, as in John Leacock’s Fall of British Tyranny: “Well, my brave blacks, are you come to list?” “Eas, massa Lord, you preazee.” “How many are there of you?” “Twenty-two, massa” (Krapp, 255). Northern dialects appeared in American writing by the early nineteenth century, as in A. B. Lindsley’s Love and Friendship: “darn my skin ‘f you wouldn’t dewe it, clear as mud” (Krapp, 125). Southern vernacular was used beginning around 1830, as in Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods: “I never seed the critter before, but I reckon it war he, for thar’s nothing like him in natur’” (Krapp, 109). The use of dialect continued to increase through the Civil War (Ellis, 129-130). It hit the height of its popularity around 1885 when Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “demonstrated that the vernacular was adequate to meet any demand a serious writer might make on it” (Kersten, 93). Twain was the first major writer to have any success tackling the colorful language while still preserving some measure of readability.
Reasons for dialect’s early popularity are many. Part of the literary realism movement that began around the time of the Civil War, writing in dialect was a response to the writing style of the eighteenth century in which the wealthy often were the focus of stories. American writers in the later 1800’s were not as interested in writing about society as the British were (Kaplan, 2). Realism was an attempt to give voice to the less wealthy. There was a desire to hear the voice of the regular people and realism was valued for its plain-speaking vernacular. Dialect was used as part of the commitment to writing realistically.
The years between 1880 and 1914 were the time of mass immigration to America. There was greater mobility and communication due to technological advancements such as the transcontinental railroad and the telephone. There was post-Civil War migration, the Gold Rush, and the westward expansion that occurred in response to it (Strand, 117). Among the many American writers there was a desire to demonstrate in writing who was speaking, and one way to show that was by imitating speech as closely as possible. By 1894, dialect was believed to give writing “local color.” Local color celebrated the experiences of all the people with their varying accents. The writing attempted to be authentic and differentiate the regional differences as there was a new awareness of these differences. Diversity became an American trait to celebrate. Local color was one way to join all the different accents, and writers felt that distinctions needed to be made. More and more, dialect was singled out as the central feature of realism and what made American writing democratic. Realism lasted from about the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I.
Also, in the late 1880’s, research began on what is known as “visible speech,” and groups such as the American Dialect Society (ADS) were formed that collected words and expressions from around the country for dictionaries such as James A. Harrison’s “Negro English” published in 1884 (Strand, 118). Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings was one of the books used in these studies that showed how dialect in spoken language intersected with written language (Strand, 123).
According to Berthoff (Wirth-Nesher, 44), the most important feature of American realism is the use of “plain speaking and the free use of common idiom.” He said that the true spellings of words did not indicate how spoken words really sounded, so writers attempted to achieve an “artistic consistency” (Wirth-Nesher, 44).
Henry James in 1898 commented that there was nothing more striking in American fiction then dialect (Wirth-Nesher, 49). Although James did not use it in his fiction, Mark Twain did. He used it in order to make his stories as realistic as possible. He also loved to use dialect for its comic and satirical effects, most notably in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But this use of dialect – to portray a character in a negative way – shows that “the rage for dialect writing after the war had complex and contradictory motives” (Werth-Nesher, 43).
Reaction Sets In
Some argued that in the attempt to capture realism and the natural characteristics of a region, writers had gone too far (Preston, 329). In many cases, dialect writing was used to show the speech as racial and ethnic, and class differences were accentuated in an attempt and commitment to show realism. Birnbaum argues in her article “Dark Dialects,” that since there was no longer a visual ranking of race during the Reconstruction period, dialect was used to indicate ignorance (36). The written representation of speech replaced the skin color as a physical marker of race (38). Essentially, race may not always be visible, but it can be made visible through speech – dialect – and no one would be able to “pass.”
Black dialect in the nineteenth century was written almost exclusively by the dominant white culture and was a white representation of black speech. It was easy for some dialects to be used in a racist manner to show inferiority. Most misspellings could be used to defame characters. Eye-dialect forms, for example, are well known caricature-forming devices (Preston, 329) and authors used them as an intentional exaggeration (Ellis, 140). Eye-dialect is used to make a character appear boorish, uneducated, rustic, gangsterish, etc. Eye-dialect is especially used in Southern dialect to emphasize ignorance or create the impression of illiteracy, such as “Where you frum? I sez to the guy.” Anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews included speech representation that was considered defective German or used a Yiddish accent. The Irish brogue was considered the “lowest rung on the ladder of white native English speakers in America” (Wirth-Nesher, 55), while the creoles and pidgins were probably the lowest for non-white English speakers (Muhleisen, 5). Overgeneralization and exaggeration of dialectical features for comic, thematic, and even political purposes were employed (Ellis, 140), as is exemplified in Twain’s work. Janet Burroway argues in Writing Fiction that by dropping ‘g’s the writer is indicating that the character is ignorant enough to spell them that way when writing, and this can alienate a reader (172). So, even though America was supposed to be classless and democratic, discriminations among classes and races could still be made in literature.
Certainly older writings from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century dialect were used to show ignorance, lower status and a lack of education (Burroway 172), as in Huckleberry Finn where the dialogue of the slave Jim was written in a heavy dialect exemplifying this tactic:
Well, den! Warn’ dat de beatenes’ notion in de worl’? You jes’ take en look at it a minute. Dah’s de stum, dah – dat’s one er de women; heah’s you – dat’s de yuther one; I’s Sollermun; en dish yer dollar bill’s de chile. Bofe un you claims it. What does I do? Does I shin around’ mongs’ de neighbors en fine out which unyou de bill do b’long to, en han’ it over to de right one, all safe en soun’, de way dat anybody dat had any gumption would? No; I take en whack de bill in tow, en give half un it to you, en de yuther half to de yuther woman. Dat’s de was Sollermun was gwyne to do wid de chile. Now I want to ast you: what’s de use er dat half a bill?- can’t buy noth’n wid it. En what use is a half a chile? I wouldn’ give a dern for a million un um. (108)
There were other arguments against dialect. Some thought it was a sign of moral degeneration, that the “traditional” speech spoken by those who were already here needed to be demonstrated by the “purer” or Standard English and should not be “muddied” by the speech of the new people coming into the country. In other words, the “true dialect” spoken by Americans was acceptable while the broken English used by immigrants was not. Twain’s depiction of Jim’s strong Southern accent and “poor” speaking skills made the book an easy target for grammatical purists.
Various dialects looked like a deviation from the national norm. Authors acknowledged that “most people, especially those possessing a certain degree of education, are prone to look upon these variations simply as the bad usage of the ignorant, and therefore as something to be avoided and done away with as soon as possible” (Strand, 122). Also, rather than providing national identity, there was the opinion that by using linguistic diversity, the English language and unity of the American people was threatened.
Some authors have been known to think of any language that is not Standard English to be an inferior form of writing. There was a similar problem when writers tried to write “red man” English, or that of the Native Americans because of the risk that distorted English could be used as a means to portray American-Indian characters unfavorably, as in Red Man’s Revenge, written in 1880 by R.M. Ballantyne, a Scottish-born fiction writer for adolescents. This story uses dialect to depict many languages, including French (“I vish it vas blue”), but an interesting paragraph is used before any dialogue transpires between the “red men” and the white child:
It may be well to remark in passing that Tony, having associated a good deal with Indian boys in Red River, could speak their language pretty well. The Indian, of course, spoke his own tongue correctly, while Tony spoke it much as he spoke his own--childishly. As the reader probably does not understand the Indian language, we will give its equivalent as spoken by both in English. (p.26)
Despite this, Ballantyne manages without any problem to portray the American-Indian characters as savages without using dialogue at all, making constant references throughout the text. An interesting tidbit to add to this is that this author is considered to be an “authoritative” source since he had lived in the area for six years in the Red River Settlement, the area where this story takes place. A writer doesn’t even need to write in dialect to make racist statements or assumptions. He can write it in “pure” English.
If dialect is not used, then the author must find some other way to relay the information about a character. If dialect is used, then the writer risks certain assumptions made by the reader, such as that a character is uneducated and perhaps rustic. All of these problems were stepping stones to the development of how dialect is written by modern writers.
Writers Defend Dialect
There were authors that defended dialect and slang. Some considered dialect as a way to expand their creative possibilities. Another argument circulated that an author could use dialect but only if he was of the background of the particular dialect. For example, only African Americans can write the black dialect, meaning that Paul Lawrence Dunbar could write in dialect and do it properly, but Mark Twain could not.
Dunbar was both encouraged and criticized because he used black dialect. In his attempt to express the stories of his family (both parents were slaves) in a realistic manner, he felt he needed to use dialect. He wrote many poems in dialect; for example, “When De Co’n Pone’s Hot” is a poem written in dialect by Dunbar in 1896:
Dey is times in life when Nature
Seems to slip a cog an’ go,
Jes’ a-rattlin’ down creation,
Lak an ocean’s overflow;
When de word’ jes’ stahts a-spin-
Lak a picaninny’s top,
An’ yo’ cup o’ joy is brimmin’
‘Twell it seems about to slop,
An’ you feel jes’ lak a rach,
Dat is trainin’ fu’ to trot –
When yo’ mammy says de blessin’
An’de co’n pone’s hot. (57)
For a serious black poet, dialect was a reminder of slavery and black repression (Kersten, 100), even if it gave a faithful representation of the language. Dunbar ultimately felt that he did not need to perpetuate degrading stereotypes and stopped using dialect, as in “The Stirrip Cup” written in 1899:
Come, drink a stirrup cup with me,
Before we close our rouse.
You’re all aglow with win, I
The master of the house,
Unmindful of our revelry,
Has drowned the carking devil
And slumbers in his chair. (125)
According to linguists, to be a “legitimate” speaker of the dialect, the writer must be an expert observer and be of the background being written, the argument being that the intention of the illegitimate writer would be to take advantage of the misspellings and the negative meanings associated with them, perhaps show the character in an unfavorable light or deliberately and often humorously display the speaker as socially and intellectually inferior. One can see how this would limit the stories that could be written.
Dialect and Modern Readers
Other arguments for not using dialect in writing arose; many of these concerned readers and their comprehension of dialect. Writers and others began to realize that unless a reader was from a particular background – German, Irish, Indian, or whatever – it could be very hard to decipher the words and understand what the writer is trying to say, especially when the writer used an extreme level of dialect. In an attempt to be truthful and accurate in their telling, an author could lose his reader. Also, each immigrant, even from the same background as the dialect, might have a different way of speaking English so that there is not a standard even among the group. The language representation, then, would be varied with every speaker.
Still more questions came up as people wondered about the readers who would need to slow down their reading due to misspellings in dialect or the confusion over what a word might be. Would misspellings make a book impossible to read by what is now termed an ESL (English as a Second Language) reader because there is no way to look up the misspelled words in a dictionary? With dialect as extreme as in the above example from Huckleberry Finn, many readers would have trouble deciphering what Jim is saying and there would be no way of looking the words up in a dictionary. Most people learn English from a somewhat universal standard. Changing this standard will make a book written in dialect virtually unreadable. The Huckleberry Finn example is difficult to decipher if English is your first language; imagine trying to read it in a second language.
Let’s look at another example, Brer Rabbit: His Songs and Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris:
Atter Brer Fox hear ‘bout how Brer Rabbit done Brer Wolf,” said Uncle Remus, scratching his head with the point of his awl, “he ‘low, he did, dat he better not be so brash, en he sorter let Brer Rabbit ‘lone. Dey wuz all time seein’ one nuder, en ‘bunnance er times Brer Fox could er nab Brer Rabbit, but eve’y time he got de chance, his min ‘ud sorter rezume ‘bout Brer Wolf, en he let Brer Rabbit ‘lone. (776)
Russell Hoban, author of numerous books for children including the popular Frances series from the 1960’s, likes the use of dialect. He comments that the speech of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and their associates became part of his family language while reading these stories to his children when they were growing up. Uncle Remus stories are distinctive because of the narration which is “wonderful fun to read aloud and to hear” (693). Hoban’s preference is for the original dialect and hopes it will never be replaced by the newer versions that clean up the text, claiming that “sat and took it” is less vivid than “sot and tuck it.”
Vivid, yes, but not attractive or easy to read. But are Brer Rabbit and Huckleberry Finn difficult to read and understand simply because they were written in the late nineteenth century or because they are written so differently from stories written today?
A more contemporary example from the twentieth century shows that the level of dialect and not the century or origin is the problem. The Cay, by Theodore Taylor, is a children’s classic published in 1969. Taylor depicts the West Indian accent in a dialect using misspellings:
He said, “I knew a Phillip who feesh out of St. Jawn, but an outrageous mahn he was.” He laughed deep inside himself.
I asked him for a drink of water.
He nodded agreeably, saying, “D’sun do parch.” He lifted a hinged section of the raft flooring and drew out the keg, which was about two feet long. There was a tin cup lashed to it. Careful not to spill a drop, he said, “Tis best to ‘ave only an outrageous smahl amount. Jus’ enough to wet d’tongue.”
“Why?” I asked. “That is a large keg.”
He scanned the barren sea and then looked back at me, his old eyes growing remote. “D’large kag ‘ave a way o’losin’ its veree size.”
“You said we would be picked up soon,” I reminded him.
“Ah, yes,” he said instantly, “But we mus’ be wise ‘bout what we ‘ave.” (34-35)
Unfortunately, the dialogue throughout is not successful because it is quite confusing to read and understand, despite hearing the accent.
The accent as written is pretty blatant. The West Indian accent is difficult enough to understand when heard, and this style does not make it easy to decipher. Furthermore, there are enough colloquial expressions in this bit of dialogue to give a feel for the language without also making it difficult to read by writing in dialect. Compare the dialogue if it were written without the dialect:
He said, “I knew a Phillip who fish out of St. John, but an outrageous man he was.” He laughed deep inside himself.
I asked him for a drink of water.
He nodded agreeably, saying, “The sun do parch.” He lifted a hinged section of the raft flooring and drew out the keg, which was about two feet long. There was a tin cup lashed to it. Careful not to spill a drop, he said, “It’s best to have only an outrageous small amount. Just enough to wet the tongue.”
“Why?” I asked. “That is a large keg.”
He scanned the barren sea and then looked back at me, his old eyes growing remote. “The large keg have a way of losing its very size.”
“You said we would be picked up soon,” I reminded him.
“Ah, yes,” he said instantly, “But we must be wise about what we have.”
The author is not attempting to show that Timothy is ignorant. He wasn’t trying to be demeaning. However, in an attempt to make it sound exotic, the dialect is hard to decipher. It is important for a writer to understand that dialect may be successfully written without misspellings of words, as long as the writer takes full advantage of cadence and the rhythm of the dialect in the dialogue. Also, instead of using misspelled words, the use of slang appropriate to period and location may be incorporated to imply the dialect. In this way, authentic characters may be developed to represent the place they come from and not become “provincial curiosities” (Burroway 172). In the above example, Timothy has been made into a “provincial curiosity.” This example was written nearly 40 years ago. Literature about creoles increasingly shows creole cultures with dignity, legitimacy and respect.
It would seem that all three of these examples are difficult to read because they are not written in Standard English and there is no way to translate the writing. If a translation or some other guide were also included along with the text, it might be more readable. Most likely, Brer Rabbit and Huckleberry Finn would never be written in the same style today, and it’s doubtful they would be published as they are written. They were successful in the 19th century because of the realism movement going on at that time, and it is unlikely that a modern author would have the same success using dialect in that way. But, the use of misspellings in dialect and eye dialect were a necessary part in the history of dialect because it “paved the way for necessary representations of black dialect and inclusions of diverse voices in the literature canon” (Strand, 125).
The consensus in writing today is that “ethnic dialect” is offensive and insulting to minority groups since the speech is considered backward, crude, or possesses other negative qualities. Mark Twain’s book has been banned over the years from bookstores and libraries for its use of poor language, not suitable for civilized society (Taylor, 133).
Today’s trend is for the writer to convey the information which the reader needs and make it detailed enough to place the character, but not so detailed as to distract the reader. Mark Balhorn, in his article “Dialect Renderings and Linguistic Accuracy,” says that some attempts at showing dialect accurately turned into more of a transcription than literature. In those cases, too much information was given to portray a character accurately and in fact took any dimension away from the character (52).
But, is there ever a time when misspelled words are acceptable to use and if so, how many misspellings or words in dialect would be acceptable to use in prose? Since, often these words are used for comic effect rather than regional dialect, Balhorn advises today’s authors not to represent precise regional and/or social departures from a standard in grammar and vocabulary (775).
The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture says that dialect would probably work with few problems in comprehension if this type of writing were done with the intention of being read aloud. This introduces the difference between written dialogue and spoken dialogue. Burroway says the bottom-line rule is that “dialogue must be speakable. If it isn’t speakable it isn’t dialogue” (173), meaning that the words must be comfortable in the mouth for it to sound like real dialogue. The perpetual dilemma for the writer is to determine how far to go in accuracy in dialect without losing the reader.
The best advice she gives is to use these sparingly so that the reader is not annoyed and generally, if it doesn’t slow the reader down, it’s okay to use them (Burroway, 2). It would seem that when the reader begins to struggle with the word selection and has no way of looking them up, the author has gone too far.
A study of third grade students and folktales was performed in the early 1970’s that supports the belief that dialect works best when read aloud. In this study Cajun, Hawaiian, and Black English folktales were read to and by the children. All stories were presented in Standard English, Black English, Pidgen, or Cajun. The following hypotheses were made:
1. Black children prefer Black English folktales to the same folktales presented in Standard English.
2. Black children comprehend Black English folktales better than the same folktales in Standard English.
3. Regardless of ethnic group, children prefer Standard English folktales to folktales in dialect not part of their background.
4. Regardless of ethnic group, children comprehend Standard English folktales better than folktales not a part of their background.
It was found that:
1. Neither black children nor children with other ethnic backgrounds responded favorably to reading folktales written in dialect. Standard English was preferred when reading, even when the dialect was part of the child’s background.
2. Black children preferred the stories in Black English and comprehended them better when they were listening to them.
3. Children of other ethnic backgrounds did not prefer listening to Black English dialect and responded more unfavorably to Black English folktales than those in Standard English.
4. When listening to folktales in dialect, the children liked them slightly more than when read in Standard English.
5. None of the children responded favorably to the folktales in Cajun or Pidgin whether read or listened to, and they had lower comprehension, although they did prefer listening to Pidgin slightly more than listening to Cajun.
The test results suggest that it doesn’t seem to be to the writer’s advantage to write in dialect when writing for young children.
Have any children’s authors used dialect in their dialogue recently? It would seem that the majority of writers have given up the task of writing in dialect, perhaps for the reasons mentioned above, because no current examples could be found where the complete text is written in dialect in the same manner as The Cay, Uncle Remus, or Huckleberry Finn. But some incorporate dialect on a smaller scale, including the author of one of the most popular series today, J.K. Rowling. The character of Hagrid speaks in dialect, depicted through speech patterns and incorrect grammar. Used consistently throughout the Harry Potter books, the style becomes part of his personality:
“So,” said Hagrid, rubbing his hands together and beaming around, “If yeh wan’ ter come a bit nearer--”
No one seemed to want to. Harry, Ron and Hermione, however, approached the fence cautiously.
“Now, firs’ thing yeh gotta know abou’ hippogriffs is, they’re proud,” said Hagrid. “Easily offended, hippogriffs are. Don’t never insult one, ‘cause it might be the last thing yeh do” (160 ).
Dialect written in this way is used in other current fiction for children and young adults as well. A Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray, a young adult novel that takes place in Victorian England, uses dialect to depict the lower class British accent of some female factory workers, male construction workers, and London poor folk. The same dialect is used for all three groups:
Out on the Thames, the boats sway with the current. There’s something soothing and familiar about it.
“They’re pullin’ ‘im in, all righ’. Got a ‘nitiation planned for ‘im and ever’fin’,” Toby says. “Don’ know ‘ow much they’ve told ‘im, though.”
“And is Fowlson the one who brought him in?” Kartik asks.
Toby shakes his head, “Fowlson’s ‘is minder. Somebody at the top asked for it. A gen’leman.” He points to the sky. “High up.”
“Do you know who?”
“Naw. Tha’s all I know.”
“I want to find this gentleman,” I insist.
“Fowlson reports to ‘im. ‘E’s the one ‘oo knows” (456).
In both of these examples, the text is easily readable and a reader doesn’t get bogged down trying to figure out what the character is saying.
Though some writers today use dialect, criticism of it persists. Some present day arguments for not writing in dialect (other than readability and comprehension) include marketing considerations, editor preferences, how to accurately document dialect authentically and translate sounds onto paper, and the risk of portraying racist stereotypes. For children who have been taught to read in English, dialect may be too hard a task to decode text written in dialect. There is also the belief by some critics that certain dialects, such as Jamaican creole or South Carolina Gullah, cannot be put onto paper. (Birbaum, 44) (Muhleisen, 8)
While it appears that some dialect writing is creeping back into the style of children’s literature today, it seems more popular to depict dialect not by using misspellings but through the use of some simple tricks such as using key words or phrases to imply the dialect, and to use a characteristically recognizable cadence and rhythm to the language.
The recent middle grade novels, Somewhere in the Darkness by Walter Dean Myers, Each Little Bird that Sings by Deborah Wiles and Dragonwings by Laurence Yep have characters that use dialect of the region where the story takes place, but are written in perfect English, except where noted.
Somewhere in the Darkness is set in the Bronx and the characters are black. The change in dialogue to reflect this is minimal:
“Day before yesterday,” Maurice said. “But check this out. Tony just nicked the dude and he was screaming and carrying on like he had stabbed him through the heart or something.”
“Yeah, hey, look, you want to play some ball tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
“You give up ball or something, man?” Maurice looked at him sideways. “We playing Richie and his crew.”
“I’ll see how I’m feeling,” Jimmy said.
“You ain’t going to play, “Maurice said. “You getting to be another jive dude, man” (15).
Just knowing that this story is set in the Bronx and that the characters are black immediately causes the reader to start reading the dialogue with a “Black English” accent. It is easy to hear the hardness of tone in their voices. Some words are dropped, the word “ain’t” is used, and the use of slang reinforces the character’s dialect. The sentence structure is short, concise, choppy, and direct. It is quite successful in depicting a Bronx accent. None of the characters has been turned into “provincial curiosities.”
Each Little Bird that Sings is set in the south and the dialogue reflects this by dropping the letter ‘g’ at the end of ‘ing’ words, using southern pet names (calling everybody honey, sugar, puddin’, or darlin’) and other southern slang (I declare/ As I live and breathe/Bless my stars/Glory Halleluja). The language is more fluid than the Bronx accent. It’s slower, more flowery, prettier and smoother:
“Can we help you, darlin’?” Aunt Goldie said.
“This is my friend Declaration,” I said. Declaration stayed put near the door. “You remember Declaration, Aunt Goldie...”
“Oh!” said Aunt Goldie. “Mercy, I remember you, Declaration. I haven’t seen you in ice ages! Just look at you! You’ve grown into a beautiful young lady!
“Have some prune bread,” said Aunt Goldie. “It’s warm from the oven!”
“No, ma’am, thank you.” Declaration glared at me. “I’m here to...help...”
“Is it that time already?” Aunt Goldie looked at the clock on the wall and shot out of her chair. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, it is! Come on, sugar, let’s get dressed quick!”
“You’re already dressed, Aunt Goldie,” I said.
She removed her apron. She was dressed entirely in purple. “So I am. I plum forgot. I’m wearing plum, too.” She laughed at her joke. (125)
In Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm, the characters are described as Italian American. It helps that they all have Italian names to reinforce their ethnicity…Dominic, Grandmother Falucci, Uncle Nunzio, Uncle Ralphie, Uncle Sally, Uncle Paulie, Frankie, Uncle Angelo…The dialogue has bits of Italian interspersed just so the reader doesn’t forget that they are Italian. For example:
“What?” Uncle Ralphie says. “They’re good people, patanella mia.”
And then the author goes on to reiterate that they are Italian:
“Patanella mia is Uncle Ralphie’s nickname for Aunt Fulvia. He says it means “my little potato.” A lot of my Italian relatives have nicknames.” (19)
There are many examples of this throughout the novel:
“Hi Nonny,” I say. Nonna is Italian for “Grandmother.”
“Tesoro mio,” Nonny says, wiping away her tears with a black lace handkerchief. She calls me tesoro mio, which means “my treasure.” Nonny doesn’t speak English very well (48).
And then Nonny uses broken English throughout:
Nonny wipes her hands on her apron. “We see your papa now, yes? She says this like it’s a question, but I know it’s not (48).
“Paolo,” she says, and points to her gloves. Paolo is Paulie’s name in Italian.
“Here ya go, Ma,” Uncle Paulie says, handing her the black gloves (49).
The chapters alternate between Penny’s Italian family and her “plain old American” Methodist family, which makes the Italian references stand out even more, compared to the blandness of the Methodist side. The Italian dialect is easy to read, and it is also very easy to pick up the Italian references and rhythms of the accent without it actually being written in a New York/Italian dialect.
An excellent example of successful dialect comes from Dragonwings by Laurence Yep, who has Chinese characters speaking without using misspelled words. When the Chinese characters are talking (in Chinese) to each other the dialogue is written with perfect grammar. When the same the same characters speak the dialogue in English, it is italicized and in broken English:
Father noticed the almost empty plate at the same time. “Look at this boy,” he said in exasperation. “He eat enough for four pigs.” He started to apologize to the demoness, but she only smiled prettily again.
“There’s only one real compliment for a cook, and that’s for her guests to eat everything up. You must take the rest of the cookies with you.” She smoothed her apron over her lap and winked at me secretly.
“You too kind.” Father spread his hands. “You make us ashame.” He kicked me gently under the table.
“Yes, ashame,” I piped up (104).
The Chinese accent is perfectly recognizable by the cadence and broken English, but is also very readable. All the words are spelled correctly, yet we gain a sense of accent. It is easy to hear the Chinese dialect in this writing and it does not demean the race or question the character’s intelligence. Part of the success of this method is because the reader does get to hear the Chinese men talking to each other throughout so much of the story. He can hear how they really speak to each other and gauge their intelligence, so that when the characters switch to the broken English the reader already knows them and knows they are intelligent and that they are struggling to speak in this foreign language the same way that he might in their position.
All three dialects shown here are perfectly readable, yet the reader recognizes that the characters have an accent through the use of other mechanisms other than verbatim dialect.
After finding some dialect in children’s novels with varying levels of success, I began to wonder about dialect in picture books. First I took a very informal survey of children’s librarians on a national listserv and asked if they used stories with dialect in their storytimes. I also asked about the reaction they received from the children. Responses given indicated that they were, in fact, reading stories with dialects including those of Jewish, Black, Southern, Cajun, French, and Spanish. Several librarians laughed about their poor skills in reading the dialect, but all agreed that the children seemed to enjoy the stories.
It is easier to find more picture books than novels that use dialect, perhaps because these books are generally read aloud. A number of picture books have recently been printed that feature African American dialects, so it doesn’t seem that the method is completely unacceptable. Many of the titles are folktales or have slavery as the theme, such as The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales and Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl both by Virginia Hamilton, which perhaps makes it more acceptable since she is an African American. Again, there seems to be a distinction between writing a story meant to be read by the child and a story meant to be read aloud to a child.
I use books in my storytimes that include dialect. My favorites include “Flossie and the Fox” (1986) by Patricia McKissack, “Feliciana Feyra LeRoux” (1995) and “Feliciana Meets d’Loup Garou” (1998) by Tynia Thomassie, “Tailypo” (1977) by Joanna Galdone and “Sody Salleratus” (1998) by Aubrey Davis: (black, Cajun, and Appalachian dialect stories, respectively). What I like about using these stories is that I am able to change the way I talk to mimic the appropriate sound and place of the story, something I would not be able to do if the writing were not in dialect. I like the variety of speech in the stories and I like to let children know that not everybody speaks in the same way. In addition, I enjoy the variety in rhythms.
The Cajun picture books written by Tynia Thomassie give a short author’s note in the front explaining to the reader what Cajun is and supplies a short history of the Cajun people. It also explains that what they are about to read is a traditional Cajun tale set in the present time. The author also provides an extensive glossary and pronunciation guide at the beginning. The back cover lists a “recipe for a Cajun accent” so that the reader can sound like a true Cajun.
Thomassie uses many tricks throughout her story to depict the Cajun dialect. She sprinkles Cajun words and endearments throughout such as chere, mais, bayou, and Memere, as in “Oh, mon Coeur! Screamed Memere, clasping her heart.” She uses the way words are grouped together such as, “Hoooo, but Grampa Baby and the boys had never seen anything like that before, I wanna tell y’all.” Lastly, her dialogue is written in Cajun dialect itself:
“Aw, sid a tall tale y’all tellin’ me now,” said Memere with disgust.
“Mais, ‘course it’s fo’ real, Memere,” snorted Feliciana.
“Jus’ looka my baby doll all chewed up in d’head!”
“H’well, I’ll be,” said Memere.
“How ‘bout I make my girl a new baby doll?” offered Grampa Baby.
“Not fo’ me, no!” Feliciana exclaimed. “I’m keepin’ dis one so I can always ‘member d’night I went halligator huntin’. (unpaged)
The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend uses the picture book format to introduce children to three different dialects, Spanish, French, and Southern, in a very basic story:
Finally, Jack stood before them. “You birds are so silly. The next farm over has an even better nest, and it’s empty. Why doesn’t one of you use that nest?”
“An empty nest?” cried the chicken. “Without a goose to sit on my head? !Caramba!”
“Sacre bleu!” cried the duck. “I am tired of smelling like zee chicken. Zat nest ees mine!”
“Great balls of fire!” cried the goose. “Outta my way!” (unpaged)
The children seem to respond favorably, perhaps to the sound or the rhythm of the text. Maybe they just like the story. I notice that children are more apt to pick up a book or ask for a book if they have already been introduced to it by either a teacher or me. It does seem that the words are too difficult for them to read on their own, but if they have heard the story before they can at least try to imitate what they have heard.
It appears then that today children’s books use dialect for several reasons:
1. To depict the life and language of a particular culture.
2. To introduce words and phrases used in everyday conversation while providing translations for the word or text used.
3. To give a retelling of a popular story or fairytale from a certain area or region using the language of that area.
When using dialect in children’s literature, follow these guidelines:
1. Decide what dialect you are going to represent.
2. Familiarize yourself with that dialect.
3. Identify distinctive words or phrases that a person of that group would use.
4. Practice the dialect, verbally and on paper.
5. Finally, pick the best and most representative parts for your character to use.
Dialect has gone through many phases since the 1700’s when it first appeared in literature. It may appear in varying “strengths” from full dialect using misspelled words in transcript form down to a passing mention that a character is speaking in another dialect. The extent of dialect used seems to vary with what popular culture is willing to accept at the time. Its success is debatable.
As far as fiction is concerned, it may be that writers were at one time avoiding the use of dialect in their writing in order to be “politically correct”, but it is once again being used in a way that does not offend readers. J.K. Rowling, for example, uses some dialect in her Harry Potter books and has not been attacked.
If dialect is going to be used as a means of creating character, it appears that writing with the intention of it being read-aloud is the best route to take. Picture books still seem to have measurable success with the use of dialect, especially as a way to provide setting. This may also be due to the format which allows some instruction in the text, as well as definitions and pronunciation guides in the back to aid in its understanding.
Fiction, on the other hand, which is generally not intended to be read aloud, seems to fare better with the use of implied dialect, that is, using cadence and rhythm, as well as local colloquialisms to sound like the dialect without using misspellings. A small amount of leeway will be given by the reader, but not so much as to cause distraction or frustration. Writers who successfully use dialect also:
- avoid respellings that would mislead readers about the status of the speaker.
- might pepper a narrative with occasional uses of the dialect such as using words like “jambalaya”, or use greetings and kinship terms in the non-standard English, such as, “Hey Grand-pere”, as a Cajun grandson might greet his grandfather, or use Cajun French phrases like tu connais ‘you know’, mais yeah ‘but yes’, and cher/chere ‘dear’ throughout the text, to depict the Cajun dialect, for example.
- Let the reader know explicitly when the characters have changed language, such as “Here the speaker turned to Jean Thompson, and changed his speech to English” letting the reader know exactly how educated or literate the character is when speaking in Standard English.
- Use well-known sentence structure that exemplifies the dialect, such as in Cajun, “Why should I be ashame of that, me?”
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The Perfect Nest
by Catherine Friend
Jack the cat is building the perfect nest, bound to attract the perfect chicken that will lay the perfect egg to make the perfect omelet. But Jack's plan hatches more than he expected. First a chicken, then a duck, then a goose, claims the nest, calls it perfect and refuses to leave. Cries of "FIRE!" "FLOOD!" and "WOLF" don't budge their ruffled feathers, until Jack hints the next farm over has an even better nest. Fowl free, he thinks; Jack's mouth waters in anticipation of an egg breakfast, lunch and dinner. But just as he reaches for the eggs, they hatch and immediately imprint on Jack as their father. To escape their peeping demands, he tries to hide, but the three fuzzy chicks find him and drag him back to the nest for warmth and sleep. Henpecked into a new paternal responsibility, Jack curls up with the chicks and realizes his nest is perfect.
Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl
by Virginia Hamilton
Bruh Rabbit may indeed have met his match when he comes across a tar baby in the middle of the road. The baby's deaf, dumb and blind attitude infuriates the plucky trickster, just as Wolf planned! When Bruh Rabbit gets entangled in the tar baby's sticky embrace, has he finally been foiled by his long-time enemy? Certainly not, if Wolf falls for Bruh Rabbit's clever reverse-psychology and flings the wily rabbit into the briar patch!
Spun in Virginia Hamilton's unique vernacular, this will be a delight to those familiar with Bruh Rabbit's games, and a unforgettable introduction for newcomers!
The People Could Fly
by Virginia Hamilton
Classic collection of American black folktales. By turns droll, grisly, and spine-tingling, the 24 stories celebrate the indomitable human spirit, surviving under the most crushing circumstances of slavery. Traditionally, storytelling has helped people to push through sorrow and pain, especially when the stories are saturated with magic, mysticism, and fantasy. Bruh Rabbit, He Lion, Tar Baby, and other animals populate many of the stories. In others, John, the traditional trickster hero, outwits the slave owner time after time to win his freedom.
Penny from Heaven
by Jennifer L. Holm
The story of a summer of adventures and secrets that will change everything, at a time in America’s history, just after World War II, when being Italian-American meant confronting prejudice because you'd been the enemy not that long ago .
It’s 1953 and 11-year-old Penny dreams of a summer of butter pecan ice cream, swimming, and baseball. But nothing’s that easy in Penny’s family. For starters, she can’t go swimming because her mother’s afraid she’ll catch polio at the pool. To make matters worse, her dog, Scarlett O'Hara, is sick. Her favorite uncle is living in a car. Her best friend is turning into a criminal. And no one will tell Penny the truth about how her father died.
Penny from Heaven is a story about families—about the things that tear them apart and the things that bring them back together.
Somewhere in the Darkness
by Walter Dean Myers
Jimmy hasn't seen his father in nine years. But one day he comes back -- on the run from the law. Together, the two of them travel across the country -- where Jimmy's dad will find the man who can exonerate him of the crime for which he was convicted. Along the way, Jimmy discovers a lot about his father and himself -- and that while things can't always be fixed, sometimes they can be understood and forgiven.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
by J. K. Rowling
For twelve long years, the dread fortress of Azkaban held an infamous prisoner named Sirius Black. Convicted of killing thirteen people with a single curse, he was said to be the heir apparent to the Dark Lord, Voldemort.
Now he has escaped, leaving only two clues as to where he might be headed: Harry Potter's defeat of You-Know-Who was Black's downfall as well. And the Azkban guards heard Black muttering in his sleep, "He's at Hogwarts...he's at Hogwarts."
Harry Potter isn't safe, not even within the walls of his magical school, surrounded by his friends. Because on top of it all, there may well be a traitor in their midst.
by Theodore Taylor
Phillip is excited when the Germans invade the small island of Curaçao. War has always been a game to him, and he’s eager to glimpse it firsthand–until the freighter he and his mother are traveling to the United States on is torpedoed.
When Phillip comes to, he is on a small raft in the middle of the sea. Besides Stew Cat, his only companion is an old West Indian, Timothy. Phillip remembers his mother’s warning about black people: “They are different, and they live differently.”
But by the time the castaways arrive on a small island, Phillip’s head injury has made him blind and dependent on Timothy.
Feliciana Feyra LeRoux
by Tynia Thomassie
Gather round y'all here's a story about a li'l girl by the name of Feliciana Feydra LeRoux, who lives deep in the depths of Cajun country. I tell you, that child's grampa spoils her rotten! But there's one thing Grampa just won't let Feliciana do go alligator hunting in the swamp with all the menfolk. And naturally that's the one thing Feliciana wants to do most of all! This exciting adventure includes a whimsical recipe for perfecting your own Cajun accent.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain
The novel's preeminence derives from its wonderfully imaginative re-creation of boyhood adventures along the mighty Mississippi River, its inspired characterization, the author's remarkable ear for dialogue, and the book's understated development of serious underlying themes: "natural" man versus "civilized" society, the evils of slavery, the innate value and dignity of human beings, the stultifying effects of convention, and other topics. But most of all,Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful story ― filled with high adventure and unforgettable characters (including the great river itself) ― that no one who has read it will ever forget.
by Laurence Yep
Set in San Francisco between the years 1903 and 1910, this story gives a realistic picture of a young Chinese boy's life as he moves from China to join his father in California. Leaving behind his mother and grandmother, Moonshadow is frightened to come to the "Land of the Golden Mountain", but he wants to see the father that has been gone since before he was born. The land of the "demons", as the white people are called, is unfriendly toward Chinese people. The story weaves around historical references such as the Earthquake of 1906, Theodore Roosevelt, and early flight, even including a letter correspondence with the Wright Brothers. Moon Shadow works with his father, meets nice neighbors in an elderly woman and her niece, and eventually helps his father build and fly a biplane named Dragonwings. Full of many Chinese cultural references, this novel relates what life was probably like for Chinese during that period of time. Well written and full of love, respect, family traditions, and prejudice, Dragonwings won the Newbery Honor Award in 1976. Recommended for middle grade readers who enjoy historical fiction, books about flying, or multicultural issues. I loved listening to this one on audio.
Each Little Bird that Sings
by Deborah Wiles
Ten-year-old Comfort Snowberger has attended 247 funerals--her family owns the local funeral home, after all. And even though Great-uncle Edisto keeled over with a heart attack and Great-great-aunt Florentine dropped dead--just like that--six months later, Comfort knows how to deal with loss, or so she thinks. She's more concerned with avoiding her crazy cousin Peach and trying to figure out why her best friend, Declaration, suddenly won't talk to her. But life is full of surprises. And the biggest one of all is learning what it takes to handle them.
The Sweet Far Thing
by Libba Bray
This is the third book in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, the first was A Great and Terrible Beauty and the second was Rebel Angels. Gemma now has the magic of the Realms bound to her and she has promised to join hands in the Temple to share the magic with all the tribes, but problems begin to arise immediately when some do not want to share it. She isn't sure how to control the magic in the beginning but she continues to have visions and is confused about how to best divide the magic. She doesn't trust her teachers who are trying to get the magic from her and manages to hold them off by claiming she doesn't have it anymore and denying that she can get back into the realms. She is having family problems with her father now very ill and her brother being courted by the Rakshana in an attempt to steal the magic. As well, she promises to change the course of Ann and Felicity's lives so that they can lead them the way they want to rather than be married off. Ann wants desperately to be on stage and Felicity wants to move to Paris and wear trousers like the men. Meanwhile, the girls at Spence are preparing for their debut and spend hours practicing their curtsies for the Queen. This book is full of action and suspense, mystery and even a little love. The trilogy wraps up nicely and readers will be pleased with the outcome, which remains a mystery right up to the end.