Dialects, Quotes, and Language in general

I know that on such a site, a topic such as this would most times not be original, but I have found no common examples, so…
Do you approve, like, or hate, the use of dialects in current and past literature. Take for common example, sugh as in Huckleberry Finn. I won’t quote it, as I am sure a majority of you are familiar with it, but it has a reliance on stereotypes and cultural aspects. Another example that I would like to discuss is Flowers for Algernon. It uses the words of a mentally retarded adult, though the translation is simple enough. What I would like to know from you, is when you think these aspects are beneficial or fatal to a work. Maybe you think that this is simply annoying and never a good attribute of a work.

I think they can be good if done correctly and, like in flowers for Algernon, help show gradual change.

I personally like it. If Flowers of Algernon hadn’t been done the way it was, it’d have made a very poor story.

There was indeed such a thread a while ago, I had to dig a while to find it. Coincidentally, the last post was mine.


I don’t think there’s any general rule, especially when you bring past literature into it. It’s beneficial in both the cases you mention; it’s rubbish in lots of others.

It’s worth noting that in both Huckleberry Finn and Flowers for Algernon, the narrator is the one who speaks in a distinctive dialect, and I think that matters. The language is part of putting the reader in the MC’s shoes.

By contrast, when a side character speaks in dialect, it’s usually a strike against the book for me – it feels like the author’s saying “look how funny they talk in [wherever],” and it distances the reader from identifying with the character as opposed to the “normal English” speaking protagonist.

I dunno if that’s true. Not having that distance can also cause a case of disbelief. Just look at the latest Assasain’s Creed game, they’re smack dab in the French Revolution and yet everyone speaks with a British accent. Even if you switch to French audio, and this game is made by a French studio! =P

There are a lot of accents that are too thick for most people to understand anyways. And so what if it sounds funny to some. There are a lot of languages which share similar words yet with completely different meanings, often to amusing results. For instance Engrish is a very wide spread thing. As long as you’re not making a caricature, a different modus of speaking can really help in setting apart characters instead of ending up with an all grey cast.

In another example of the use of language, and how it changes, I don’t think we use the words mentally retarded anymore. While it was once a clinical diagnosis it’s now become an offensive slur. Language is such a minefield. I haven’t read Flowers for Algernon since I was at school, and I hated it at school. The book certainly wouldn’t be the same if the language used remained the same throughout though since the way it changes is very much part of the story.

There’s a great deal of oppression that comes, hand in hand, with the control of language and dialects. There’s countless times where people are forced not speak their language, not to speak their dialects, where certain dialects are treated as if the people using them are less intelligent, less educated and inferior to those who use proper English. If you take that into consideration, with people then writing insensitive stereotypes of using them to mock and ridicule people.

I’ve read up a little on the issue than the eradication of cultures and oppression of POC, via their language but not enough to really speak about it. It’s not really my place to do so anyway.

But I’m Scottish, and there’s a complicated history of our own language too. I’ve a rather strong dislike of seeing Scottish accents typed out, for one I don’t actually think I have an accent, it’s just everybody else that does. For two, those who’re not Scottish generally write our accents as so nonsensical I don’t understand them and would need a translator. Those typed accents are generally laughing at us Scots and how funny we talk. Incidentally, people in my local area don’t actually talk like that, and there is a general perception that my local dialect is one of people who can’t speak properly and are uneducated. But at the same time, there’s also a movement to keep our local dialect alive, so if we don’t actually write in it, if there’s no more songs and stories and poems and all of that, if there’s no one on tv speaking it, no plays written in it, then it’s going to be dead. So in that regard I’m all in favour of keeping it alive.

Unless you are really good at it, a little goes a long way. It is quite easy to write a lot of dialog that is pretty incomprehensible to someone who isn’t familiar with the accent you are trying to replicate.

Most dialog is written in a pretty unrealistic way, and thank goodness for that. Real people are inarticulate, repeat themselves, don’t get to the point, and say “um” and “like” repeatedly, etc. Most dialog glosses (to one degree or another) over those stumblings and give the characters lines that are clear and to the point. So there can be a real clash between that method, and switching to a different method for one character where you try to replicate dialog.

As someone who is writing a historically-inspired fantasy game, I’ve had to do some thinking about this with regard to historical language forms.

I read Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood at a ridiculously young age, and loved it. Along with The Lord of the Rings, Pyle’s Robin Hood sparked my lifelong interest in the history of the English language. What I didn’t understand at the time was that Pyle, writing in 1883, used a lot of made-up “forsooth” language to make the story feel old. Example:

“It doth make a man better,’ quoth Robin Hood, 'to bear of those noble men so long ago. When one doth list to such tales, his soul doth say, ‘put by thy poor little likings and seek to do likewise.’ Truly, one may not do as nobly one’s self, but in the striving one is better…”

By including pseudo-medieval words and constructions that nonetheless basically made sense to his Victorian audience, Pyle created a form of English that nobody ever actually spoke. If he’d written his Robin Hood in the Middle English and French dialects that people actually spoke at the time when the story is set (the 1100s-1200s), few of his readers would have been able to follow or enjoy it.

Pyle, at least, did a consistent and sophisticated job with his made-up “old-fashioned” language. Other writers have not been so successful. I can’t help but cringe when I see people using “thee” and “thou” incorrectly, thereby sounding like some kind of medieval Cookie Monster.

A lot of people today seem to have an idea that if a story is set in medieval England, the characters should speak a certain way (which is usually more formal, because people today seem to have some weird association between history and formality). But unless the story is actually written in Old/Middle English, French, or Latin, it can’t ever come close to representing how people actually talked at the time. And the idea that people used to be more formal is ridiculous – then, as now, people spoke formally in formal settings, and casually in casual settings.

“Thee” and “thou” sound old-fashioned to us now. They didn’t sound old-fashioned in the twelfth century; that was just how people talked. Choosing words that feel old-fashioned to us seems, to me, like a misrepresentation of how people perceived their own language at the time.

So, on the one hand, I’m grateful to Howard Pyle for showing my very young self how interesting historical language forms could be, but on the other hand, I have sworn never to do what he did, and make up pseudo-historical language forms or sprinkle in “quoths” and “doths” in ways that medieval people would never have used them.

On the other hand, I try to be as careful as I can not to include blatantly contemporary slang or idioms. Tolkien describes one of Gandalf’s fireworks as sounding like an express train, which is kind of immersion-breaking when the world of LotR doesn’t have express trains. More than once I’ve had to stop myself from including that kind of metaphor.

I also have to deal with the problem (guilt/inferiority complex?) that I’m an American writing a story from English mythology but using American spellings and terminology. I wrote a blog post about that back around the fourth of July.

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Pyle did a bunch of similar books. They were among the first “real” books i read as a kid too. (“real” meaning there wasn’t a picture every other page or more)

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As mentioned previously, if the writing is done well, I think the use of accents and dialects in writing enhances the experience. This includes but is not limited to stylistic issues (phonetically correct representations of the accents), “proper” representation (avoiding caricatures of dialects that actually don’t represent the population or subgroup as a whole…or just general over-exaggeration of the accent), and the avoidance of cluttering the work with the accent as a whole (overuse can often hinder writing, especially if the accent used is a very thick one…Huckleberry Finn arguably does this at times, though I personally like the book and the style)

It’s also been mentioned several times that it can chronicle language and dialect, which is also good practice. While this is not necessarily something that appeals to a general audience, I find that it is important to linguists or just readers who are particularly interested in an immersive, detail-oriented world.

I agree with the above sentiment in the light of the fact that those who have accents in stories when the main character does not have one are often portrayed as stereotypes. While this is not always necessarily the case, having a “token” character can lead to a lot of potential pitfalls concerning caricatures if one is not careful (assuming the piece is not a satirical one that plays off of this idea intentionally…or just a uses such characters as motifs). Such poor practices create false images on both sides.

However, if used correctly (as travelers from around the world are a thing…whether the MC be the traveler or a companion) it can often be tasteful, giving the audience a glimpse into worlds outside of the character’s, in addition to making a more realistic, in depth world.

I had something other things I was going to drone on about, but I seem to have forgotten them. So I guess I’ll end it here by saying what I did in the first place – it depends on the quality of the writing as to whether or not accents and dialects in literature are a good thing.

@eleazzar I’m amazed that Pyle was able to write the way he did and yet be so understandable to kids. I read him long before I read the more usual “first real book” Judy Blume - type stuff, and I don’t recall ever being confused about what was going on (which I credit to Pyle’s clarity and not some kind of super-intelligence on my part). And I’m sure I owe it to Pyle that I never had any trouble reading Shakespeare later on.

Thanks everybody, I’ve actually gotten a big response, considering I thought I would have, maybe 2 people, respond.
@MutonElite- Thanks. I didn’t do much searching, but I still think it’s goo do revisit some topics
@FairyGodfeather- I agree, (I am from the U.S) I actually have a Scottish friend, and it would be very difficult to work out any accent. His father, who sadly died a few years back, though had a strong accent. That being said, I think that accents can change, and that change should be shown in books. By the way, I find many “Scottish” accents in books shameful, as many do it with such a tone as to try to make the reader laugh at the character, like in Karyn Monk’s (I think that is the name) Every Whispered Word.
Along with what I said, I must include that good vernacular writing can help me identify, become empathetic, and feel general emotion towards, the character in question.
@eleazzaar- I agree, it would be an entirely different language altogether, if writing was exactly like verbal speech.