On Dialect, Dialogue and Good Books

A recent conversation about Ebonics got me to thinking about Faulkner and James Baldwin, and the way certain dialects in this country get no respect.
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This conversation about Ebonics got me to thinking about Faulkner and James Baldwin, and the way certain dialects in this country get no respect.

I'm teaching undergrad creative writing for the first time, and this summer I spent a good amount of time wondering whether I knew enough about writing to provide an adequate introduction to a bunch of 19 year olds. To this end, I got a hold of a teaching tools packet from my TA coordinator. It was a collection of over-Xeroxed tip lists that had been handed down from TA to TA since time immemorial. It was pretty useful, but one thing in the Writing Good Dialogue section gave me pause, the gist of it being: "Be careful when writing dialogue. Reading dialect in dialogue is tiring."

And so I pose this question to all of you: Is it?

I'd say this thinking can be traced to xenocentrism and laziness. The notion is that one shouldn't have to wade through another person's speech patterns to decipher meaning; everyone should speak and think like I do so that my job as a reader is easy. I just don't buy that. In my experience, the dialogue that borders on tiring (which really isn't the right word -- I'd say challenging) is that which focuses on spelling words differently to highlight pronunciation (phonology) instead of taking the time to depict how a dialect is syntactically different.

Example (made up by me): "Dey iz headed to da pictsha show."

Because misspelled words require the reader to slow down to get the gist of the pronunciations the author is aiming for, I can see how this kind of dialogue is challenging. It's also a bit condescending; my paternal grandmother is from Arkansas and never finished eighth grade, but just because she pronounces "they" with something akin to a "D" at the beginning doesn't mean she'd spell the word accordingly. There's also a consistency problem with relying on the way words are spelled. Does one just put a Z on "was" to indicate a Black English pronunciation, or must one write "wuz" to get the point across? Do you use apostrophes when droppin the "G" on a verb, or no? It's a tricky business, and I'd say most of the books that fail in the dialect department get caught up in these issues of spelling.

Of course, a good writer can train a reader to understand a lot (See J.R.R. Tolkien, or, for less of a stretch Sapphire's Push), but I still think the best dialect dialogue focuses on syntax.

From James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues: "He don't want to die. He wants to live. Don't nobody want to die, ever."

That sentence is money. It follows the rules of typical AAVE, yet it doesn't assume that readers need to see words spelled differently to imagine the speaker's inflection.

Writers like writing dialect. The tradition of dialect in literature is a long one. And it isn't just a black one. See William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy or Eudora Welty for proof. But then also see E.M. Forster, Charles Dickens and Roddy Doyle, because dialect in literature is not limited to this side of the pond. If good dialect in a story is considered tiring, perhaps it's because we don't read enough of it. If we did, we might be more inclined to look at people who speak a specific dialect in real life differently as well.

I've added understanding dialogue with dialect to my list of teaching goals this semester, even if it means I have to hand out a grown-up version something like this. I'm also looking for more stories that do a good job of depicting speech patterns that aren't the norm to add to my assigned reading. If any of you have suggestions, I'd be much obliged.

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