Debbie does dialect


Eye dialect: the use of nonstandard spelling for speech to draw attention to pronunciation.

In Is Life Like This?, John Dufresne says incorrectly spelling words in order to convey dialect is a namby-pamby momma’s boy graduate of the Little Lord Fauntleroy School of Halfassery cop out. Okay, I said that. But Uncle John would concur– it’s taking the easy way out.

If you want your character to sound regional, use the right words. Deliberate misspellings are almost always off-putting to your readers, making you and your characters sound dumb rather than dialectical.

But then, how do you show off a Southern Belle’s petticoat-lifting lilt? What about a stinky two year old whose “unnaweah bodda me betause day fool poop”?

I’m fixin’ to fuss wi’ this he-ah dilemmer rot d’reckly. So I’m checking out how authors do it, and whether or not it works.

Cloud Atlas (novel)

David Mitchell did it right. Xcellently, even. In envisioning the future world of Sonmi-451 in Cloud Atlas, he used words like nike and ford, lower case, the way we use kleenex and jello now. The brand name is synonymous with the product. The proper noun has properly become the noun itself.

He spells xecutives and xcitement with no xplanation and it feels like an absolutely natural xtension of the way we’ve already begun shortening words to fit into twitter sized spaces.

Night is nite and morning is yellow-up.

Catechism is repurposed as the code of conduct for fabricants genomed for mindless obedience.

Soap is the food substitute clones imbibe. It regulates their energy and sleep patterns while simultaneously wiping their minds of any words in the pureblood (human) lexicon. The fabricants do not eat at the creepy Papa Song’s, they only serve there.

It is this innovative use of familiar terms that enables Mitchell to create such a frighteningly believable future. He didn’t go overboard, but included enough slight spelling changes to make the progression from today’s usage seem realistic. Going over the top would have backfired and pulled me out of the story, but by inserting a few well-placed xpressions he achieved exactly the opposite– keeping me in the world he so effectively created.

Now if y’all’ll ‘scuse me, I’ve got to go take care of someone whose unnaweah bodda-ing him.


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