Posts Tagged Zadok

Dialect in Dialogue

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Which means the internet is full of “avast”s and “arr”s and “yoho”s and, I dunno, perhaps a “parlay” or two.  It’s largely an exercise in silliness, and while I don’t much see the point, I’m not going to tell people not to do it.  But it does dredge up a topic that drives me completely crazy as a reader.

Dialect used in dialogue.

I can only really approach this subject from the point of view of a reader.  It’s something I’ve never really tried to approach as a writer, at least not in any full fledged manner.  Yes, I’ve given characters distinctive voices, speech patterns, but never gone so far as to attempt to respell words based on the accent a character has had.  Why?  Because (a) I’ve seen it done badly more times than well, (b) I hate when I see it done badly, and (c) I have no expectation that it’s something I would do well.

Best example I can come up with for bad dialect?  I almost hate to do it, because I hate to pick on Lovecraft’s writing, but it’s old Zadok Allen from The Shadow Over Innsmouth.  I’m only going to present the first two paragraphs for reasons that should be obvious to any who know the story, and will be detailed in a moment for those who don’t.

      “Thar’s whar it all begun – that cursed place of all wickedness whar the deep water starts. Gate o’ hell – sheer drop daown to a bottom no saoundin’-line kin tech. Ol’ Cap’n Obed done it – him that faound aout more’n was good fer him in the Saouth Sea islands.

“Everybody was in a bad way them days. Trade fallin’ off, mills losin’ business – even the new ones – an’ the best of our menfolks kilt aprivateerin’ in the War of 1812 or lost with the Elizy brig an’ the Ranger scow – both on ’em Gilman venters. Obed Marsh he had three ships afloat – brigantine Columby, brig Hefty, an’ barque Sumatry Queen. He was the only one as kep’ on with the East-Injy an’ Pacific trade, though Esdras Martin’s barkentine Malay Bride made a venter as late as twenty-eight.

The occasional dropped ‘g’ I can put up with, but there is a level of attempted dialect through Zadok’s monologue that pulled me completely out of reading the story.  Which is a shame, as there’s a lot of necessary back story hiding among the “saoundin”s and the “Injy”s.  Doesn’t really help that he gets a 2,154 word monologue broken up by a short 32-word paragraph as he lowers his voice to a whisper.  And that’s before his second monologue of 2,227 words, giving a total of  nearly 4,500 words of heavy dialect crammed into an overall section of just under 5,000 words.  Obviously there’s deeper issues to the Zadok passage than just the dialect, but it does serve as a rather dense block of dialect for the reader to work their way through.

This is not me trying to come out and say dialect should always be avoided.  Largely because I hate to ever make edicts like that about any facet of writing.  I have seen dialect done fantastically well.  As a Wake Forest grad I’m required on my diploma to use Maya Angelou as an example of dialect done well, perhaps a master class on the subject.  It’s used to give each character distinctive but still readable voices, rather than throwing up walls of text that leave a reader pondering the intended pronunciation.

So, this is me speaking as a reader, consider what you’re doing.  Consider if you’re doing it well.  Have someone else read it and make sure the dialect is understandable to someone other than the author.  You should be doing this with every element of your writing, but perhaps nowhere is it more important than when dialect comes into play.  Because we as readers need to know what characters are saying, that’s the entire point of dialogue.  So we as writers need to ensure that they can be understood.  This gets exponentially important if the character needs to have any long stretches of dialogue, or is even the first person narrator of the story.


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