7. Use dialect sparingly
Elmore says: Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
The best-known Wyoming voices in Close Range belong to Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, two ‘high school drop out country boys with no prospects’. Jack and Ennis, ‘hungry for any job’ sign up with Farm and Ranch Employment and are sent to work on Brokeback Mountain and the rest, as they say, is a film adaption by Ang Lee and three Oscars. In the original story, the flavour of Wyoming voices is captured in passages such as:
‘They never talked about the sex…saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, ‘I’m not no queer,’ and Jack jumped in with ‘Me neither…’’
‘ ‘Jesus Christ quit hammerin and get over here. Bedroll’s big enough,’ said Jack in an irritable sleep-clogged voice. It was big enough, warm enough, and in a little while they had deepened their intimacy considerably… They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked ‘Gun’s goin off,’ then out, down, and asleep.’
Which is all the mountain-top action you’re going to get in this particular post, but certainly not all the regional dialect/patois…
Reasons to ignore him:
Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
‘I dinnae Tam, ah jist dinnae. Life’s boring and futile. We start oaf wi high hopes, then we bottle it. We realize that we’re aw gaunnae die, without really findin out the big answers… We fill oor lives up wi shite, shite like joabs n relationships, tae delude ourselves intae thinkin that it isnae aw totally pointless.’
Like Brokeback Mountain, the film adaptation has arguably eclipsed the book; unlike Brokeback Mountain, the dialect is unrelenting. Irvine Welsh’s debut novel, which (and who doesn’t know this by now?) follows a group of addicts in the Leith area of Edinburgh, was described by Rebel Inc as ‘The best book ever written by man or woman…’ In addition to being a contender for the best book (or the most over-hyped, depending on your point of view), Trainspotting is among the least ‘sparing’ in its use of regional dialect.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’maisters down i’ t’ fold. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
There are a number of baffling scenes in Wuthering Heights, but few are as baffling as the scenes involving Joseph, the old Yorkshire servant. This passage, from the second chapter, breaks several of Leonard’s rules, from Lockwood’s responsive hallooing to Joseph’s incessant apostrophes. The online guide to the novel helpfully provides a ‘translation’ of Joseph’s speeches for the benefit of any readers who have lost the will to live by the end of chapter three.
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
‘You understand about that tolchock on the rot, Dim. It was the music, see. I get all bezoomny when any veck interferes with a ptitsa singing, as it might be.’
Languages change over time and within social structures (Chaucer’s English is occasionally incomprehensible to the modern reader, just as Tinie Tempah’s English would occasionally be incomprehensible to the Queen), so it makes perfect sense to assume that teenagers in a futuristic dystopia would be speaking their own form of dialect. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex and his droogs speak Nadsat, English infused with Russian (Nadsat comes from the Russian for ‘teen’). Anthony Burgess overestimated the cultural impact of the Soviet Union, but correctly assumed that an imaginary dialect would draw readers into Alex’s world, as opposed to alienating them.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
‘Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin’, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what that fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me… so gimme some mutton an’ I’ll tell you ‘bout our first meetin’.’
No, not that David Mitchell… Cloud Atlas includes not one but two futuristic dialects: the cold, condensed form of English spoken by Sonmi~451 and the other fabricants (‘His ultimate goal in life was to attain the strata of xec in the Papa Song Corp’) explodes into vernacular in the middle section of the novel, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, as Mitchell decides that the distant future will be closer to Huckleberry Finn than to Star Wars.
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker
‘Looking at the moon all col and wite and oansome. Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley theres something in us it don’t have no name.’
I said, ‘what thing is that?’
She said, ‘Its some kynd of thing it aint us yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals … Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome, Tremmering it is and feart.’
Russell Hoban, perhaps better known as a children’s author, performed a similar feat in Riddley Walker, deciding that the language of the post-nuclear world was most likely to be a bastardized form of Kentish. From the apparent simplicity of Riddley’s dialect comes a great deal of profundity, as in this discussion with the village shaman, Lorna, under the ‘col and wite and oansome’ moon.