Dialect, local flavor or standard language: whatever you choose, make sure to explain why
I had an amazing week. My publisher was here in Gothenburg to work alongside me. It had started out as a joke, when an author friend of mine mentioned that she worked on the edits with her editor, shoulder to shoulder. I have never had that privilege, living in the perfect virtual world. My editors live in England and California, and I’ve only met two of them in real life. So when we were joking about this, my editor said “if you invite me…” with a wink, I couldn’t let that chance slip through my hands, and last week, she came, at last. With a new novel in the making, it was the perfect opportunity to talk, work, and have a little fun.
One of the discussions we had, oddly on the last day, taking her to the airport, was about editing rules, editing quality (there are some really, really bad editors out there!) and dialect, patois, language in general. I think it kicked off with a discussion about what correct English is, a topic for books, not a blog post, and our usual banter about “proper English” vs. “correct English”, the age old “tomato/tomato”, “lorry/truck” question. We’ll never see eye to eye on this, but what we did agree upon was that a character from say France, or Germany, speaking English in a book, could be allowed to retain his international English with whatever native language flavor he speaks, to make it natural.
Our next example was Walmart, the famous American grocery and everything else chain of supermarkets. In some states, people spell Walmart with a hyphen, Wal-Mart, while others prefer the one word spelling. This is just within the U.S. Depending on whom you ask, they’ll claim one of the other version to be correct. Historically, they both are, although the hyphen is no longer used by the company.
I recently used it in a book, and I used the “official” version, i.e. the one used by Walmart, and that is a single word, no dash. Don’t believe me? Check out their website. But the hyphen certainly used to be part of Walmart at one point in their history, which explains why some still use it.
Then there are the instances where a character uses a colloquial expression that could be local/regional. Readers have very specific expectations as to what is a regional dialect, whether those expectations are correct or not. Now, for a Texan to use “y’all” or a “howdy” is one thing, and for someone uneducated to use “ain’t” as well, and even I’ve been known to make use of that. However, I’ll readily admit to do so sparsely. And not just because I don’t know each and every one of the fifty American state dialects (and their local varieties by heart), a great example being the way Southern Californians use “take the I-5” instead of saying “take I-5”. Far from everyone, even in SoCal is aware of that expression, nor the history of it. Multiply that across all of the U.S. and Canada, add immigrants from the world where English is spoken and all the many countries where it isn’t, and you end up with a conundrum.
In my Sci-Fi story Willem of the Tafel, I was faced not only with the flavors of (International) English, but also other languages, and what language people would speak five centuries from now. In the end, I simply decided they’d all speak English, and we kept it very standard, with a few select, but important, exceptions. That was a conscious decision, given that we had people from virtually (happy Deb?) the entire planet in that story.
As an author, I could argue that my characters speak exactly the way they do. And my best excuse is that they speak to me this way, and what my characters don’t tell me, I don’t know. However, and this was the outcome of our discussions on the boat to the mainland last Friday, is that we should make sure that our characters speak grammatically correct English, sticking to the rules, trying to disregard local flavors, dialect. We want to do that because we think that “neutral” is best to avoid confusion with readers. Because nothing is more frustrating than reviews (to which you can’t respond, not to mention “win” if you did) where a reader claims “she’d never said it this way…” Personally, I’d say that whatever you do, make sure you explain why you do, be it in a short inner dialogue to set the scene. That way you might avoid some nasty feedback from readers down the road. Because it’s always annoying when people tell you that “you got it all wrong”, no matter whether you actually did or not.
Authors, what is your take? How do you handle dialect? Do you write geographically, grammatically or “linguistically” correct? Readers, do you care how the characters in your stories speak?
Have a great week!