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The Sound of Dialogue

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

Everyone has an opinion about the value of reading a book versus watching the movie—almost as many opinions as there are recipes for carrot cake out there. Of course much depends on the faithfulness of the movie to the book, the type of story, and the experiences of the reader or viewer. Readers often claim the book is better because their imagination is stirred to create settings and characters the way they want. Viewers often claim the movie is better because it provides visual and audial detail that can’t be imagined from the book. Both are right of course.

One of the major aspects of both is also one of the most difficult to reconcile—the language of dialogue. It’s nearly impossible to convey in the written dialogue the accents of a New Englander and a Carolinian speaker. Unless the one is interspersed with ayuh and the other with y’all. The movie version, however, glories in the difference and so does the viewer. The reader has to make do with personal experience or imagination.

Ramp up the dialogue now to an 19th-century Irish speaker and a settler in the American Southwest. Can the author write dialogue that gives the reader an idea of what those people sound like? Maybe. Again, it’s the movie (whether or not true to the book) that provides the viewer with the dialects.

There’s an ongoing debate in the writing community about how much effort an author should put into writing dialect that the reader can sound out in his head correctly. Scotland’s National Bard Robert Burns poetry is the best example of both accurately rendered Scots dialect and near incomprehensibility to the reader. Even contemporary efforts to write dialects and foreign accents can leave the page scattered with innumerable apostrophes that are a visual nightmare.

Josephine Tey, who wrote detective stories in the early 1900’s, addressed this issue in her author’s note at the start of her 17th-century novel The Privateer. She asserts

“It is, further, advisable when writing fiction about a period now 'historic' that no distortion should take place owing to the use of 'period' dialogue. If the characters in the story did not sound quaint to each other, then they have no right to sound quaint to us. What a young man may actually have said to his patron may be: 'I am vastly gratified by your condescension, sir, and very sensible of my obligation to you,' but that is not how the words sounded to his benefactor. What his benefactor understood him to say was: 'Thank you very much, sir. That is very kind of you.'”

And so her buccaneer Henry Morgan and the natives of Jamaica have no accents except what the reader can imagine. On the other hand, the 1961 movie The Pirates of Tortuga, has plenty of swashbuckling language!

In my novel The Rantin’ Laddie I followed the middle ground of the debate—just a few words to indicate the Scots dialect—and leave it to the reader to fill in (or take out) th’ missin’ dialect.

So my question is this: Where and when—if ever—do you as a reader want to see language written in dialect in historical fiction or even contemporary fiction?

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