Some Fruit-y Thoughts On Dialect

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I hate tomatoes.  I loathe bell peppers and red peppers and, well, any peppers at all.  And even after two years of eating berries and drinking smoothies for my health, I still don’t like fruit.
These are legitimate dislikes.  They taste bad to me.  I’m quite justified in not ordering the peppers-and-tomato dish at the local Italian restaurant.
But I can also acknowledge that though my dislike is genuine, I may have some pretty awful underlying reasons for not liking veggies and fruits.  I got targeted hard by General Mills and other food corporations when I was a young kid, with thousands of advertisements aimed at deepening a nascent addiction to sugar and fat – no, seriously, read how they planned to warp my tastebuds – and when they were done, what tasted “real” to me were processed foods.  To this day, I’ll choke down some berries and a salad, but what really satisfies me is a bacon-burger and a milkshake.
I don’t like fruits and vegetables.  But I was also trained by people of varyingly active agendas that hey, these Pop Tarts are much tastier, they come in a fun box, all the other kids are eating them.  And so I have to acknowledge:
My dislike may well have emerged from some pretty fucked-up underlying reasons.
I’m not saying I should like bell peppers, but I am saying that the problem may not lie with the bell peppers.  Maybe the problem’s with me, and the culture I grew up in.
The reason I am in a fruit-discussing mood today is because a reviewer at Strange Horizons said this about a story:

Troy L. Wiggins’s “A Score of Roses” features heavy use of phonetic dialect, a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred—a shame, because the story underneath all the “chil’ren”s and “yo’self”s is charming.

Now, this caused – well, not quite an uproar, but a lot of discussion, because dialect is actually a really powerful tool.  Tobias Buckell discusses it in much better detail than I do – and I’d advise you to go read the entirety of his essay, because it’s that good – but basically, by squashing everyone’s native dialect into clean, white-friendly English, you erase whole cultures.  People around the world do actually talk in dialect, this is an authentic representation of the way they speak and their lifestyles, and asking them to write in the words designed by people who wear bowler hats and drink proper tea under the British flag actually kinda erases them.
And I get that.  If I had to write my stories exclusively in African-American Vernacular English, they’d lose a lot of the flavor that represents my view of the world.  The tale would be less me, filtered through someone else’s cultural perspective, and maybe it’d still work but it’d be as different as an indifferent translation.  (You can actually see a fascinating comparison over at Abyss and Apex where they have a “mostly-dialected” published story intended to be readable by English-speaking readers, compared with the original “full-dialect” version submitted to them.)
Thing is, though, I totally agree with what that reviewer said.
As a reader, I don’t like dialect.  I’m a huge fan of transparent prose – I like to fall into the story, just lose myself in the plot and characters and forget entirely about the words.  There are times I like a dense, chewy-prosed novel, but mostly I read very pulpy stuff.
And that applies to pretty much anything that gets in the way of my reading, including weird other-languages or complex worldbuilding infodumps I have to spend too much time on.  There’s the infamous Junot Diaz quote about “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and [white people] think we’re taking over,” but that doesn’t apply to me – it took me four or five separate tries with Dune to get into it, because I didn’t know what the fuck a gom jabbar was and what the hell is going on and fuck it, I’m putting this book down.
I probably never would have read it, too, if it wasn’t my sainted Uncle Tommy’s favorite book.  And when I got through it, I felt somehow more educated, stronger for having stuck with it, having learned fictional lessons about a new world – but I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading the book all that much, merely the satisfaction I get from solving a hard programming problem.
So hand me a book like Trainspotting and I’ll read a page or two and decline.  I don’t wanna work that hard at reading, man.
Yet that’s my dislike of bell peppers, coming to the fore.
Because yeah, I love transparent prose, but that prose is transparent to me because I was lucky enough to have the New England language my family and friends spoke marked as the language of the whole world.  Any book I picked up when I grew up in the 1970s was damn near guaranteed to have people who spoke pretty much like me.  Publishing industries had decided that this was how people spoke, and so like the Pop Tarts in their brightly-colored boxes this became my comfort reading, and even now when I settle in with a good book I’m feeling the echoes of cultural decisions made for me years before I was born.
I don’t like dialect, but I can also acknowledge that this genuine dislike is not necessarily a good thing.
Plus, as Joe White Dude, dialect is something that is often cringeworthy.  I don’t have the ear to know whether dialect is good or bad, and unless I know the author well enough to trust them, I have this nagging fear that maybe I’m reading something hideously insulting and actually demeaning to the people who genuinely speak this way.  There’s a lot of talk about “Hey, people should feel great about reading dialected books!” but what I don’t see anyone invoking is The Help, which has a lot of fairly wince-inducing dialect in the early chapters, used to propel a story that a lot of people feel was written by a white woman in a way that actually made a story about the African-American Civil Rights movement mostly about white people.
(I read the book, and I didn’t feel that way – I quite liked it – but The Help is still a point of controversy.)
Thing is, dialect is really good when written by people who know it well.  I’ve read pretty much all of Nalo Hopkinson‘s books and enjoyed the fuck out of them.. but I think that’s because with Nalo, I have the trust that I’m learning something genuine and real.
If I read Dune, and internalize its concepts, and start dropping muad’dib references in public, then I’m being a big fucking nerd but I’m not actually hurting anyone.  If I read Joe White Dude’s Badly-Researched And Poorly-Done Assimilation Of Someone Else’s Culture and start going, “Yeah, boy, you new hair a total dreadnut!” then I’m actually kind of a douche.
So with Nalo, I have the twin joys of reading a fun story – seriously, try Midnight Robber or Brown Girl in the Ring – and when I’m done, I have that programmer-like satisfaction of having inhaled some new concepts and slang that I know to be either completely manufactured or accurate representations of her culture, and if I decide that I start liking the word “bumbaclaat” then hey, it may be cultural appropriation but at least I’m using the fucking thing accurately.
But yeah.  For me, dialect involves some serious trust on the part of the author, because I’m simply not educated enough to know when it’s done poorly.  So when I’m reading dialect by an unknown author, I have this constant ongoing question of “Can I enjoy this?  Or should I be irritated?”
And honestly?  A lot of the people who try dialect are uneducated people who are stretching their wings as writers in some experiment – hey, can I write like the dudes I hear down at the barbershop? – and fucking it up.  Maybe not all of ’em, but enough that I can’t dismiss ’em.
Yet again, it’s like unpacking all my seething hatred of strawberries – and I do not like strawberries, Sam-I-Am, unless they’re coated in dark chocolate – in that I have an instinctive dislike, but that dislike stems from pretty sucktacular reasons.  Hey, I don’t like reading about dialect because I’m too lazy to do the research on someone’s culture enough to be familiar with it!  So I rarely read dialect!  Now there’s a vicious circle, ain’t it?
There’s not a good ending to this essay, though.  It’s messy, like real life.  I’ve made a conscious effort to eat fruit more over the past two years, and my palate has expanded considerably; I can eat bananas, don’t mind blackberries, and you put a few blueberries into my cereal and I can deal with that.  But still, when I’m having a bad day and I just need to comfort-eat, I have never once gone, “Awww, yeah, frickin’ banana in the house.”
Yet my cardiologist will tell me: You’d be better off if you did.
Likewise, dialect is almost certainly never gonna be my go-to reading preference for the reasons I’ve outlined.  But I do read occasional stories with dialect as a change-up, and I can acknowledge that my dislike of dialect is a flaw not necessarily within dialect itself, but rather a flaw instilled upon me for a myriad of really complicated cultural reasons, and I should occasionally get out there and challenge myself because dude, there is a whole fucking world out there with people who don’t speak like you, think like you, believe like you, and shouldn’t you creep outside of your nice suburban house every once in a while to explore the great and meandering halls the world has to offer?
Yes, I damn well should.


  1. Mishell Baker
    May 17, 2014

    I’m hoping someone at MRK’s “Writing the Other” workshop can clarify this a bit for me before I turn in the final draft of Borderline. Because I don’t want to make Tjuan sound like Walter Kronkite, but I also don’t want to insult the hell out of any African Americans who may have actually grown up in South Central L.A. I can’t figure out what the most respectful balance is, because too far either way and I’m insulting.
    What’s interesting to me is sometimes I’ll be watching a show and there’ll be a black actor who speaks in some version of African American slang/cadence and my gut says, “Oh, that’s insulting” and then I stop and remind myself, “Hey wait, the actor chose to speak that way, so obviously he’s not insulted, so this is just me telling myself that any dialect that doesn’t match the one I was told was ‘correct’ must be some kind of mockery.”
    It’s all very weird and slippery and yet no less important to figure out.

  2. Beth
    May 17, 2014

    Dialect hits so many different spaces with me.
    I am a big fan of Frances Hodgson Burnett, the children’s author probably best known for The Secret Gardenwhich has the Victorian equivalent of Magical Negroes, Magical Yorkshire natives (there are Magical Cockneys in other of her books). I actually enjoy the dialect in most of her books, and got excited when I discovered That Lass O’ Lowry’s. Then I realized it was MOSTLY broad Yorkshire, and lost interest.
    Mind you, I love LISTENING to Yorkshire. I also love a strong Scottish accent, but I can’t READ Irvine Welsh (I can WATCH the hell out of Trainspotting, but attempting to READ it makes me feel like I’m cutting peat rather than taking a leisurely stroll.)..
    There’s a great article that presents written dialect as othering, I wish I could find it. It uses Gone with the Wind as its example, with various instances of how the black characters talk in very broad “Aw, Law’ Miz Scarlett, dis ol’ uncle ain’ know’n’ a t’ng ‘bou’ tha’,” dialect, but Margaret Mitchell didn’t feel the urge to render Scarlett’s white Georgia speech thusly “If you don’t stop talkin’ about the waw-ah, Ah’m goin’ ta go inta the house and slam the doo-ah!”
    I agree with what you’ve said about fantasy novels; I like a little “this is a different realm” or “We live in future speak (I thought The Hunger Games did a nice job.), but I couldn’t get through Dune because it introduced too many concepts and characters before I had a chance to care. On the other hand, A Clockwork Orange, full of Russian-based made-up slang, is one of my favorite books. I could conjecture that it’s because I picked it up at age 15, and wrapping my head around new things was easier then, but I picked up Watership Down at the same age and just didn’t want to deal with the occasional piece of “Look, rabbits have different words!”

  3. Yet Another Laura H
    May 17, 2014

    Ha! And I’ve been called a pretentious mofo because I tend to love well-crafted dialect, high, low, made-up, real. (You are excused, of course, from liking sloppily-executed or heavy-handed dialect in the same way you are excused from developing a taste for green beans boiled until they’re taupe.) But I was exposed to all sorts as a kid— in literature and life, as I was a military brat dealing with several segments of several societies. I had to like people not talking the way I did, or I wouldn’t like anything at all. The downside is, of course, that it’s a real effort not to pick it up and use it. You mentioned Junot Diaz, whom I devour with giddy, greedy delight every chance I get— and must put down for ten minutes before I speak to real people. Tobias Buckell, I’m not. Sheila Peace, I try not to be.
    I don’t know why, but dialect used to show “character development”, whether the “young lady” stops saying “ehn’t” to indicate new maturity or Data uses contractions to underline his growing “humanity,” irritates the gray slush out of me— oddly, not the case where a character lapses into dialect to show great stress. Both are plausible (if lazy), but only one wears my tooth enamel. And the toupée effect of those who try to “put on” another culture… :shudders:
    Not sure if this has any relevance to your topic. I find stuff I have to work at liking to be immensely rewarding in general, though. Have fun!

  4. Mark Dijkstra
    May 20, 2014

    Interesting stuff. I’ve got a similar experience reading Irvine Welsh. I used to have quite a bit of difficulty in understanding the Scottish, so that I first read Porno in Dutch rather than English, which was a bit easier to understand. It wasn’t until I was abroad recently with little to do, that I picked up Skagboys in English and started reading the hell out of it. And after a while, something just clicked and the dialect made sense. I’m re-reading Porno right now, and it’s a blast in the original Scottish.
    So I guess you start out hating the dialect until you really get into it and then you become a fan? Would be nice if something like that happens in your quest for developing a taste for fruit.

  5. Robyn
    May 24, 2014

    For me, how, when and by whom a dialect is used matters.
    Margaret Mitchell uses dialect differently than Zora Neale Hurston.
    When dialect is used to lessen a character solely because of the origin (especially by basis of ethnicity), and not as a stamp of personal character (not building the literary character, but the character we all possess), I feel it cheapens the work.
    Expanding on a commenter above, Mitchell used dialect as blackface, making a farce of the enslaved people and the legally-enforced lack of education (while ignoring the community building having African dialect patterns can create, something Hurston was raised to know). Now, Mitchell was also a product of her ignorant time, writing about a profoundly ignorant time.
    I’ve never read a damn book in elvish.
    But I read Woman Hollering Creek, The Way to Rainy Mountain, Bless Me, Ultima, Indian Killer, China Men, Interpreter of Maladies.
    I read Roth and Potok, Salinger and Singer, Ozick and Blume.
    Think on this, isn’t the melody on Presque Isle, the nasal “ah” from Boston (Bahstahn) just another dialect?
    Don’t we get the point across better with regionalistic words and phrases?


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