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  • Writer's pictureWalker Buckalew

Dialects and Intelligibility

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Dialects and Intelligibility

“Th’ bg! Th’ bg! Dt’r Stf’d’s bg! H’r sh’s w’r unt’d! Th’ w’r unt’d!”


What dialect is that?

What language is that?

Well, it’s English, but before I translate, let me explain that this quotation is not dialect. That’s a person trying to talk despite having been beaten so severely that his face, lips, and tongue are painfully swollen.

In contrast… this is dialect:

“You listen here t’ me, Mr. Big Shot Navy Hero… you and Jaakov, here, might need t’ go t’ bed and get some rest, because you’re both namby-pamby mama’s boys, but not me. I got intel in my head and in my boot camera that we need t’ look at and talk about right now, tonight, without any foolin’ around and restin’ and sleepin’ and doin’ lazy things that’ll put us behind in th’ game we’re playin’, because th’ game we’re playin’ is in full swing right now, and we gotta get ahead of these dirtbags and we gotta get goin’ and wipe ‘em out before they do any more mischief.

“Ya know what I’m sayin’…. Hm? Ya know what I mean?”

This is Detective Sidney Belton, who takes on important roles in all six of my novels – all four adult stories and both young-adult stories – and who talks this way all the time. Not only does he drop the endings of many words, he tends to speak at length and without pause. And his characteristic finish to almost any statement is the one you see above: “Ya know what I’m sayin’… Hm? Ya know what I mean?”

By writing this way every time Mr. Belton speaks, I have always tried to convey the idea that he has lived most of his life in a particular section of New York City, that he is not interested is speaking in any other way, and that he is always in a hurry. Too much of a hurry to finish his words or to pause between thoughts or to do anything but rush to the end of his statement, and at that instant to ask, “Ya know what I’m sayin’… Hm? Ya know what I mean?”

This particular Sid Belton quote is taken from my second young-adult novel, Visioners 2: Into the City. And, as I said, this is dialect.

In contrast, as I also mentioned, the first line of this blog – the completely unintelligible quote – is taken from By Many or By Few, my second novel for adults. The speaker is Ellis Dolby.

As Dolby, Luke Manguson, and Matt Clark speed across the Chesapeake Bay in a fast outboard, trying to arrive at the downtown pier in Annapolis, Maryland, in time to prevent a catastrophe, Dolby suddenly realizes something. And in his excitement, he tries urgently, despite his facial injuries, to explain this sudden insight to Luke and Matt.

So, I, as the author, chose to represent Ellis Dolby speaking in the way you saw at the start of this blog. The result is that both Luke and Matt look at him as though he has lost his mind. Dolby, as you’d guess, gets increasingly frustrated at their failure to understand him, but finally slows his speech enough for them to grasp what he means.

Here is what he was trying to say: “The bag! The bag! Dr. Stafford’s bag! Her shoes were untied! They were untied!”

The realization that Rebecca had apparently untied her own shoes after a racing boat had purposely run over and killed her friend meant something of enormous importance in that story, but Dolby couldn’t say what it was. Under normal conditions, Ellis Dolby speaks the “standard American dialect.” And “standard American dialect” is what we hear from television commentators.

When my wife Linda and I are watching and listening to a British detective drama on television, we sometimes find that we need to turn on the subtitles feature. The British dialect, spoken rapidly, can at times get away from us. When that happens, we need to read what is spoken, and the subtitles translate fast-spoken British English into readable American English.

As an author and reader of novels, I know that representing dialects in print can be helpful to the reader, giving a better sense of what is being said, and especially of how it is being said. But that’s true only if the representation does not become unintelligible. Ellis Dolby became unintelligible to his friends due to his injuries. Sid Belton, though occasionally hard to follow, manages to remain intelligible despite his dialect.

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