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Dialects and Intelligibility


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? 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. This is 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… a passage from the fifth novel in my Rebecca Series, A Fearful Thing:

“It seems pretty clear t’ me that th’ clerk had t’ be th’ one t’ supply th’ dirtbags that crashed th’ Ford an’ captured Luke an’ Rebecca, sir, with info about th’r departure. How else would th’ scumbags know anythin’ about th’r plans? “Hmmm? Ya’ know what I mean? Hmm?”

This is Detective Sidney Belton, who takes important roles in all seven of my novels – all five 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, and slur his vowels, he tends to speak at length and without pause. And his characteristic finish to almost any statement is the one you see above: “Hmmm? Ya’ know what I mean? Hmm?”


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, “Hmmm? Ya’ know what I mean? Hmm?”

In contrast to Mr. Belton’s dialect, the first line of this post – the almost unintelligible quote – is taken from By Many or By Few, my second novel for adults. The speaker is a man named 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 post. 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.

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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