For a number of reasons, I never really embraced the local dialect in my rural hometown. My urbane older siblings mocked the "hick speak" whenever they visited. My parents are from Montana and Minnesota and their western and midwestern turns of phrase stuck with me far more than localisms. A few I remember: "warsh" for "wash," "redd up" for "tidy," "crick" for "creek." But the other elements of the dialect I can't quite reconstruct from memory. Thus, over the past few summers I took trips north to research dialect (cleverly disguised as family vacation time at a wonderfully old-timey amusement park, Knobel's, situated in the heart of "Pennsyltucky").
If you use a regional dialect in your work, here are some things to listen for when researching:
|Photo by Nika Vee, wikimedia commons|
My dad's westernisms like "in a coon's age" and "if it was a bear, it would've bit ya" speak volumes about the abundant wildlife in his region. Ask someone from New Hampshire and from Idaho to complete this sentence: "this winter has been as cold as ____," you'll get very different answers, usually based on local culture.
When I moved to Michigan for grad school, I quickly learned that I'd crossed the great "pop" divide and could no longer expect to get anything but carbonated water if I asked for "soda." There's regional variation for all kinds of terms: supermarket or grocery store? Laundry or wash? Water fountain or drinking fountain or bubbler?
And what foreign words have worked their way into common use? Here on the East coast, Yiddish words including "chutzpa" and "schlepp" are common among urbanites. In Louisiana, French terms slip in frequently.
How grammatically one strings together sentences is determined partly by education and socio-economic status, and partly by region. You know the "rule" against ending sentences with prepositions? The Mid-Atlantic dialect turns it on its head, adding unnecessary prepositions: "Where are you at?" and "Where is she going to?" In parts of England, questions are often doubled: "Having a good holiday, are you?" or "Shall I Hoover the floor, yes?"
Being able to hear and replicate the rhythm of a dialect is perhaps the most difficult skill you need to write convincing characters from a region other than your own. If you're musically inclined or have been trained in writing poetry, you have a bit of an advantage. It still takes a lot of listening to master. Aside from total immersion, it helps to have recordings to revisit and study.
Do any of your characters speak in a dialect that's different from yours? How did you research it? What regional speech variations have you noticed when you travel?