Tuesday, February 25

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, February 25, 2014 7 comments
My book in progress occurs largely in north central Pennsylvania, where I grew up. However, I've lived my entire adult life in Philadelphia, so I've forgotten some things, especially the dialect.

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:

Regional pronunciations
Photo by Nika Vee, wikimedia commons
While I'm no fan of badly tortured spellings to represent dialect, a few well-placed phonetic misspellings can be effective. Here in Philly, the locals walk "down the shtreet," for example. (Okay, to my ears, it sounds more like "downa shtreet" but that's hard to read.)

Colorful idioms
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.

Word choice
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.

Word order
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?


  1. I'm working on a novel that does have some regional speech patterns. Thankfully, these patterns are spoken by people I live near. But it's still difficult because these patterns are not ones that I have ever spoken or grown up hearing.

    1. I hope these tips help you get a better grasp on the dialect. Cadence is probably the toughest element to get the hang of, but immersion helps.

  2. I have a character that has a Cockney accent! When writing him, I dropped his 'h's' and of course, he says 'bloody' a lot. What is 'wot'...and that's about all that I did w/his accent, I think. I hope I did him justice! =)

    1. Cockney is a tall order. They're also known for elaborate rhyming slang. You might find it helpful to take a look at the "Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialisms in the UK" at http://www.peevish.co.uk/slang/. Also, bear in mind that "bloody" doesn't sound that offensive to American ears, but it's like dropping f-bombs, so use at your own risk. "Ruddy" is a softer alternative. But that site I mention is probably your best resource. And watching lots of re-runs of East Enders. You should also get a British beta reader to call out anything that's inauthentic.

  3. When I moved to this area from New England, I had to get used to hearing people say "plow" instead of "shovel" and "sweep" where I would say "vacuum." Also some of the pronounciations were different from mine: "wooder" for "water," "ant" for "aunt," etc. Not to mention the plural form of "you" pronounced like "yiz," as in, "I'll give yiz a call."

    1. Great examples of regional word choice. I think the variations on the plural "you" are so interesting. In central PA, they say you'uns (a shortened form of "you ones" I guess). The Philly "youse" took some getting used to.

      I'm always at a loss when someone greets me "how ya doin'?" because I think the correct response is simply to repeat the question, not answer it. So I usually just say "hello" and feel stupid, because when I've said "Fine. You?" the person looked at me like I'm a mutant.

  4. I think dialects are a fascinating study. In one of my WIPs, my character is from Utah and I used a euphemism for a swear word that is common in Utah. The reactions from my Midwest CP's was fascinating. I hadn't thought twice about it, but they had all kinds of opinions. It definitely made me pay more attention to word choice. :)