A dialect is a form of a language spoken by a group of people.
Some examples of dialect groups include southern English, northern English, standard English, and Appalachian English. In literature, writers use dialect to show the reader, through how the words are spelled and which words are used, where the speaker is from. By altering the spelling of the words and making it clear that someone is saying them differently than they’re pronounced by others, the writer gives their character more life in this way.
Definition and Explanation of Dialect
Dialects are attached to particular regions. As mentioned above, the way that someone talks in the southern part of the United States is likely to be very different from how someone talks in the northern part of the country. Writers have to be aware that it’s very easy to offend someone through the use of a dialect in a specific piece. If a writer appears uses dialect to make someone appear unintelligent or shallow, some readers might have an issue with this. But, if used carefully and thoughtfully, it can add a lot to a piece of writing.
Examples of Dialects in Literature
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee uses dialogue to change the perceived age of the narrator. When telling the story of her youth, Scout’s words are poetic and sophisticated. But, when the writer moves into the time period in which Scout was a child, the dialect of her region in Alabama, comes through. Her dialect is just one example. Her friends and acquaintances also speak in a specific dialect. Here is an excerpt in which Jem is talking about Scout reading skills and Dill’s age:
“Shoot no wonder, then,” said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. “Scout yonder’s been readin‘ ever since she was born, and she ain’t even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin’ on seven.”
Words like “yonder,” “ain’t,” and “puny” help to define the region Jem is from. This can also be seen through the shortening of words like “goin’” and “readin’.”
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Huckleberry Finn is another great, similar example to To Kill a Mockingbird. In this book, Twain exaggerates the dialect in order to make sure the characters spoke in different ways. Here is a well-known passage that occurs between Huck and Jim. Jim starts off by saying:
We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels. Dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it.
Then, Huck replies with the following sentences:
I’ll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn’t be, you know.
Although Huck’s language does include some examples of dialect, Jim’s is far more prominent. He uses words like “yo’” and “las’.”
The Works of D.H. Lawrence
In D.H. Lawrence’s poetry readers can find multiple pieces that utilize dialect. Two examples include ‘Poor Bit of a Wench’ and ‘Gipsy.’ Here are a few lines from the later:
For the rest when thou art wedded
I’ll wet my brow for thee
With sweat, I’ll enter a house for thy sake,
Thou shalt shut doors on me.
Then, take a look at these lines from ‘Poor Bit of a Wench’:
Will no one say hush! to thee,
poor lass, poor bit of a wench?
Will never a man say: Come, my pigeon,
come an’ be still wi’ me, my own bit of a wench!
The dialect in these pieces shows an obvious contrast. One speaker sounds more educated and more in control of their thoughts and words while the other sounds more commonplace and ordinary.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
In this well-loved book, readers can find great examples of dialect at work. The novel involves Scottish and Welsh characters and the author tried to write in such a way that the reader would be able to tell their dialect. For example:
Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ah sound mind, etcetera, etcetera, but still want tae use smack? They won’t let ye dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir ain failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whut they huv tae offer.
In this passage, some readers might struggle to figure out exactly what’s being said. It’s a perfect example of how reading a passage written in dialect out loud can help one understand it better.
Dialects in England and America
Dialects are found in American and British English that developed from the time in which diverts groups grew up without exposure to those outside their region. This dates back to old and middle English and the major dialects at the time. The dialects were centered around Kentish, Northumbrian, Mercian, and West Saxon dialects in old English and Southern, West Midlands, Northern, East Midlands, and Kentish dialects in middle English.
In America, the country can be divided into dialects like Midland, New York, Southern, Northern, and Mid-southern.
Why Do Writers Use Dialects?
Writers use dialects in order to convey to the reader an additional piece of information about a character. If the reader is able to physically picture the character and imagine what they sound like, it’s far more likely that they will become invested in the person. Dialects bring a liveliness to the scene, something that for many decades was missing from most literary works. It wasn’t until close to modern times that writers felt able to use dialects other than standard or elevated English in their dialogue. Today, dialects act as part of one’s cultural identity, and for marginalized groups like African Americans, can be an integral part of telling stories about their community.
Related Literary Terms
- Old English: the earliest recorded version of the English language spoken in England and Scotland during the Middle ages.
- Persona: an invented perspective that a writer uses. The point of view might be entirely different than their own.
- Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.