Sounds Like Part II…The Use of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

“Whyn’t you buy a san’widge? We got nice san’widges, hamburgs.”

“May soun’ funny to be so tight,” he apologized. “We got a thousan’ miles to go, an’ we don’ know if we’ll make it.”

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

ImageThe lines above, taken from The Grapes of Wrath, are an excellent example of two ways in which dialogue can be written phonetically to represent a character’s dialect: the first being the use of truncation to convey sound or rhythm (“an’ we don’ know) and the second being the way words may be misspelled or ground up to convey accent (“Whyn’t” and “san’widges”). Steinbeck is well known for this style of writing; Mark Twain and Margaret Mitchell are two other famous examples of writer’s who used it in their novels. Are we starting to see a pattern?

Put The ‘ack In The Accent

ImageI first encountered dialogue written like this when I was thirteen or fourteen, reading Buffy The Vampire fanfic, specifically Spuffy fanfic. If this doesn’t put a clear picture into your head what I mean let me elaborate: BtVS fanfic written about Spike by Americans trying so very hard to portray his cockney accent in the text. That’s on top of the excessive use of pet names, including “pet,” hackneyed, if well intentioned, attempts to use Britishism. This was, after all, before the rise of Sherlockian Britpickers. And don’t get me wrong, my meager forays into writing Buffy fanfic included some real gems of badly written dialogue too: the ubiquitously spelled “luv,” for example.

Whenever I see phonetically written dialogue, it brings me back to my tweens, a time spent reading hundreds of stories written by authors trying to transcribe language exactly as they heard it without a great deal of thought about the mechanics involved in writing good dialogue. Am I calling Steinbeck and Twain’s dialogue the work of hacks? Maybe, a little bit. At the very least the product of writer’s cutting a corner.

Many critics, and by critics I mean my University Creative Writing professors, laud Steinbeck’s portrayal of diverse lower class American groups as authentic and gritty. And in a strict sense it may be authentic, but I’m not sold on it being the best way to write gripping dialogue. Anytime a professor—because how many times has a teacher assigned Steinbeck, Twain or Mitchell in your life?–has to preface a book with the expression, “The language may be very hard to get into but keep trying. You just have to get through the first half of the book,” I think there’s something flawed about the structure of the novel.

No, I said ‘ello.”

Next week we’ll dive into the specific pros and cons of using phonetically spelled dialogue and alternative methods of writing good dialogue. But for now I want to challenge you to think about the books you’ve read, classics as well as books written more recently.

  • How many of them contain phonetically spelled dialogue?
  • When you read a book with a character with a phonetically spelled accent does it draw you deeper into the story or make it more difficult to access?
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