The Case for Dialect in Fiction

Say your novel is full of Scottish characters and has a Cornish protagonist.  The question is: do you depict dialogue, and if so in what way and to what extent?  Even devoutly following the ‘less is more’ advice, there are still decisions to be made about exactly where to pitch it on the dialect spectrum.

Dialect only in the imagination

Unless I am directed otherwise, I hear characters in my own accent. The problem with using no dialect at all is that you lose a useful tool . Dialect can:

  • Distinguish between individual characters
  • Distinguish between character, author and narrator
  • Establish atmosphere
  • Establish setting – or a character’s alienation in a setting
  • Establish time period
  • Indicate alien storyworld
  • Identify a character’s background geographically and socially
  • Hint at a character’s backstory

If I read a book about Scots, I want to hear Scots.  If they all apparently speak in English accents, I would be unconvinced and disappointed. In Find Me by J.S. Monroe the male protagonist is, we are told, Irish. Luckily his origin is not integral to the story,  because with the almost entire absence of dialect, I continually forgot this.

Rhythm, cadence and word choice as dialect

This is the approach often recommended to and by writers – see for example Cameron Michaels in his article Writing Dialect: It’s In The Rhythm.  The idea is to use local words, or to arrange them and punctuate in a way that makes dialect clear to the reader. In The Scottish Exiles use of the obvious words ‘lass’, ‘wee’ and ‘aye’ would be examples, as would ‘outwith’.

Alternative spelling as dialect

Regional word usage is not always enough without a key to its pronunciation. When Munroe’s Irishman interjects “Jaysus”, it has to be spelt this way or the reader would simply assume ‘Jesus’.  If Rosa my Cornish protagonist meets someone in the street, instead of ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’ she would say ‘Alright?’ But she wouldn’t pronounce it ‘all right’; she would say ‘A’right?’. The only alternative to spelling it in dialect would be for a third person narrator or another character to make reference to the pronunciation.  How contrived and cumbersome to say ‘”Alright?” said Rosa, dropping the L in a distinctly Cornish manner.’

“Five shillings mair,” said he, “and hersel’ will bring ye there” says a Scottish character to Robert Louis Stevenson’s David Balfour in Kidnapped.  At a glance you can tell who is speaking.

Written dialect might look a little odd, but as soon as you form the words in your head, you hear them.  Some people speak in accents when they quote someone or tell a story, and the story is instantly enlivened.  To actors it is an integral part of their job. Whether verbal or written, dialect needs to be done well and with precision, but we don’t question the principle of whether actors should speak ‘properly’ (i.e. standard English) instead of using dialect. The downside of writing dialect rather than speaking it is that you can never be sure how the reader will ‘hear’ it.

There are different types of alternative spelling.  These include elisions like the Scottish ‘hersel” or Rosa’s Cornish ‘a’right’, or contractions like the English ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’. There are what might be described as ‘mis-spellings for the sake of pronunciation’ like Stevenson’s ‘mair’ instead of ‘more’.  Each of these represents a choice that needs to be made by the writer of dialect.  Different words as dialect

Alternative spelling and pronunciation

The next stage on the dialect spectrum is where a word both pronounced and spelt differently, yet does not constitute an entirely different word.  An example would be ‘dinnae’ instead of ‘don’t’, which is include in the Oxford English Dictionary, or an archaic word such as ‘ye’ for ‘you’.  There are also choices within these alternative spellings: ‘dinnae’ or ‘dinna’?  ‘Ye’, ‘ya’ or an elided ‘y apostrophe’ as in the American ‘y’all’?  These words, used consistently but sparingly, can convey immediately the origin and identity of the character.

Incomprehensible dialect



Jennifer Sommer‘s thesis blogpost cites several novels with what she calls an ‘extreme level of dialect’.  Robert Burns is a good example of dialect that is so strong and broad that it is difficult for the English to understand.  While for the sake of our audience we may not wish to emulate Burns, I would still question whether it is  essential that the reader understands every single word. If there is an incomprehensible sentence or two by a particular character, does this matter – especially if the character would have been incomprehensible or difficult to understand if you heard them speak?  The alternative might be to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’: ‘Blah, blah,’ he said incomprehensibly.’ or  ‘I could not understand a word he said.’

In The Scottish Exiles, Davey Kirk is the Scot doing most of the speaking. He has minimal dialect, because he is a viewpoint character and too much would be too much. But when they meet other Scottish secondary characters a broader dialect makes a contrast. Deeper research and listening to audio material can help establish characters in a particular area, for example in Aberdeen they say ‘fae’ instead of ‘from’.

Narration in dialect

A step further on the dialect spectrum is where the narrator uses dialect. Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song is an example. He provides a glossary for terms that may not be understood. It is probable this will be used only by native speakers.  There are numerous modern examples of Scots dialect being written by Scots although there is a difference between informal banter between friends, and more formal writing in an identical accent. Contrast the language used by Lesley Riddoch in The National  with her own Facebook page where she announces she is going ‘aff tae bed’. This informal v formal use might usefully be compared with character v narration.

While Stevenson, Gibbon and Riddoch might use dialect, is there a level of cultural appropriation if a non-Scot writes in a Scots dialect? In OutlanderAmerican Diana Gabaldon’s uses character dialect words and also some Gaelic phrases. Evidently it did not affect adversely either publication or sales. However, to narrate in dialect might overstep cultural acceptability.

Dialect overlapping with language

In An Introduction to Modern Scots Andy Eagle lays out the history of the Scots language, and notes its effective diminution into ‘a dialect’.  Perhaps the answer to the dialect conundrum is to place the dialect words or phrases in italics, as latin might be. But the reason for this would surely be more academic than literary or practical. If the problem is the flow, or the reader’s understanding, use of italics is unlikely to help. As regards a writing device for delineating character or creating atmosphere, italics would simply get in the way.


Novel written entirely in another language

It may appear facetious to carry the idea to this extreme, but it bears at least a mention. To vast sections of the world, a book written in English is a book written in a foreign language. English is not somehow ‘neutral’. Is it simply our palate that desires a book to be written in an unsullied version of English? Should this be pandered to? I could potentially (had I the skill, the time, the knowledge, the dedication) write my novel in Gaelic, Scots, Doric – or a mixture of these, depending on each character’s origin. But my protagonist is English. There would need to be dual language at least. Then there is the narration to consider.  So it might be an interesting exercise, but it would plainly create difficulties both in craft and as regards publication in Britain or America. Effectively I would be an English writer translating into Scots, only for a translator to translate back into English. Let’s not go there.