To Write in Dialect or Not?

When I began to write This Madness of the Heart, I was faced almost from the first paragraph (well, actually the second) with a choice: to try to write Appalachian mountain speech as I’ve heard it, or use common American English. I experimented with both, and there was just no contest. I had to try the dialect.

Yes, writing dialect can make conversation harder to read, and it alienates some readers. I even had one reviewer accuse me of showing contempt for the region by writing incomprehensible dialect. And, of course, writing in dialect is much harder than writing straight English prose.

But what happens to the gentle man from my childhood whose voice still rings in my ears, if instead of the following remarks spoken in dialect . . .

“My head’s a-spinnin’ so even God Almighty couldn’t say what I’m a-feelin’ one minute t’ the othern’n. First I’m fit to bust Jasper in the jaw fer creatin’ sech a hardness amongst the good folks o’ this town; then I’m nigh t’ bustin’ int’ tears o’er pore Welby; then I’m a-studyin’ on oilin’ up the ol’ shotgun and featherin’ int’ Jasper fer what he done t’ Delmar Peabody!”

. . . he should say this instead?

“My head’s spinning so fast even God Almighty couldn’t say what I’m feeling one minute to the next. First I’m about to bust Jasper in the jaw for creating such hardness among the good folks of this town; then I’m about to bust into tears over poor Welby; then I’m thinking about oiling up the old shotgun and laying into Jasper for what he did to Delmar Peabody!”

For me, the man’s heart disappears, along with the huge warmth of his presence.

 

And Sheriff Lyle Embry, with his laidback drawl—what would he be, if instead of these words . . .

“Dad blast it all t’ hell n’ back ag’in, Herbert! Don’t be a- pitchin’ it int’ the woods that-a-way as soon as I go a-turnin’ my back! Dig yerself a hole an’ cover thet trash plumb over with dirt! Lookit how yon trees is all gormed up an’ benastied now!”

. . . he said this?

“Doggone it all to hell and back again, Herbert! Don’t pitch it into the woods that way as soon as I turn my back! Dig a hole and cover that trash over with dirt! See how those trees are all spattered and nasty now!”

Perhaps only my own memory would be violated. Maybe the reader wouldn’t care one way or the other. But for me the closeness of the mountain people I’ve known would be lost in the tidying up of their speech to fit a more common mold. The scent of mountain air would disappear.

 

I do know that writing in dialect was extremely difficult for me. I couldn’t just rely on memory. I listened to recordings and studied academic verbatims. I studied the various ways Appalachian dialect is written down, and the variations that exist among people with different degrees of access to television and urban culture. Check and double check. Write and read and listen. Return to recordings of mountain speech, letting it roll over me again and again.

No, I couldn’t have written Madness without dialect. It seems to me that much of a people’s soul is carried on their speech. Regional speech patterns flow with the rich silt of blood and flesh, history and struggle, life and death.

How could Carter Bayless say any less than this?

“Thus saith th’ Lord God, I be a-makin’ th’ sun t’ roll down th’ sky of a noontime. I’ll be a-bringin’ dusky-dark ont’ the earth in th’ midst o’ day. I’ll be a-turnin’ yar cornivals t’ mournin’ an’ yar ditties t’ dirges. Ye’ll be a-fallin’ broke an’ ruint int’ yar graves an’ niver rouse agin!”

If you read This Madness of the Heart and have an opinion, I’d be delighted to hear it!

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