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bear by san

March 2017



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sorry absinthe you're much too slow

I've been reading the ongoing, nuanced, thoughtful, intensely personal discussion of the use of dialect in stories in science fiction and fantasy with a lot of interest. It's a good discussion, and the inimitable Sofia Samatar (Hugo and Campbell nominee: read her stuff) has a good link roundup and reaction post here.

I also found LaShawn Wanak's post, here, particularly moving.

LaShawn is a former student of mine who has since become a friend, so what she has to say speaks very personally to me. For one thing, I'm certainly guilty of counseling my students to avoid "eye dialect" under most circumstances. By eye dialect, what we generally mean is writing that attempts to phoneticize dialect, and which is often used for comedic effect or to represent a particular character as an ill-spoken hick or foreigner. (Think the inevitable bumpkins in Shakespeare.)

Too often, "eye dialect" is used to mock a marginalized group, and that's (a) not funny and (b) distracting to the reader and (c) just plain rude.

But the current discussion has exposed to me a particular kyriarchal shortcoming in my own thinking on the issue, because what I've often done when asked, "Okay, how do we represent dialect?" is counsel being faithful to the rhythms of the speech, but using more or less standard spelling, or standard variations of spelling. (such as "gonna," "ain't," "chillun," "feets") and also avoiding bumpkinizing characters by use of eye dialect.

And I always make a point of stressing to my students that "There are no rules in fiction writing, only techniques that do or don't work in any given circumstance." And of pointing out cases where dialect is used well and strongly--Nalo Hopkinson has a fabulous ear for dialect, for example, and so does Nisi Shawl. You can settle in and hear the voice speaking in your ear.

I think where I've failed my students is that I've failed to stress that if you're using your own dialect, or one you've extensively researched and/or lived with, then the advice to avoid eye dialect absolutely does not apply. That yes, eye dialect will alienate some readers who aren't willing to do the work to get through it, and that those are the choices that every writer makes every single time they decide between transparency (ease of reading) and complexity/nuance/depth/shades and layers*. But that sometimes it's worth losing a few readers to say something truer and less whitewashed, less commodified. 

The writer, having developed through practice and experience sufficient tools and skill to control their point of aim--gets to choose that point of aim and hopefully even hit it.

And as Amal El-Mohtar points out in her essay here, sometimes the writer's true voice, truly represented, offers a much stronger and richer experience to readers willing to do the work.

So I think I owe LaShawn and my other students an apology on that front. 



*Both are literary values, you see--and while they are not diametrically opposed, they are in tension with one another. 

Note 1: Speaking as somebody who has studied perhaps a little more linguistics, anthropology, and English literature than is healthy for the human mind: standard or "proper" English is a social construct intended as a measure of class control and segregation. It doesn't exist as a real, unconstructed thing. The linguist's viewpoint is that "correct" language is any language as spoken by a fluent native speaker. The end.

Note 2: This discussion is also interesting for me from a personal point of view, because I am the grandaughter of immigrants, and being well-spoken was of Very High Value in the house I grew up in. My grandfather learned English when he was 12, and spoke it with precision and power, because being well-spoken was recognized as the way to get ahead among the immigrant communities in New York City in the nineteen-teens and nineteen-twenties. My native speech was therefore crisp enough that I was often mistaken as an immigrant by other immigrants. And when I moved to Nevada, suddenly that same diction (and my traces of a Yankee accent, which basically only show up on one word out of a hundred--water, quarter, roof, root. library--and in certain dialectical choices) marked me out for fairly severe mockery and a certain amount of reflexive prejudice. My participle endings have suffered as a result, which I sort of mourn.

Note 3: I've also damn well used dialect in my own work, extensively, where I felt i could represent it well. Often with the help of a native informant. Often, I have myself chosen to downplay it, either by using standardized spelling (what I refer to as the nature-identical Elizabethan flavoring in Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, for example) or by being somewhat sparing in what I chose to accentuate as with Razorface in the Jenny Casey books and Don in Whiskey and Water.

Some of this sparingness is because I know I don't have a particularly good ear for accents and dialect, and I'd rather go easy than get it wrong. That also makes me work extra hard at it when I use it, and yell for help a lot.

But I have used it when it felt necessary, in "The Cold Blacksmith" and in Karen Memory and probably in a hundred other places that currently don't spring to mind.


Barbara Hambly lampshades dialect and code-switching in her Benjamin January mysteries. Ben is fluent in dialects of French from the plummiest Parisian down to the "gombo" of the slave huts and lower-class city blacks, and in English similarly. He uses this ability consciously as a tool, gauging his speech patterns to the needs of the moment.
Hmm. I tend to use dialect sparingly. Given two of my main characters are High Noble and a commoner, I can usually get away Salli just using more formal speech and Ali using more colloquialisms, though characters that are from the setting's Germany expy tend to use a lots of Gratuitous Foreign Words (much to my actual German readers' amusement).
Note 1, every word.
Not one English (or French or Chinese or Welsh etc) but many Englishes, each correct, each valid, each of equal value.
Standard British English reeks with class and race privilege and has been a tool of imperialism for centuries. It's not a sacred standard.
That yes, eye dialect will alienate some readers who aren't willing to do the work to get through it, and that those are the choices that every writer makes every single time they decide between transparency (ease of reading) and complexity/nuance/depth/shades and layers*. But that sometimes it's worth losing a few readers to say something truer and less whitewashed, less commodified.

Hmm. Yes. And sometimes it's worth choosing for transparency in order to speak to a wider audience. It's not a choice without consequence, but it is a choice.

(I still remember, one of the times we moved, realizing that I had forgotten how to say a word the way we said it in the previous place. I didn't remember what that way was, but I knew that my pronunciation had changed.)
Replying to myself: The choice is not even necessarily transparency or non-transparency -- although that is somewhat how it works in a world where everyone is educated to the standard of the white people with power -- but it is still somewhat a choice of transparency to whom.
Note 3--I'm chickenshit about using dialect because, like you, I don't have much of an ear for it.

That said, I haven't found dialect to be an obstruction when I'm reading a work--it's the quality of the writing that can obstruct. Poorly written writing is poorly written writing, and dialect isn't the determining factor of the quality of the writing.

Interesting thought

I'm doing a lot of in-character writing for my Dystopia Rising character. He's of a strain called 'Mericans... who mostly talk and act as one would think from the stereotype. As I've been writing, I've been shifting spellings and word choices from 'me' to 'Zeke'... and have realized that his particular backwoodsy speech pattern (full of darlins, mebbes, and th' 'casional ain't) is in it's own way REFINED by the fact that of all the 'Mericans in The Rend, he is one of very few that have the Educated skill. This represents an actual honest-to-god suite of learning on topics from Particle Physics to Plutarch, though as a Distiller, he leans heavy to the Chemistry. There's so much hicksy that leaks through the cask of his knowledge that it's almost creating a cognative dissonance in my head... except when I'm in character, then it all works. Guess Zeke is his own native speaker...
So far as I've ever been able to tell, the line between "a good thing to try if you've got the ear for it" and "best approached gingerly and with caution" is pretty much the same as the line between representing one's own dialect and representing somebody else's. Doing the latter requires, in addition to cultural sensitivity and a good ear, enough self-knowledge to determine whether one's skill-set is, in fact, up to the job.
Yeah. I think so, too.
I don't know that I have a good ear for dialect, nonspecific. I often represent spoken Trinidadian English on the page, which one might be able to argue is my first language. Can one be said to have a good ear for it if it's in a way one's native tongue? I should ask a linguist some day.
There are definitely people who do not have a good ear for their own native tongue. *g*