Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Big Flap About Dialect

Last month I, Donis, was pleased to be invited to write a guest post on dialect called "Don't Shoot the Painter"  for the blog of author, editor, and writing teacher Heidi Thomas.  I started out by saying that since I write a series set in early 20th Century Oklahoma, I’m very aware of dialect when I write. And often worried about it, too. The characters in the Alafair Tucker series do in fact use what may be considered cliche terms and phrases. The reason is that this is really the way my grandparents talked, all of whom were in their teens and twenties in the 1910’s. In truth, I don’t write exactly like they talked, because it would not be understandable if I did.

Writing dialect is dangerous business, any as any writer knows. It’s really hard not to sound ridiculous, and so most teachers warn students away from it. Now that most people no longer use such a strong dialect in their daily speech, I find that I miss it. To me it sounds like my warm and loving childhood, and that’s why I try to give a flavor of it in my writing.

However, as I said in the guest post, sometimes writing dialect for the near past is trickier than for the more distant past. Sometimes it’s tough, but we do our best. Would my teen boy have said “jeepers” in 1916? Yes he would have. How can I know? Popular literature of the time, newspapers, and etymological dictionaries like the good old Oxford English Dictionary help a lot.

But not always.

Example 1: A mere week after I wax eloquent on Heidi's blog about how careful I am in doing my dialect research, I am proofreading my latest Alafair work in progress when I come across a sentence in which Alafair says:
"... it’s a big flap every night at bedtime until Mama or Daddy goes in there and knocks some heads together.”

"Hmm," I sez to myself. "Would a person use the phrase 'big flap' in June of 1916? Perhaps I should look it up." So out comes the etymological dictionary, in which I discover that the first known use of the term 'big flap' was noted in 1916, being used on the battlefields of World War I among British soldiers.

All right, I think. Alafair, living in rural Oklahoma in mid-1916 would probably have not heard 'big flap' used like this, but she may very well have said 'big flapdoodle'. For according to the previously mentioned etymological dictionary the word 'flapdoodle' was common in the U.S. and Europe dating from 1839. So I change it, feeling very proud of myself.

Example 2: One week later. I'm doing historical research by reading a book I bought many years ago at the Enid Historical Society entitled Reflections From the Roadside, a Quindecennial Chronology. This is a reprint of the diary kept by Oklahoma homesteader Henry Harrison Reynolds from January 1912 through December 1926. I am reading his entries for June 1916 just to see what's going on in the world that an ordinary person would remark on and what do I see in the entry for December 1915? I quote:
"There has been a big flap for months over drilling a test well for the city north of town."

So when some reader tries to take me to task for using an anachronistic dialect terms, I can say with confidence and through direct experience that even the experts can be wrong.


Morgan Mandel said...

Researching dialect is one reason I stick to contemporary novels when I write! Easier to figure out, although I've been known to add expressions from twenty or thirty years ago, which have stuck with me!

Morgan Mandel

Donis Casey said...

I think it would be fun to write a futuristic novel and make up your own slang and dialect.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Some contemporary representation of 19th century black dialect is now considered insulting. I avoid it. I like the way you present dialect, with the words and grammar intact and just a hint of the spelling.