The Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s WRITING FICTION (2003): “Dialect is like walking on eggshells—tread carefully. It’s tough to do well, and even if it is done well it can be distracting. If rendered carelessly, dialect runs the risk of sounding hackneyed, exaggerated, or even offensive …” (p 148-9).
In short, dialect, if it is used, should impart the flavor of ethnicity or extraordinary speech patterns without being incomprehensible—and therefore disappointing—to a reader. Consider, too, the passage of time:
Here is a short passage from Act l Scene l in Shakespeare’s comedy TWELFTH NIGHT from the first folio (that is, the first printing of 1623 and not what you likely read in school):“If Musicke be the food of Love, play on.? /Giue me excesse of it: that surfetting / The appetite may sicken, and so dye …”
Most literature from the 17th-19th-centuries is complex in terms of idiom, sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, and pacing, but some of us love it anyway.
Another gem of arduous reading can be found in Rudyard Kipling in the late 19th century short story “With the Main Guard”: * “I misremembers exactly fwhat I did, but I didn’t want Dinah to be a widdy at the depot. Thin, afther some promishcuous hackin’ we shtuck agin, an’ the Tyrone behin’ was callin’ us dogs an’ cowards an’ all manner av names …”
In the same period, Mark Twain is positively dialect-enlightened in Huck’s speech in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN: *****“The widow she found out where I was, by and by, and she sent a man over to try to get hold of me, but pap drove him off with the gun, and it warn’t long after that I was used to being where I was.” *Jim fares less happily: “Never you mind, honey, never you mind. Don’t you git too peart. It’s a-comin’. Mind I tell you, it’s a-comin’.”
An arduous read for the 20th-century (for non Scots) is Irvine Welsh’s TRAINSPOTTING: * “The sweat was lashing oafay Sick Boy; he was trembling. Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, tryin’ no tae notice the cunt. He wis bringing me doon. Ah tried to keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.” (The movie has standard English sub-titles.)
The 20th-century also introduced a brilliant surge of African-American writing, much of the speech, if not always the narrative, rendered in dialect:
Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE: **** “My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I’m big. I can’t move fast enough. By the time I git back from the well the water be warm.”
Sapphire’s PUSH: **** “I look Mama. This baby feel like a watermelon between my bones getting bigger and bigger and my ankles feelin’ tight cause they swoled. I sigh. This gonna end, even if it end by me stop breathing.”
Toni Morrison’s BELOVED: **** “What’d be the point?” asked Baby Suggs. “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband’s spirit was to come back here? or yours? Don’t talk to me. You lucky.”
In the 21st-century, our favorite novels often out of Africa. One of the most comprehensible and engaging dialects recently to come into print is in Nigeria’s Abi Dare and THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE. ***** “He was sitting inside the sofa with no cushion and looking me one kind. As if he wants to be flogging me for no reason, as if I am carrying shit inside my cheeks …”