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An oft-debated topic in all fiction is the subject of using dialect as dialogue. Many famous writers have done it, and many not-so-famous writers have tried it, to varying degrees of success. Since dialects are a very linguisticky topic, I thought I’d take a look at why and how writers use them, some of the effect of using them, and how it all relates to the whole debate on cultural appropriation.
First, a few thoughts on dialect:
1. A dialect is a unique language system characteristic of a group of speakers.
2. A dialect is a variety of a major language carrying connotations of social, cultural, or economic subordination to the culture which speaks the dominant language.
These two definitions exist simultaneously. For our purposes, the second one is the most relevant.
Dialects under the second definition are culturally, socially, and economically stigmatized by the dominant culture. Speaking a dialect is often portrayed by dominant cultural institutions as just “bad [Dominant Language]”. For example, “bad English”. (We’ll keep this example, since I’m discussing literature from primarily English-speaking countries.) Many children are taught in school to speak “proper English” in school, and punished for using their native dialect. “Proper English” actually takes a few forms: In America, it is a dialect known as “Standard American English(SAE)”, which is most similar to Midwestern dialects of American English. In England, there is Received Pronunciation(RP).
Most other countries with official “languages”, have a similar pattern of official and unofficial dialects. What is considered a language is often up to whichever dialects can get state support, and it has been said that “A language is merely a dialect with an army and a navy.” Or, in the case of France, “a dialect with a national Academy.”
Almost all other dialects are usually considered inferior or degraded versions of the official dialect.
So, onto the use of dialect in fiction.
For the most part, dialogue in English-language novels is written in the standard form of written English, which reflects more or less the standard form of spoken English in the country in which it is printed. Although, depending on the orthography used, this reflection could be rather cloudy or warped. Dialect, then, is represented in an attempt at “phonetic” spelling and non-standard vocabulary and grammar.
Most commonly, because the author does not often speak the dialect natively that they are attempting to represent, dialect in fiction falls back on stereotypes of usage related to the cultural perception of the spoken dialect. This can lead to a continuation of prejudice and stereotypes, and is also a form of linguistic and cultural appropriation, as a member of the dominant culture makes use of minority culture for their own ends. Rarely in the cases we’re examining are these ends malicious. But they are often still quite problematic.
There are many English dialects that have been popularized in mass culture, with varying degrees of difference presented. For example: Italian American English, Chinese American English, African American English, Cockney English, Appalachian English, and Southern English. In fact, they are so parodied, mocked, and appropriated that they have “accents” associated with them. The cheesy Italian accent a la Mario, the “Oy Guvnah” of Cockney, and “tree dorra” of Chinese American English.
Some of these “dialects” are actually accents or inter-languages, rather than stable dialects. However, they are all commonly referred to as “dialect” (or occasionally “accent”) in regards to their representation in fiction. And for the most part, rather than actual depictions of the stated dialect, what is really present is the set of stereotypical markers associated with the dialect by mainstream culture.
Next time, I’ll look at some examples, both made-up and used in novels, of dialect appropriation.
Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code