Some of My Favorite Writers Do It – and Do It Well

Dialect.

It was a big no-no in my writing program.  Too hard to read, said the instructors (citing Huckleberry Finn).  Condescending, if “dialect” included “bad grammar” like “ain’t” and double negatives.  Heaven forfend one should drop the final -g’s on “-ing” endings!  All those apostrophes!  My thesis instructor and I discussed some ways to “lightly season” fiction with what I would consider watered-down dialectic usages:  word choice and syntax alone, to give the reader an idea or a flavor for regional usage. 

The instructor, bless him, did turn me on to Tony Earley’s wonderful essay “The Quare Gene,” first published in The New Yorker in 1998 and reprinted in his collection Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True.  I became an immediate Earley fan, but the essay left me feeling sad because part of the point Earley made was that our native language – Appalachian English – is dying, and he no longer speaks it.

Neither do I, at least not with any regularity. I went away to a Seven Sisters college in the early 1980s.  My upper-middle-class friends, mostly from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, were kind enough not to make fun of my speech, but if my mother called and was upset about something, they’d say, “Your mother called – we don’t know what she said, but we know it was her because of the accent.”  A date, from Montreal, was less kind.  We were strolling hand in hand through the moonlit, snow-covered streets of Montreal on spring break when he turned to me and said, “You know, Jer, you really ought to get rid of that accent.  It makes you sound like an ignorant hick.”  The first thing I got rid of was the date – and the second was my accent. 

I can’t speak it on command now.  It comes out when I’m angry or upset, when I’ve had a few too many, or when I’m deep in conversation with my mother or sister.  It creeps in around the edges if I’m talking to people from other parts of the South. 

But I’m sensitive about it.  I had written several short stories set in my home state, but I took none of them to workshop…submitted none of them as part of my thesis.  Which is too bad, because they might have been better than the pieces I did submit.  But none of my workshop classmates or instructors was from West Virginia – how could they judge my ability to write what I grew up hearing and speaking?  How could I explain to them that I can still tell immediately if someone is from Lincoln or Logan County, or from out in Pocahontas or Greenbrier Counties?  That I would never attempt to write Texas or Tennessee or New Orleans dialect, because I can hear them, and I can hear that they’re different, and I know that I don’t speak them? 

My sense has always been that Appalachian English has its own internal logic.  Not long ago, in the Lincoln County Public Library, I found a chewy volume of linguistics on Appalachian English that used quantitative and qualitative linguistic methods to demonstrate that the regional dialect has a grammar, a syntax, and a vocabulary with roots that reach back to Old English.  The book is understandably out of print, because quantitative linguistics is harder to read than Huckleberry Finn, but I found a used copy that now occupies a place of honor on my bookshelf.

In an interview for Identity Theory, Tim Gautreaux says:

“Wherever you are born and raised tends to have a profound effect on your fictional world. I don’t know why….You really learned every thing you need to know about human nature directly or indirectly by the time you are fifteen or sixteen. You know what your family history is, what your structures are, whether you are paying attention to it or not, what their values are. And, of course the language of your region and all that is in your literary bones, so to speak. You know the cadences of the relatives’ parlance and you can go somewhere and you can live a long time, and it just doesn’t ring true.”

YES.  Exactly.

I was thrilled to find both Gautreaux and Ann Pancake using dialect in the stories that I read early this month.  Here are some of my favorite examples:

From “Idols”:

Obie – “But it don’t seem like nothin’ you do gets taken serious.”

Poxley – “…freeze me female…” and “Well, I got to admit I’ve never been throwed out of a worse place than this.”

Obie’s wife really has a twang:  “Do you have any idea a-tall what time it is?….A workin’ man needs all the rest he’s due, so I’m not a-goin’ to roust him out of a warm bed, Mister….Ain’t a one of them callin’ me up at twelve-ten at night to whine about no broke water pipe.”

Gautreaux drops final -g’s all over the place and the story reads just fine.

I thought that Ann Pancake captured the speech of the coal fields brilliantly – the more so because I’d just taken my older son down to Beckley to tour the Exhibition Coal Mine for a history project.  I had to check to make sure he could understand the retired coal miner who was our guide – his accent was as thick as molasses in January – and once in a while (make that oncet in a while) I had to “translate.”

There were so many wonderful and unique turns of phrase in “Arsonists” – in, gasp, shudder, dialect! – that I couldn’t do justice to them all, or choose a favorite.  Here’s a sample:

“He says his words like flat creek rocks laid.” 

“I thank ye, Dell.”

“busted-to-pieces road”…”goes to scraping the windshield”…”plunged happy over his head”…”drunk-flung”…”leery and slow” (used as adverbs)…“best he can”…”he’d beet like a redhead”…”Go getcha in the creek!”…”spoilt our spaghetti”…”I done replaced those”…and one of my favorites, “this here” (which is quite different from that there and that’un over yonder, degrees of specificity of place that simply don’t exist in modern standard English).

Becky, Kenny’s wife, uses the word “twicet” (twice).  The spelling doesn’t convey what this word sounds like – it’s one syllable, like its counterpart “oncet” (once, pron. WONST).  You probably have to have heard it to hear it correctly in your mental ear when you read it.  I salute Ann Pancake for using it.

One day, a professor of English from a well-known Ivy League university came to West Virginia to teach the ignorant locals a little bit of culture.  He hung out his shingle announcing “Culture, Grammar and Enunciation Lessons for Hillbillies” on Main Street in Hamlin, and was surprised that after a week he’d had no customers.

Finally, an old man wearing dusty overalls and a plaid shirt, a chaw between his cheek and gum, ambled in.  “I’m here fer some culture lessons, perfessor,” he said, and spat in the direction he thought a spittoon should have been.  “But first, I’m aimin’ to ask ye a few questions.  Check yer boney-feedees, y’know.”

“That’s fine,” the professor allowed.  “Ask whatever you like, sir.”

“D’ye speak hillbilly?”

“I do not.”

“D’ye read hit?”

“Not a word.”

“Well, kin ye write hit?”

“Most certainly not!”

The old man spat again, this time close to the professor’s shoes.  “So, perfessor,” he said, “How does it feel to be dumber’n a dang hillbilly?”

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About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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2 Responses to Some of My Favorite Writers Do It – and Do It Well

  1. Mick says:

    I’m facing a similar situation in my writing–I’m also from West Virginia (mother from Gilmer County, father from Webster). But I’m not really using dialect in my current work, which is set in WVa–I think I can imply dialect through word choice and word order. Maybe it’ll work out….

    I like your blog a lot!

    • readersquest says:

      I look forward to reading your current work some day – I love reading things set back home!

      Did you grow up in WV? Webster County is one of my favorite places in the world, though it would be a grim place to try to make a living. We spent at least a week camping at Holly River State Park every year when I was a kid. Some of my first stories – mercifully long-lost! – were set there. I think I spent one two-week camping trip there writing some kind of dreadful fairy story set on Red Spruce Trail, the one that runs through the campground. Must’ve gone through two or three little spiral notebooks on it. And the four Austrian sisters who had the dairy farm on the little road between Pickens and Helvetia (or perhaps just the VERY ripe cheese they made) are waiting in the wings for a fictional appearance some day.

      Thanks for visiting – come back any time!

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