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Capturing Unique Speech in Your Family History

Biff Barnes

How do you capture Great Grandma’s speech in your family history book? She was an immigrant who spoke with a distinctive accent and even a dialect reflecting the neighborhood culture she first experienced in America. Do you simply present her speech in Standard American English and lose the unique style of her dialogue or do you try to capture the peculiarities of her speech in the way you write it.

Charles Carson, managing editor of the Journal American Speech offered some useful advice in a recent post on the Grammar Girl Blog. He cautioned, “To flavor a novel and provide authenticity, authors often use dialect in their written dialogue. But the use of dialect is tricky, and if you don’t use care and sensitivity it may backfire.”

When done skillfully capturing accent and dialect in writing is wonderful. Frank McCourt presents the speech of the Irish beautifully in his Pulitzer Prize winning Angela’s Ashes.

Carson explains, “When we talk about a person’s accent, we’re referring to how they pronounce words. So when Eliza Doolittle [in My Fair Lady] sings, ‘Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins! Just you wait.’ She is using Standard English with a cockney accent.”

This works wonderfully for Learner and Lowe in the musical. But it doesn’t work for everybody. Novelist Oakley Hall discusses the danger, “Phonetic spelling may be the easiest way to indicate dialect peculiarities, but it is a crude device. Misspelled words tend to jump off the page and assume undue importance, and apostrophes indicating missing letters take on the appearance of barbed-wire entanglements. The following passage from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is almost unreadable:

Th’ general, he sees he is goin’ t’ take th’ hull command of the 304th when we go in the action, an’ then he ses we’ll do sech fightin’ as never another regiment done.

They say we’re catchin it over on th’ left. They say th’ enemy driv’ our line inteh a devil swamp an took Hannieses battery.’”

“The other option for communicating a character’s accent to readers, which I recommend,” says Carson, “is to use standard spelling along with description of the character’s speech in the text introducing the character. One might write, ‘Her roots in the South were evident in her slow, melodious speech,’ while using standard spelling when writing her speech. This method is much easier for the reader…”

One tool for portraying a character’s unique speech while using standard spelling is to capture the person’s favorite expressions. For example, my mother often said of people , including me, who were not really paying attention, “They are drifting and dreaming.” My father seldom said, “Hurry up.” He preferred to say, “Time’s a wasting.” Favorite expressions can reveal a lot about the people who use them and add color to your family hsitory.

Click here to read Charles Carson's post on Grammar Girl