Are there standard ways to write English dialects?

An acquaintance of mine, P., is writing a book, which is set in New Orleans. Much of the dialogue is written in a non-standard dialect of English. P. tells me that he was trying to phonetically transcribe a Jamaican dialect.

Are there standard ways of writing various dialects of English?

Would Jamaican be the proper dialect to use for people living in the Lower Ninth in New Orleans? (I suppose they could have come from Jamaica, but I’m wondering what the appropriate New Orleans dialect might be.)

I used to live in New Orleans and there have been studies on the distinct accents there. IIRC, there are about 7 distinct New Orleans accents but a Jamaican sounding sounding one isn’t among them. The best suggestion I can think of is to get a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces which is a great and hysterical book anyway but the native writer also used phonetic spelling for several New Orleans accents.

I live in suburban New Orleans, and work with several displaced folks originally from the 9th Ward. The accent is very unlike Jamaican speech.

It’s really hard to explain the accent, as it is so familiar to me that it doesn’t register as “the speech of somewhere else”. However, I recommend that your friend watch Spike Lee’s documentary about Hurrican Katrina, When the Levees Broke. Many of the folks in that film will be from 9th Ward, and your friend can hear live examples of New Orleans speech from real people (as opposed to characters in a movie).

I am unaware of any “standard” ways, but it would seem to me that an author trying to write in dialect would run the risk of either being incomprehensible to readers or insulting the people that the author is trying to emulate.

For Jamaican generally (that is, not New Orleans-specific), your friend may wish to consult Ian Fleming’s Dr. No. The book takes place in and around Jamaica for the most part, and Fleming has written the dialogue of the Jamaicans in the local dialect. It is understandable to the reader, although one must remember the book’s age–it’s from the 1950s, IIRC–and the dialect used may not present Jamaicans in the best light. Still, I imagine your friend could judge for himself whether copying Fleming’s rendition of a Jamaican dialect would be a good idea.

I believe linguists have several methods of transcribing speech phonetically.

In fiction, “dialect”–using non-standard spelling–can get quite irritating. Perhaps your friend should try to convey the flavor of the dialect rather than subjecting the reader to a bunch of apostrophes.

Just my opinion:
As a native of nola I have to say the Jamaican thing sounds odd to me, whether he’s trying to portray whites *or * blacks. Speaking of which, is he trying to portray whites or blacks? Either groups sounds totally different from the rest of the country, but white New Orleanians have been gone from the 9th ward for long enough that their accents have changed. I’ve always thought there was a **huge ** difference in accent between any of those friends (throughout our teens and twenties) and the parents of my friends, most of whom grew up in the 9th ward but moved out as kids (the whole White Flight) thing. Also, the whites of St. Bernard parish (near lower 9th ward), who don’t altogether consider themselves New Orleanians, have an accent all their own as well which is easily distinguishable from the ‘Yat’ accent.

Thanks for the replies, everyone! I think I’m going to forward this thread to P. He might end up having to rewrite his book, though…

PM me for an email address you or he can write to for any info. Be glad to help.

No less a personage than George Bernard Shaw tried to do this with Eliza’s dialect in Pygmalion, but rapidly abandoned the attempt.

Not to challenge your friend’s artistic freedom, but it seems silly to put dialects into writing, especially if all the characters speak the same way. Reading would be much less enjoyable if every author tried to transcribe a realistic way of speaking. Written English is not intended to convey pronunciation. Slang is one thing, but writing out pronunciations for an entire book is too much. And it comes across as vaguely racist.

I seem to be unable to send a PM or email to you. Help?

For some dialects, such as the “standard” (prestige) dialects of England, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, yes, there are de facto (but generally not official) standards. You used one to write your OP. For other dialects, there’s no generally agreed-upon way to write them, even when they have a history of literature. For example, no n speakers of Scots English will agree with each other on how to write their dialect, or even whether it constitutes an English dialect, a set of related English dialects, or a separate language (possibly with its own dialects). However, there tend to be widely accepted and understood orthographic conventions.

If I may buck the trend and say that I read Trainspotting which has a lot of written Scottish dialect if I remember correctly, and I found it easy enough to read once I got into it.

I understand Scots (the Germanic language, not Scots Gaelic) itself has an increasingly standardized orthography. Was it written in Scots, or Scots-flavoured English?

It was written in sort of Edinburgh/Leith flavour. And I’m from Glasgow (not very far away) but I did find myself wishing there was a glossary included. :smiley:

I don’t know.

I just remember, having seen the movie first, looking forward to reading the book so I could find out what the heck was being said half the time :smack:.

Seriously, in both the movie and the book, I got to a point where I could understand what I was hearing/reading fairly comfortably.

I have to say that I also disagree on the, “long strings of written dialect are always bad,” contention.
I read a lot of stories from the Old South where both slave dialects and lower-class white dialects are portrayed, and while some do it clunkily, others are quite suave and purposeful with their usage of dialect.

Twain used it sparingly in Huckleberry Finn, for Negro Jim, and I thought it was quite appropriate, and IIRC, he also used another dialect for the white townspeople of Hannibal.

Joel Chandler Harris used it all the time in Brer Rabbit stories, pretty much all the dialogue is written in slave dialect, and he does it brilliantly. He is widely praised (and disparaged) for mimicing the dialect accurately, and keeping it alive for audiences today, and I feel like his use of dialect really enhances the perceived authenticity of his stories.

However, both Twain and Harris were 1) masters of the English language, particularly Twain, who, from what I can recall (no cite), was well-aquainted with various languages and the nuances of linguistic pronunciation; 2) writers for whom the use of native language was essential to impart both flavor and meaning to their stories. Both those works, especially Harris’, would be significantly diminished without the use of dialect.

However, having grown up in the rural South, I’m also somewhat familiar with the modern-day versions of these dialects, so reading them wasn’t a chore. OTOH, reading English written in dialect from other cultures can get annoying, as other posters were saying, so YMMV.


Zora Neale Hurston used dialect for great effect. Their Eyes Were Watching God would not be the great piece of literature that it is if she had used standard English throughout. Narration is written in standard, but people speak the way people speak. I love it.

The only time I get peeved is when whites’ voices are written in standard and blacks’ voices are written in dialect–down to interesting phonetic spellings (“gwine” is my favorite). Much of Southern literature is written like this. I feel that if one is going to use dialect, they must be consistent and write all the characters in dialect.

YES! Not that I know anything at all of Southern U.S. literature, but it sounds like the same thing that annoys me when SOME characters are written in"standard" orthography, but the Scottish, or Yorkshire or wherever characters have to sound “quaint”.

It takes a really exceptional writer to be able to do extended sections in dialog, and have it be both understandable to most readers and adequately representative of the culture. It’s very hard to do.

Most writers get around this much like that: they start with a sentence or two written in dialog & phonetic accent, then go to standard spelling for the rest of the story. If it’s written in first-person voice, they will often make a comment indicating that: “that’s the closest I can come to putting her accent in writing. From now on, I will spare both you and me the effort, and write it in normal English.”