Are You Privileging Your Dialogue?

Sat Sep 15 2018

(I hope this post is useful for everybody, but I'll just say up front: white writers, this is for you.)

This weekend is the 2018 PNWA Writers Conference, which is pretty much the highlight of my writing year. Well, that and NaNoWriMo.

In one of yesterday's sessions, the presenter suggested that a good way to make your dialogue more vivid was to make judicious use of phonetic spelling for characters with an accent or a noticeable dialect.

I well understand the impulse. Dialects and accents are fun. They're quite musical and beautiful to listen to. They can be very evocative elements of your setting. The thing is, when you write phonetic dialogue you implicitly devalue the speech of those characters relative to the speech of supposedly "unaccented" characters.

Just to be clear what we're talking about, it's stuff like this:

"Clara," said Miss Lawson, "see that the dining room is dusted and the silver polished before the Hardys arrive."

"Yes, Miz Lawson." Clara bowed slightly at the waist, "I'll have 'dat silver shined up right pretty fo' ya. Don' you worry none."

How does this devalue anybody?

Ever since Samuel Johnson invented the modern English dictionary in 1755, we've had a notion of a correct spelling for words. And along with those spellings comes the idea that there is also a correct way to pronounce them.

So what does it say when some of your characters get to speak with the standard, approved spellings, while other have their words mangled into different forms for the sake of dialect?

It says that the people with the standard spellings are speaking correctly, while the phonetically marked group are incorrect. Their words may be just as understandable and equally profound, yet by mangling the spellings the author implicitly marks them as incorrect and thus inferior.

Further, making that textual distinction between the speech of different characters also separates the people into groups. It conveys that Clara is other relative to Miss Lawson. And since the rest of the narrative (the non-dialogue parts) will use standard, approved spellings, this ends up implying that:

The difference in spellings conveys the majority/minority status of the characters, while the standard-ness of the spellings of the surrounding narration assert that the majority group is the superior one.

At least for now, we live in an anglo-centric culture where whiteness and its many associations are taken as the default. Consequently, the use of phonetic spellings puts a white lens on the writing: If Miss Lawson is white (which I'll bet money you assumed even without me saying so), then there is no need to write her dialogue using phonetic spellings because whiteness the default in our culture. Her dialogue is not marked, therefore she's the default, therefore she's white.

Yet we somehow need to point out Clara's non-whiteness literally every time she speaks? Why? Isn't that kind of racist?

Yes. Yes it is.

But Mark Twain did it!

Yeah, he did. And he probably should have checked his privilege before doing so. He should have considered the implications of how he used dialect in his stories.

Just because Twain did it does not mean you should. Society has evolved considerably since the mid-1800s, and thank goodness for it. You, who have the considerable privilege of living in 2018, have an obligation to be more civilized than Mark Twain was.

Or, if you do not accept the obligation, you must at least accept that if you choose not to be more civilized, people have every right to call you out on it.

Even white folks have accents and dialects

I put "unaccented" in quotes back at the top of this article because the whole concept of anybody not having an accent is bogus from the get-go.

Like it or not, you have an accent. You speak some specific dialect of your native tongue. Everyone does. But like the proverbial fish unaware of its water, we don't pay attention to our own accents and dialects. We've heard them so much we no longer hear them, as it were. We hear other people's, particularly if they're from some foreign land or if they're not a native English speaker, but we don't hear our own.

Back in high school, at the beginning of the semester, our Public Speaking teacher wrote this on the board:

"Jeet jet?"

"No, joo?"

We were all quite confused, until he pointed out that this is how, in practice of casual speech, the questions "Did you eat yet?" and "No, did you?" are actually pronounced.

Or, I should say, this is how white people will often pronounce those things. Ny white, male Public Speaking teacher never said that he was portraying white speech on the board. He didn't have to. He never questioned. It was the default.

White folks say "gonna" instead of "going to." We say "could of" as a rapid-speech rendering of "could have," and dozens more such things anyone could probably name.

So if we're supposedly being honest about people's dialects, Miss Lawson's dialogue should probably have been spelled with "dahning room," "pahlished," and "silvuh" in order to convey a sense of Southern drawl. She has a dialect just as much as Clara does. So why point out one but not the other?

Does that mean I can't write with dialect at all?

No. It just means you ought to do it in a way that is respectful to everybody. It means you ought to at least treat everybody equally in your stories.

Either write Clara's with dictionary spellings, or write Miss Lawson's dialect phonetically too.

And if your brain bristles ever so slightly over the notion of writing "dahning room" and "silvuh," good. That means you get it, and you understand why the first of those two options is the better one.

Whatever you do, be fair. Be equal. Take the white lens off of your writing. Becuase just as standard spellings code Miss Lawson as white and and non-standard ones code Clara as other, they also code Miss Lawson as proper and Clara as improper.

Hell, we even call it "proper English," don't we? Think about that.

You don't even need phonetic spellings

Truth is, you can convey dialect just as strongly through careful word choice, word order, idioms, and variations of grammatical structures.

If you want to do dialect, go right ahead. It does portray your characters better. But use respectful tools to do the job instead of lazy, unintentionally-racist phonetic spellings.

Who says?

The implicit question--and the one that privileged people never ask--is who gets to say what's correct?

Well, we all know the answer to that. It was the dictionary writers who standardized our spellings, and they were all old white guys back in the day. White guys who (if we take the contents of their dictionaries as evidence) never gave a thought to people with dialects and accents different to their own. They were white, they were men, so they just assumed they had every right to define what was correct for themselves and everybody else.

They assumed, in other words, that they had the right to define their dialect as superior, and everybody else's as implicitly inferior.

Arrogant? Oh, absolutely. And you know why: that was the water they swam in but never questioned.

If you only write your POC characters phonetically, you not only buy into that same view of default white privilege but push it at your readers, too. And think about this: if that's the view your writing is pushing, what does that say to any people of color who happen to read your book? What does it say to the reader who feels that they are part of Clara's group? Nothing kind, that's for sure.

This is 2018. Is that really what you want to do?

Special thanks to Dhonielle Clayton who first made me aware of my own unquestioned privilege and made me a better person for it.