Friday, March 18, 2011


There are several ways of conveying a character's dialect in his speech: word choice, sentence structure, slang, phonetic spelling, and so on. I know that many writers feel the need to accurately portray their character's speech and so use phonetic spelling. The problem with doing that is that it can be very difficult for the reader to figure out what is being said.

If you make the reader work too hard to understand your character's speech, it is possible that they will get frustrated and stop reading the book.

Recently I checked out The Lady of the Loch by Elizabeth Ann Sarborough. I've read several collaborations that she has done with Anne McCaffrey so I felt fairly confident that I would enjoy one of her solo efforts.

The first chapter was very intriquing. The story is set in Scotland. It opens with a dead woman laid out for burial, then a ritual of asking her to identify her killer is performed. Which she does and so the story is off and running.

Until I got to page ten and the dialogue with the tinklers. I've taken out the non-speaking parts of this section:

Hangin's mak me unaisy jist noo.

Unless there's hawkin' amang the crowd or idle coin tae be freed frae careless pockets. I've nae use for a hangin'

I saw me fither hanget. I've nae wish tae see anither.

Mon, ye stood by me tae ca' the King's man when them ithers would hae hangit me. Will ye and yer young friend nae come wi' us?

And that's where I stopped reading. I won't finish reading the book. Fortunately, I borrowed this from the library instead of buying it from the bookstore, otherwise I would be supremely pissed at wasting US$8.

Some phonetic spelling to give the flavor of the speech is okay. Blowed if I know what "hawkin' amang the crowd" or "tae ca' the King's man" means. I'm not going to struggle for 250 more pages trying to figure out what the characters are saying. I've taken English Literature 101 and struggled through reading Beowulf and Chaucer. I'm done with that kind of reading, so back to the library it goes.



  1. I heartily agree with this. I don't read phonetically at all - I key on words visually - so dialect completely looks like another language. I have to turn off my regular reading brain entirely and revert to a system I know (obviously) but never use.

    I actually finished The Lady of The Loch - I don't recall if there's a lot of that in the book, it's been a long time. It's a good story, but not worth banging your head against a wall for.

  2. Huh. I never thought about it but I don't read phonetically either. The word is like a picture so I "read" a series of images. I learned to spell by how the word looks not by sounding it out. No wonder I have trouble reading phonetically spelled dialogue. It doesn't look right.

    Yes. There are so many books that I haven't read yet, that banging my head trying to read this one doesn't make sense. :)

    I do like the series (plural) that she has written with Anne McCaffrey. Those I can read more than once as I really enjoyed them.

  3. I remember learning that if you were going to do something with heavy dialect, pick three things to do and keep only to those things. Like saying "an" instead of "and" and that sort of thing. It creates flavor without being overwhelming, and the brain can easily process three things.

    Great post!


  4. I hadn't heard that rule before, but it sounds like a good rule of thumb. :)