The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Erik Redling

As subdivisions of a language, different dialects (e.g., Cockney) are to a large extent mutually intelligible, but different languages such as English and French usually are not. However, originally, a standard language was often just one of the dialects that happened to be institutionalized as the standard or national language for a number of political and social reasons and thus became more prestigious than the other dialects. But once a dialect is institutionalized, it loses its regional connotations because it is spread throughout the whole country and becomes the language taught in school, which is used for practically all scholarly, scientific, and literary writing and general public communication because of its non-regional basis (Baugh/Cable; Trudgill). At certain times or in certain communities where there never was such a written standard language, texts were written in the dialect spoken by the writer and usually displayed variable spellings of words: for instance, the noun “candle” was spelled as “kandel,” “candel,” and “candell” in the Middle English period (“Candle”). The rise of written standard languages created a challenge for dialect writers because they had to motivate or even justify their use of writing in a dialect, either by specifically limiting their addressees to dialect speakers or by insinuating that what they were trying to express could not be expressed equally through the standard language. “Writtenness” thus became the main distinguishing factor between a dialect and a national language in their literary use. In an effort to render the “orality” of a dialect variety in writing, dialect writers were not able to resort to an established dialect orthography but had to rely on an orthography derived from the standard language and transform conventionally spelled words via respellings (e.g., “lafft” for “laughed” and “kyared” for “carried”), or via the use of the apostrophe (e.g., “eve'ybody” for “everybody” and “sump'n” for “something”), and nonstandard grammatical features (e.g., “I is”). Also, the specific meaning of dialect vocabulary often had to be guessed from the context.

Over time dialect writers have assembled a number of techniques in order to create what can be called a “dialect effect”: some authors use a few common dialect features (e.g., “de” for “the”) to indicate a dialect; others simply mix a number of dialect features without having a specific dialect in mind; while some authors carefully devise a systematic written dialect even though they know that such an effort is ultimately doomed to failure since a conventional orthography is not an accurate phonetic system in the same way as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Frequently dialect authors juxtapose a written standard with a dialect within their writing to indicate differing or contrasting social, linguistic, geographic, and ethnic backgrounds of their characters. One specific feature of dialect writing that can be traced back to the early Middle Ages has been the use of dialect as a comic device (Blake). Authors furthermore employed standard-dialect juxtapositions as a literary method to portray dialect speakers as exhibiting a sense of community and companionship, intimacy, special charm or humor, and traditional knowledge and ways of thinking, but also of backwardness, provinciality, and intellectual narrowmindedness (Goetsch, 11).

A more recent use of the dialect vs. standard confrontation arose in the depiction of colonial situations in which authors regard a national language as an official language imposed on their culture and discourse by a dominant (foreign) power. Instead of accepting the linguistic supremacy uncritically, they “write back” (Ashcroft et al.) in their own postcolonial dialect voice (e.g., Haitian Creole). The experience of linguistic imperialism inspires them to establish a contrast, confrontation, or clash between the uniform spellings of a national language and the nonstandard orthography of a dialect language in order to insinuate different views, ethnicities, individuality, and a self-reliant spirit in the face of a hegemonic and homogenous language, and to reject submission to foreign views and norms or disprove prejudices against dialect speakers (see LINGUISTICS).

In all of these cases the written dialect produced by a dialect writer will be an individual mixture of elements of the standard language and “transcribed” dialect words. The reader thus will have to interpret whether the mixture is used to introduce a regional perspective into a literary work with which authors intend to reaffirm or criticize the hierarchical relation between a prestigious and culturally dominant standard orthography and a written dialect. Some of the issues mentioned above have been present from the beginnings of dialect writing; others have been added more recently. I shall only be able to touch on them from a historical and a thematic perspective and discuss significant literary functions of dialect in terms of society or community, i.e., the societal impact of “visual alterity” between a written standard and a written dialect language, and shall not concentrate on dialectal accuracy with regard to the regional speech, which was the objective of linguistic approaches to dialect (cf. Ives; Wolfram and Schilling-Estes). While not being able to include examples from many languages, I shall illustrate the spectrum of dialect use instead of aiming at completeness in representation.

As mentioned above, early dialect writers mainly used dialect as a comic device (see COMEDY). Haller reports on the function of dialect in the Italian city-states as a variety of literary endeavors during the Renaissance and baroque periods, but primarily in the function of parody and humor. He mentions that Ruzante parodied the manners of country folk in his Renaissance plays, but adds that such humorous plays in fact paved the way for the fixation of characters in the later national tradition of commedia dell'arte (Haller, 17). During the English Renaissance period, dialect authors, who could already rely on a national language, also used the contrast between a written standard and a literary dialect for humorous purposes. Renaissance dialect writing in Britain, for instance, offered “jokes” that were usually based on the juxtaposition of a rural English dialect and a King's English speaker or on a provincial speaker (or foreigner) who could not properly pronounce Standard English (Blank, 3).

Subsequently, dialect writing gained influence during the nineteenth century. American writers of the “Southwestern Humor” tradition in the pre-Civil War and post-Civil War U.S. (1861—65) expanded the dialect-standard opposition into a framing narrative device (standard-dialect-standard) that allowed them to lock a long dialect section—the visual “other”—within two framing standard-English sections (see FRAME). Typically, the standard-speaking narrator is an educated upper-class person who closely observes and reports on the “humorous” ways and practices of the uneducated rustic frontier characters in the “Old Southwest” (present-day Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri). A pioneer and influential representative of this genre of dialect writing is Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, from Georgia, whose collection Georgia Scenes (1835) featured sketches such as “The Horseswap,” “The Gander Pulling,” and “The Shooting Match,” which exhibited frontier themes as well as caricatures of the stereotypical frontiersman and yeoman and illustrated the writer's attempts at realistic depictions of rural American landscapes (Minnick, 4—5). Other writers of this dialect humor genre were William Tappan Thompson, George Washington Harris, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and Johnson Jones Hooper. Following in their footsteps, Mark Twain developed his humorous sketches and short stories (e.g., 1865, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”) and explored the use of dialect as a REALISM device in his literary works of art (e.g., the Black English spoken by Jim in Huckleberry Finn, 1885).

The framing narrative device additionally enabled white dialect writers to enforce racist attitudes against African Americans through dialect fiction. The Southern writers of the so-called “plantation school” yearned for the good old days “befo' de wah” and employed the genre to promote a romantic portrait of the Old South. In Thomas N. Page's story “Marse Chan” collected in In Ole Virginia (1887), a standard-speaking genteel narrator rides on a horse and meets the dialect-speaking ex-slave Sam who tells him a story about the heroic and honorable deeds of his “marster” before and during the Civil War. The dialect consists of a hodgepodge of bizarre misspellings (e.g., “ev'vywhere”), linguistic irregularities (e.g., two different spellings of “nothing” that indicate a difference in phonology: “nuthin'” and “nuffin'”), and visually disjointed words (e.g., “ev'y'where”) and represents a “strange talk,” i.e., an English spoken by illiterate African Americans who literally disfigure the English language and thus threaten the “purity” of the standard (Jones). In contrast, the African American writer Charles W. Chesnutt redefined the same conventional framing device as the coexistence of the notions “polarity” (standard vs. dialect, racial hierarchy) and “hybridity” (mixed dialect, ethnic mixture) and subverted the repressive mechanism of the framing device by favoring “mixture” and perceiving dialect as a symbol of hybridity, not as corrupted Standard English (Redling).

During the period of literary realism, dialect writing played an important role in advancing “realism” in literature by paying attention to the evolving ethnic and linguistic diversity in Europe and America. In the U.S., the rise of local color stories coincided with the rise of women dialect writers in a previously male-dominated genre. Women writers portrayed different localities and dialects in their fiction: e.g., Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Rose Terry Cooke's New England dialect, Kate Chopin's Creole patois, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's black vernacular (Minnick, 7—8). Other representatives of the trend toward a “realistic” depiction of regional speech are George Washington Cable, whose “polygraphic” New Orleans novel Dr. Sevier (1883) manifests at least five different language varieties or “grapholects” such as Louisiana Creole French and English with a strong German accent; Mark Twain's portrayal of Southern and black dialects in Huckleberry Finn; and Stephen Crane's rendering of uneducated, low-class New York dialect speech in Maggie: Life in the Streets (1893). A similar rise of regional dialects in late nineteenth-century literature occurred in European countries such as England, France, Germany, and Italy, especially with the emergence of social realism in which authors enhanced their descriptions of the hard lot of industrial workers and the migration of poor country people into the cities with “realistic” depictions of their local dialects (e.g., the French working-class dialect in Émile Zola's Germinal, 1885, and the Silesian dialect in Gerhart Hauptmann's play Die Weber (1893, The Weavers).

A prioritization of regional vernacular speech rather than the national standard language occurred in Germany during the so-called Heimatkunstbewegung (“homeland art movement”) between 1890 and 1918. It displayed an anti-urban, anti-modern, anti-rational, and anti-intellectual tenor and achieved its anti-industrialization impact by sentimentalizing the Heimat (“homeland”) or the provincial life through dialects in prose and poetry as well as in plays, such as in the social-critical Low German plays written by Fritz Stavenhagen (e.g., Mudder Mews, 1904) and Hermann Boßdorf (e.g., De Fährkrog, 1918) or in Artur Dinter's Alsatian comedy d'Schmuggler (1905,). With its emphasis on the virtues of rural life and language, the Heimatliteratur (“homeland literature”) prepared the stage for the anti-Semitic Blut und Boden (“blood and soil”) literature popularized by writers such as Richard Walther Darré (Neuadel aus Blut und Boden, 1930) during the period of National Socialism (1933—45 Dohnke 1996).

The post-WWII rise of liberation movements in Africa and Asia and in the Caribbean allowed these new nations to establish their own language, but the choice was difficult because the political territory included many ethnic groups and languages so that frequently the language of the former colonial power—English, French, or Portuguese—served as an umbrella language. The dialect writers' new task was often to rewrite colonial history from the colonized people's point of view (a good example of an anti-imperialist rewriting is the Dominica-born Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966, which is a pseudo-prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre) and represent their own culture through their dialect or in a dialect-official language mix. Some writers use a standard language throughout their work and insert single words, phrases, and perhaps short passages in a different linguistic variety (e.g., African languages). Others use a standard language for the narrative and vernacular language for the dialogue, and again others use a modified vernacular in the whole work (e.g. V. S. Reid's use of the Jamaican vernacular in the first two parts of his novel New Day, 1949). Dialect-standard writers have often received international reputations, such as V. S. Naipaul (of Indo-Trinidadian ancestry), who embeds regional speech and people within an easily understandable Standard English narrative (Blake). The trend is toward using the standard language throughout a literary work and inserting variants from local dialects in order to achieve easy readability and still incorporate a sensitivity to the dialect and the portrayal of local people. Examples of this tendency in contemporary literature are the English-writing Zimbabwean writers such as Yvonne Vera, Edward Chinhanu, and Shimmer Chinodya.

The fact that Standard English is the language variety of most educated people within the English-speaking world promotes such a preferred use of Standard English (in its various standard varieties) in literature to achieve a worldwide readership, but dialect writers frequently enrich it with local dialect words or phrases. Contemporary African American writers such as Toni Morrison, for instance, have reduced the initially strong reliance on dialect speech (e.g., Paul Laurence Dunbar and Zora Neale Hurston) and opt instead for interspersed tonal, verbal, and grammatical adjustments within a by and large written standard in order to draw attention to the black oral tradition and their different ethnic background. In other languages in which dialect is still regionally strong, such as German or Italian, it is still used for humor and local color in the presentation of regional cultural traditions. There the standard language is still felt to address differing realms than the dialect, which retains its literary niches (e.g., local “oral” poetry). Overall, dialect has served literature for many centuries as an important way to advance linguistic and cultural diversity and voice the concerns of people, their resistance to foreign powers, their demands for ethnic and religious and cultural recognition, and their contribution to their national culture through new ideas, new genres and literary trends, typically by demonstrating their different views through literary dialects.

SEE ALSO: Class, Dialogue, Discourse, Editing, Naturalism, Reading Aloud


1. Ashcroft, B. G. Griffiths, and H. Tiffin (2002), Empire Writes Back.

2. Baugh, A.C. and T. Cable (2002), History of the English Language.

3. Blake, N.F. (1981), Non-Standard Language in English Literature.

4. Blank, P. (1996), Broken English.

5. “Candle” (1992), Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. CD-ROM.

6. Dohnke, K. (1966), “Völkische Literatur und Heimatliteratur 1870—1918,” in Handbuch zur “Völkischen Bewegung” 1871—1918, ed. U. Puschner, W. Schmitz, and J.H. Ulbricht.

7. Goetsch, P. (1987), “Foreword,” in R. Mace, Funktionen des Dialekts im regionalen Roman von Gaskell bis Lawrence.

8. Haller, H.W. (1999), The Other Italy.

9. Ives, S. (1971), “A Theory of Literary Dialect,” in A, Various, Language, ed. J.V. Williamson and V.M. Burke.

10. Jones, G. (1999), Strange Talk.

11. Minnick, L.C. (2004), Dialect and Dichotomy.

12. Redling, E. (2006), “Speaking of Dialect.”

13. Trudgill, P. (2004), Dialects, 2nd ed.

14. Wolfram, W. and N. Schilling-Estes (2006), “Written Dialect,” in American English, 2nd ed.