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For Authors: July 27, 2022 Issue [#11473]

 This week: Like, Totally!
  Edited by: Max Griffin 🏳️‍🌈
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Table of Contents

1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
4. Editor's Picks
5. A Word from Writing.Com
6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions

About This Newsletter

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Letter from the editor

When I first arrived from Iowa to my new home state, Oklahoma, I wondered if we even spoke the same language. At the filling station, the attendant mentioned my “tar” needed air. When I ordered a soft drink, the waiter wanted to know what kind of “coke” I wanted. When I asked about writing supplies at the grocery store, the clerk sent me to the pharmacy to find a “tablet.” Then there were all those “re-laters” who wanted to show me homes for sale.

I mentioned this puzzle to a new friend who had also just arrived in this strange land, in his case from California. He was all like, "Totally, bro. It's trippy!”

That was when it finally dawned on me that we were all speaking English, just different regional versions. American English has at least twenty-four and as many as thirty regional dialects depending on who's counting. For a map and more, see this article  

Add to that sociolects, dialects spoken in social or ethnic groups, and the number goes even higher. Examples of sociolects include slang, internet, and African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE for short. There’s another dialect, something called American Standard English—not to be confused with British Standard English, otherwise known as proper English—that’s mostly for formal, written documents. It’s worth noting that none of us really use "Standard English" in our everyday conversations. Instead, we use one of the spoken dialects of English, none of which conform to “Standard English." It would be incorrect to say any of these dialects are “worse” or “better." They are just different.

While English has many dialects, both in the US and elsewhere, it’s also true that language serves different purposes. If you’re interviewing for a job with IBM, it probably isn’t good strategy to pepper your conversation with LOLs and BFFs, let alone describe thier product as "rad." If I’m preparing a paper for the Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, I’m not going to describe Zorn’s Lemma as “totally awesome,” even though it totally is. American Standard English is a set of rules that promotes not just clarity and consistency, but also a certain cachet of seriousness that other dialects do not, at least in the dominant culture.

But, to emphasize my earlier point, no one speaks in American Standard English. It’s just one dialect among many. To be sure, many of us have been deluded into thinking we are using “standard English” when we are just using our regional dialect. For one thing, we don’t hear the differences in our native dialect. I grew up thinking our first President’s name was pronounced “Worshington,” since the regional dialect I spoke changed the “ahsh” sound to “orsh.” I was sublimely unaware I was doing this until someone pointed it out to me in college.

Another reason some of us can be deluded about the prevalence of our dialect is that for years broadcast media have tended to strip away regional accents and especially regional idiom from the language, giving us a false sense of homogeneity. They have also tended to prefer northern and western accents over southern ones. Johnny Carson was from Omaha, and Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite both had Iowa roots. Dan Rather was originally from Texas, but his accent could just as easily be from Los Angeles.

We recognize dialects not only from words, but also from grammar and variations in accent, that is, in how speakers articulate vowel and consonant sounds.

Southern dialects tend to omit the terminal “g” in “-ing” words, as does African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Dialects where Dutch or German influenced speakers, the “th” often transforms to “d”, as in “de mayor.” This is another change shared by AAVE. In some dialects, the “r” sound disappears, especially if it’s trailing—think of Roosevelt’s “nothing to fee-ah but fee-ah itself.” In fact, trailing sounds like FDR's "r" are at risk in most languages and dialects. For example, AAVE omits the “s” in possessive nouns, as in “baby momma” instead of “baby’s momma,” making it more like French. None of these are American Standard English and none of them are wrong or inferior. They are simply different, and evidence of how English, like every language, evolves.

Shifts in vowel sounds are more subtle. Oklahomans have a distinctive way of pronouncing certain vowels that is quite different from Minnesotans, for example. People who study phonetics say that Oklahomans “shift” certain vowels to the “front,” terms that have to do with tongue position. To my untrained ear, however, Oklahoma vowels are softer and Minnesota vowels are sharper. Some sibilances like the “ss” sound are more distinct in Minnesota than in Oklahoma. Try listening to these representative readings of the same text and see what you think. Neither speaker sounds like someone reading national news, although they are prefectly articulate and understandable.
Oklahoma audio sample  
Minnesota audio sample  

It's instructive to watch old TV shows to see how language has evolved. English has a way of creating new words by combining existing words. Sometimes these are hyphenated, sometimes scrunched together into one new word, and sometimes they just change the accented syllable. In the 50s, people spoke of “air condiTIONing,” with the accent on the third syllable of “conditioning.” But today, everyone says “AIR condiditioning,” the accent on the first word. That’s because now “air conditioning” is a commonplace thing, while it was not in the 50s. In the 70s, Mary and Rhoda would go out for “Chinese FOOD,” while today we say “CHINESE food.” The accent changed when “Chinese food” became a familiar thing. This accent shift, which generally happens only in the spoken form of English, is one way that English creates words for new “things.” Sometimes this happens in written English, too. While a raven is a black bird, it’s not a blackbird. Note the accent change between the first and second half of the sentence. Of course, not all new “things” in English become new compound words like blackbird—think “ice cream.”

Understanding dialect is important for authors if we’re going to write dialogue. Omitting the “g” in “-ing” words can make your dialogue more natural. Use of contractions does the same. Use of slang or other sociolects is another. It’s true that many publishers rely on international markets, and dialects can be a challenge for people who are not native speakers. Still, using the proper regional vernacular can add verisimilitude to your fiction. In some cases, it can have a stunning impact. See Robert Burns, or check out this amazing author on WDC: Daisan

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein gave his first-person narrator an invented dialect that showed the author had studied what happens when two languages interact with each other, in this case English and Chinese. This dialect added much to our understanding of the characters and their culture. The author never had his narraor stopp to “explain” what he was saying or why he was saying it that way. We, as readers, are able to figure it out from context, much like I did when I first arrived in Oklahoma. That’s effective writing.

Dialect can be useful for an author, but it's also fun to learn about the different ways we use language, and to consider how language evolves. English underwent something called the “great vowel shift” between 1400 and 1700. It changed not only how vowels sounded, but eliminated vowel sounds altogether in some words. It accounts for why “made” and “some” have a now-silent trailing “e” (in Olde English these would have been sounded), and why “tough” and “thought” have weird similar spellings but sound different. Today, a convergence in how "caught" and "cot" sound represents a vowel shift ongoing in the US. Similarly, Australian vowels have noticeably different sounds than those in the US or in the UK. English is the official language of Nigeria, but grammar, vocabulary, and sounds are rapidly evolving into something new and exciting.

English is a spoken language with many dialects. English evolves, so Shakespeare’s English isn’t Chaucer’s, and it isn’t Saul Bellow’s either. No version of English is better or worse. For fictional purposes, the best dialect is the one that reflects how your characters speak in the real world. It’s all part of building a consistent and believable fictional world.

Editor's Picks

"Just In Case"   by Daisan
"Sid & Mabel's Diamond Wedding"   by Avid Novel Reader
"Shopping with Santa"   by Jimminycritic
"Vision"   by Ablackbewhiskeredface
"A Letter Home"   by Bikerider
"Solstice At Avebury"   by Choconut
"Grime and Punishment"   by Rhymer Reisen

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