Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Come On, I'm Talking to You*

We often learn a great deal about people just from the way they speak. Accent, use of dialect, choice of sentence structure and lots of other aspects of speech patterns can tell us much about a person. That’s just as true for fictional characters as it is for real people. So, authors sometimes use dialect or distinctive speech patterns to give the reader a strong sense of place and character. Of course, doing that requires, you might say, a careful touch. On one hand, making effective use of dialect and distinctive speech patterns can give the reader a welcome sense of setting, personality and so on. On the other, it can also be very distracting. One of the main points of a good crime fiction novel is the plot (usually the crime(s) and the investigation). Anything that takes away from that central focus can also detract from the novel. That said, though, speech patterns can be very effective tools for creating character and setting.

Agatha Christie’s novels often feature make deft use of distinctive ways of speaking. Her sleuth Hercule Poirot, for instance, is not a native speaker of English, so especially in the first few novels that feature him, he’s got a non-native way of speaking. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Poirot makes his debut, he and several fellow Belgians are living in a house in the village of Styles St. Mary. They’re war refugees, settled in a new place by their benefactor Emily Inglethorp. As it happens, Captain Arthur Hastings is staying at the Inglethorp home while he’s visiting John Cavendish, Mrs. Inglethorp’s stepson. When Mrs. Inglethorp is poisoned one night, Hastings asks Poirot’s help in the investigation. Here’s Poirot's response after Hastings has finished telling him the circumstances of the murder:

‘The mind is confused? Is it not so? Take time, mon ami. You are agitated; you are excited-it is but natural. Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts neatly, each in his proper place. We will examine-and reject. Those of importance we will put on one side; those of no importance, pouf!’-he screwed up his cherub-like face, and puffed comically enough-‘blow them away.’”

What’s interesting about Poirot’s way of speaking is that he sometimes uses it very deliberately. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of the Reverend Stephen Babbington. In the course of his investigation, he connects Babbington’s death with two other murders and finds out who committed the killings and why. Towards the end of the novel, Mr. Satterthwaite, who’s also involved in the investigation, asks Poirot to explain why sometimes, he speaks idiomatic English, and sometimes does not. Poirot answers:

Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say, ‘A foreigner; he can’t even speak English properly.’ It is not my policy to terrify people; instead, I invite their gentle ridicule…’”

Poirot uses his speech patterns to put people off their guard, and quite often, it works.

Sometimes, authors use speech patterns to show class differences among people. For example, in Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer, Inspector Roderick Alleyn is investigating the shooting death of Arthur Surbonadier, who was murdered on stage with a gun that was supposed to have been a stage prop loaded with blanks. Alleyn interviews members of the cast and the staff of the Unicorn Theatre to find out who could have switched the blank bullets for real ones. At one point, he’s interviewing footman Joseph Mincing, who tells Alleyn of an incident he heard between Surbonadier and Mincing’s employer Jacob Saint. Mincing’s speech patterns reflect his “serving class” roots and his “servant’s training.”:

“‘It took place a month before this play come on. The twenty-fifth of May to be exact. I took special notice. It was in the afternoon. Mr. Surbonadier came to see Mr. Saint. I showed him into the library and waited outside in the ‘all. Angry words passed, of which I heard many.’”

Mincing goes on to describe the argument he heard, and from that, Alleyn is able to get some important information about who shot Surbonadier and why.

Sometimes, authors use speech and language patterns to evoke a particular place or culture. For instance, James Lee Burke uses the distinct patterns of the Cajun dialect in his Dave Robicheaux novels. The use of the Cajun dialect does much to place the reader in the setting and give the reader a sense of the culture. In Black Cherry Blues, for instance, an old friend, Dixie Lee Pugh, asks Robicheaux to help clear his name in the disappearance of two Native American activists trying to prevent the use of Blackfoot Reservation land for oil drilling and other commercial uses. Robicheaux reluctantly agrees and ends up accused of murder himself when he goes up against mobsters and shady land dealers. As the novel opens, he’s just recovering from the death of his wife, and trying to put his life back together. Here’s a bit of a conversation that Robicheaux has with his housekeeper about Tripod, his pet raccoon:

"'Ax him what he done, him,' she said.

‘Go look my wash basket. Go look your shirts. They blue yesterday. They brown now. Go smell, you.’

‘I'll take him down to the dock.’

‘Tell Batist not to bring him back, no.

Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) makes use of the characters’ speech patterns to place readers in the American South in her Delicious and Suspicious, which takes place in Memphis. In that novel, Rebecca Adrian, a scout for the Cooking Channel, is poisoned shortly after eating at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. Lulu Taylor, who owns the restaurant, is determined to clear her family’s and restaurant’s reputation, so she decides to find out who the killer is. At one point, she’s talking with her granddaughter Ella Beth about the poisoning:

“Ella Beth finally said, ‘Miss Adrian wasn’t very old, was she?’

“No, sweetie, she sure wasn’t.’

‘And she didn’t seem at all sick yesterday. She felt well enough to be mean as a snake. I didn’t hear a single cough out of her.’…

Ella Beth looked at her grandmother sternly. ‘Did somebody do her in?’…

‘Mercy, Ella Beth! Whatever gave you an idea like that?’”

In this exchange we can see how the American South is reflected in the speech patterns without it overtaking the conversation.

Some authors use culture- or region-specific vocabulary words in their dialogue. That, too, can place the reader in a particular place or in a particular culture. For instance, in Adrian Hyland’s Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove), Emily Tempest returns to the Aboriginal Outback camp of Moonlight Downs in Central Australia after a time away. Shortly after her return, Lincoln Flinders, a respected member of the Aboriginal community, is murdered. At first, it’s believed that local sorcerer Blakie Japanangka was responsible. Emily has her doubts though and begins to investigate. Here’s just a bit of a conversation Emily has with Lincoln Flinders just after her return to Moonlight Downs:

“‘I shoulda knowed you straightaway from that old red blanket’ [Flinders]…

‘I’ve been out the Jenny, Lincoln. Visiting Dad. He’s been keeping it clean for me.’ [Tempest]

‘Mmmm,’ he nodded. ‘I see. Your Moonlight blanket, looks like.’

He turned around and yelled to the milling masses, ‘Hey, you mob o’ lazy myalls, come say ‘ello to li’l h’Emily….. That Nangali belong ol Motor Jack. Get over an’ make er welcome! She come home.’”

Alan Orloff also uses distinctive vocabulary and speech patterns in his Diamonds for the Dead. That’s the story of Josh Handleman’s return to his native Northern Virginia. Josh’s father Abe Handleman has just died of what seems at first to be a tragic fall down a flight of stairs. It soon turns out to be murder, though, and Josh determines to find out who and what are behind his father’s death – and the missing fortune in diamonds that he didn’t know his father had. Here’s a bit of the conversation Josh has with his father’s sister Shelley “Aunt Shel” after he’s found his fathers safety deposit box empty:

“‘Empty?...You sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure. I know empty and that box was empty.’

“Oy vey,’ Aunt Shel said. “Oy vey iz mir.’


“What happened to his collection?’ she asked.

‘What collection?’….

‘His diamond collection.’”

The Jewish culture figures into the plot of this novel, and Orloff uses Yiddish expressions in this novel to place the reader within that culture

Linda Castillo does a very similar thing in Sworn to Silence. In that novel, Kate Burkholder, police chief of Painter’s Mill, Ohio, investigates a series of brutal murders in that rural community. Painter’s Mill has a strong Amish community; in fact, Kate is a former member of that community. Castillo gives the reader a sense of the Amish culture in the speech patterns and expressions several of the characters use. For instance, at one point, Kate is interviewing Isaak and Anna Stutz, on whose farm one of the bodies is found:

“‘We found the body of a young woman in your field last night.’

Across the room, Anna gasps. ‘Mein gott! …

‘Was it an accident? Did she succumb to the cold?’

‘She was murdered.’

He leans back in the chair as if pushed by some invisible force. ’Ach! Yammer.’”

There are many other examples of novels that use distinctive speech patterns and dialect. I’ve only had space to mention a few. What’s your view of the use of dialect? Do you enjoy it? Does it distract you? If you’re a writer, do you use different sorts of speech patterns?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tears for Fears’ Shout.


  1. I found it very interesting when we lived in Amsterdam we were told they taught their students English with an American accent because it was class-oriented. Regional but not class

  2. Patti - Oh, that is interesting. I always find it fascinating to learn how a language is viewed "from outside." Regional, but not class.... I can see that, actually...

  3. I think when authors use dialect in the story it adds to it almost becoming a character itself. Use of dialect helps put the reader in the time and place of the action of the book. When the dialect is say, Irish, that's when I love listening to the book on audio rather than reading because you really become a part of the story then. It puts you in the spirit of it.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - You do have a point about the value of audio books when an author uses dialect. I hadn't thought about that, but you're right. That's a very effective way, isn't it, to draw the reader in. And I agree that if the dialect is well-written, it does become an important part of the story.

  5. i love it when writers use dialects wisely. when they only use certain phrases or words instead of transforming the whole sentence. like mon ami or sweetie pie. sorry i am commenting from my kindle because our router is fried.

  6. Margot-In Andrea Camilleri's brilliant Salvo Montalbano series the translator Stephen Sartarelli does a superb job with the speech of Catarella,who has his own unique way of speaking. A Sicilian Mrs Malaprop speaking in dialect translated into English!

  7. Clarissa - No need for an apology; I'm just very glad you commented. And you're right, too, that just little expressions can convey dialect. It's not necessary for whole passages to be in dialect. In fact, that can distract from a novel. Those little subtle touches are a lot more effective.

    Norman - Oh, yes, of course! Catarella's speech patterns really are unique, and Sarterelli does a terrific job of conveying what Catarella says, doesn't he? I'm so glad you brought him up. Your description's quite apt, too.

  8. Fascinating post, Margot, and one close to your heart. Norman beat me to it with Catarella!

    I think it is very hard to write dialect, often it is intrusive for the reader and impedes understanding. I sometimes wonder how a reader with a broad dialect reacts when reading a book in which a character has that same broad dialect!

    I love the examples you give.

  9. Maxine - Thank you :-). And yes, the whole issue of languages and the way people use language does absolutely fascinate me. Yours and Norman's example of Catarella is particularly interesting because not only is there the dialect issue, but also the issue of speech difficulty - that's awfully hard to write. To add to that, the Camilleri novels I've read are translated. That takes quite a lot of skill. I must do a post on translation at some point...

    You know, you've raised a very, very interesting question about readers who don't speak in a standard dialect. It would be interesting to do a study and find out what their reaction is to characters who speak in that same non-standard dialect. I'd also wonder how they react to characters who speak in standard language.

    You're right, too, that creating characters who speak in non-standard ways isn't easy. Too much can easily distract readers and pull them out of the story. Too little variety in speech patterns and then all the characters sound the same - no individuality. That's not very interesting. It's a delicate balance...

  10. I don't like too many spelling alterations to indicate dialect because it makes some passages too hard to read, but I love it when an author can get the idea across with word order, word selection, and omitted words. Writing the language of American Indian characters is a good example. Tony Hillerman was good at this. Colorado mystery author Sandi Ault also does a great job with the lilt and rhythm of Native American speech.

  11. Patricia - I know exactly what you mean about using word order, selection and so on. I also find that simple touches like contractions or lack of contractions can do a lot to tell the reader about the background of the speaker. And I completely agree about Tony Hillerman's ability to convey Navajo speech patterns. Ault's work I know less well, but your mention of her made me think of other writers such as Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, as well as Margaret Coel, who also write those speech patterns well.

  12. I enjoy dialect in books. I use a little in my work.

  13. Hi, Margot. I'm hopping over from Rayna's blog. What a great topic this is. I think the patterns and style of speech make the characters.

    Recent example is The Help by Stockett. Her narrative style and word choice helped create the characters and breathe life into them. The story wouldn't be half of what it was without it.

    Nice to meet you. Look forward to reading more of your posts! :)

  14. A few things I'd like to say on this topic..

    1. Typical speech patterns, when used properly, can give a rich visual quality to the whole scene. It is easier for reader to visualize the characters in his mind.

    2. Another use is when the accent becomes the alternative identity of a character.Especially when a character uses disguise or has split personality; the speech pattern is a very convenient tool to keep your reader updated with the status of the character.
    e.g. The female lead in WFTP (drama) convincing the attorney near the end. It's the accent that proves the fact beyond doubt.
    In "The fourth person" from the same story collection as WFTP it is used to differentiate multiple personalities in Emily Bault.

    3.Speech and accent can also be used to highlight any particular characteristics associated with the character.

    E.g. Lord of the rings by JRR tolkien is a great example of this (though not a mystery). The distinctive speech patterns of elves, men, hobbits, orcs and dwarfs is one of the biggest strengths of this book.

  15. Glynis - Sometimes, dialect really can work well, if it's woven neatly into the story. I'm sure that you use it carefully and effectively :-).

  16. P.S. Sorry to have broken the protocol by giving an example from a genre other than mystery!

  17. PK Hrezo - It's a pleasure to meet you, too. Thank you for introducing yourself. And thank you very much for your example as well. As you say, there are some stories - and you've brought up a fine example - that just wouldn't be the same without the rich use of language.

    Amey - You've made some very important points about the use of language. Absolutely it can be used to enrich a character and make her or him more well-rounded and real.

    You also bring up the intriguing point that accent and dialect can hide an identity. Actually Sherlock Holmes does that on more than one occasion when he's in disguise. The same is true, of course, in Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, as you mention. I hadn't thought specifically of Emily Brault in that collection, but she is a good example.

    And yes, there are certainly different speech and language patterns associated with different kinds of characters - Tolkein's work isn't crime fiction, but no matter at all. It is a fantastic example of your point, so I'm glad you mentioned it

  18. You do often see Poirot subtly adopting a slightly more exaggerated style when he feels that will get him more information, don't you? And Holmes of course is the master of disguise and speaks in the right language each time.

    Personally, I like quirks to speech, and typical speech patterns, but if I have to work too hard to understand something, it gets frustrating after a bit. The balance so difficult to get right, and so enriching when the writer does.