A wee bittie dialect

Caption: West Highland White Terrier

Ye didna expect Ah’d reet a whole post in bad Scots, did ye noo? How lang wull ye persevere wi’ that, Ah’m wonderin’?

Not long, I’m sure, so I’ll revert to my usual voice! I’m writing a novel set in an imagined version of ancient Scotland. It’s much closer to fantasy than history, which is the reverse of the way I usually tell my stories. However, it has a strongly Scottish flavour, and much of the content has grown from my love for and knowledge of traditional Scottish lore.

When I reached a certain point in the narrative I introduced a big cast of uncanny characters, and immediately they all started talking like extreme versions of Billy Connolly. It was great fun to write and helped the characters spring to vivid life. I was happy to keep writing that way for pages and pages.

Then I cast my eye over the passage and realised how hard it was going to be for the average reader with all its dinna’s and canna’s. In particular there were loads of apostrophes. The first glance would be enough to put a reader off. While I could hear the voices very clearly, it would not be the same for a reader who hadn’t been brought up on all things Scottish including the accent. Yet I wanted to do it. It felt quite wrong for these characters to speak standard English. Besides, some of my favourite passages from my favourite novels make use of dialect. Iain Banks captures the flavour brilliantly without going over the top. And what would Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander saga be without the soft Scots voice of Jamie Fraser?

On the other hand, I could remember getting rather bogged down in The Secret Garden as a young reader because of the Yorkshire voices of nature boy Dickon and his sister. As an adult I can see the charm of those voices, and how beautifully they contrast with those of straight-laced Mary, reared in colonial India, and the sickly, isolated Colin. As a child, I found they slowed me down.

I sought advice from the Dialect Queen: Kate Forsyth, versatile author of novels for adults and young adults. I remembered a lot of Scots in her Witches of Eileanan series, and a variety of different dialects in The Starthorn Tree, a novel for young adults. Like me, Kate is of Scottish ancestry but lives in Australia. I asked her how she felt about putting dialect in her books, and what was the trick to doing it successfully.

Kate said:

‘In my Witches of Eileanan series, I used dialect a lot …  I thought it was really important to show the Scottish heritage & dialect was one way I wanted to do it.

‘Some people loved the dialect I used and said they began talking in it and even dreaming it!  My US editor Laura Anne Gilman was on a panel at World Con at the time and she talked about how difficult dialect was to do well and that she thought I was one author that had managed it.

‘However, a lot of people hated it.  The only criticism I ever got for those books was about the dialect! I wish now that I had not done it, or at least done it a lot more softly. Part of the problem for me, of course, was that the books are so long and there are so many of them – once I started I had to keep on, and so there are thousands of pages written in Scots dialect which was wearying to write and, I think, difficult to read. I did actually soften the dialect a great deal in later editions of the book  & if I had the chance I’d rewrite all the books to take the dialect out, or at least soften it a great deal more.’

So how did Kate create a Scottish flavour in her most recent novel for young adults, The Puzzle Ring?

‘The Puzzle Ring is set in Scotland in contemporary times and back in the times of Mary Queen of Scots in the mid-sixteenth century.’ Kate said. ‘In my first draft of the book I had a few of the Scots characters speaking in dialect and my editor at Scholastic asked me to take it all out. She’s Scottish herself and she said she and most other Scottish people absolutely hate it when they see it. So I have absolutely none in The Puzzle Ring (although I do have one character who uses a lot of great old Scottish sayings.)’

I was horrified to hear that Scottish people hate writers using Scots dialect (I assume this does not apply to Scottish writers like Iain Banks.) It was this point in Kate’s response that made my decision for me – I went back through my manuscript and took out all the dinna’s and canna’s, though I tried to keep something of the old flavour of these characters’ speech. It hurt to do it. I’d had such fun writing those passages, and the voices felt right for the characters.

In fact, I proved incapable of killing absolutely all of my darlings. In the current ms I have allowed one character to speak Scots. I’ve rationalised this by making him an incomer from the far north, the only one left of his kind. Otherwise there would be no good etymological reason for giving him a unique voice.

What’s your experience with dialect, as a writer or reader? Do you love it, hate it, not care much either way? What regional voices have you tried to put into your work, and what were the challenges and rewards?

Photo credit: Naten at Dreamstime.com


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    One of my characters is English and, considering that my mother and grandparents and 25 cousins are English, I feel fairly confident that I know how English-English is spoke. However. Whenever I include little bits of local dialect, it reads so forced and faked. I am not going to worry about it until revision time, but it has definitely given me pause.

    Thanks for the post.
    Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist´s last blog post ..A security blanket of ones own

  2. Vanessa says

    As a reader I tend to see the words on the page but not say it out loud in my mind, if that makes sense. So, although I enjoyed reading the first part of your post in the Scottish dialect, as I could “hear” the accent, if I had to continually read that in a book I would be frustrated since I would be forced to slow down the pace of my reading. I do not object to the use of dialects in a book but if it is overdone it can be a little irritating.

    By the way, the photo of West Highland White Terrier is very cute.

  3. says

    I am one of those readers that would probably complain about overuse of dialect. I couldn’t stand Huck Finn for that very reason.

    But a light touch — enough to give the flavor and cause *me* to assign the accent throughout — can be great. Some examples are BELOVED by Toni Morrison, or MERCY by Jodi Picoult (which features a Scottish character, actually). Both Morrison and Picoult kept the dialect primarily in the dialogue, and only used enough to *evoke* the accent, rather than completely adhere to it. This meant less work for the reader, which meant greater capability for immersion.

    And because it wasn’t overwhelming to me, I quite enjoyed reading the dialogue out loud (at least from MERCY) and testing out the dialect on my own tongue. :)
    Kristan´s last blog post ..Writerly Wednesday

  4. says

    I have a Texan in one of my books, but avoid exaggerating his drawl. I’d rather let another character hear it and show the reader that way.

    I have a manuscript with an Aussie hero, and it was more about finding Aussie slang than trying to write his dialogue as it would actually sound.

    I always think of our high school reading assignment, “Pygmalion” where Shaw began the book in phonetic English–which was impossible to read.

    A light-hand with dialect works best, I think.
    Terry Odell´s last blog post ..Getting Started

  5. says

    Juliet, I’ve had the exact same experience, though with characters speaking a Welsh dialect rather than Scottish. I can hear the characters’ voices SO strongly, but my editor always asks me to take those passages out. It hurts, but then I think, If my editor is slowed down or confused by this, what is an reader off the street going to think? And I’ve read books myself (I’m thinking of one in particular with an EXTREMELY densely written and heavy Cornish accent) where the dialect frustrated me to no end. So I’ve taken out those bits, of at least softened them very considerably. It’s a hard balance, sometimes, loyalty to the story and characters vs. loyalty to the reader.

  6. Jenn says

    Generally speaking, I hate dialect in novels. Sorry! I understand the desire to include it if you feel that a character has a distinct voice (I even played with it myself in one draft of a story I wrote), but when I read a line of dialect-heavy dialog, it sets my teeth on edge. Not so much that I will hate the whole book if it’s otherwise great, but… if it was used a lot, it could easily knock the book down a star-level or two if I was writing a review on Amazon or GoodReads, you know?

    That said, there are some aspects of it that bother me less than others. Phrases like “didna” and such, where it is basically turning a phrase (“did not”) into a kind of contraction, are okay in small doses. Similarly, dropping the occasional “g” from an “ing” ending I can skim over without much intrusion. It’s things like phonetically spelling out the pronunciation of a word (“Ah’d reet”) that make me want to scream. For ME, these take it from “Here are a few helpful keys to let you know what kind of accent a person is speaking with” to “YOU MUST HEAR EVERY WORD OF THIS ACCENT EXACTLY AS I HEAR IT, OR ELSE THE STORY WILL BE RUINED! RUINED, I SAY!”. I am also bothered because it turns EVERY word of the sentence into a not-really-a-word word (i.e. “reet” is not in the English language). These are a pet peeve for me mostly because it means that I have to actually stop and figure out what a word is suppose to be, instead of just seeing it and instantly recognizing it; almost as if I am translating it from a language I barely speak. As a fast reader, that’s extremely jarring.

    I also do a lot of reading aloud, and heavy dialect interferes with the voice that *I* am trying to create for a character. It’s a kind of performance, and as such, I bring a level of my own perspective into the piece. Having to mentally adjust the text before I read it to strip out or tweak the accent takes a lot more effort and can cause me to stumble around.

    …Ok, that was a lot longer than I intended it to be.

  7. Sue says

    Like Kristan, I appreciate a touch of dialect. Too heavy, and it’s rough going, but a taste of it is fun. It’s like a musical piece with different instruments. I have seen overkill, though, especially in older works.

  8. says

    Oh yeah. On an old MS I ended up scrapping a few years ago, I had a love affair with dialect (attempting to be Irish) in one particular character. It made her unique and became her voice for me, but her speech even slowed me down eventually when reading through it. Ever since I’m hesitant to change anything that has to do with dialect in my characters because of that consequence.

    A good balance of dialect, I think, is adding more sayings and things like that from that particular culture moreso than making an accent. Though as a reader it is entertaining to see little bits of accent put in there, like you did with one particular character. I think it gives it some good flavor.
    Brie´s last blog post ..Writing Woes

  9. says

    What a fascinating post! In my fantasy series, dialect has become a way to distinguish between the classes and regions in my imaginary world. Where those of royalty speak what is described by my fellow Canadians and those in Britain as the Queen’s English (tendency not to use contracted words like ‘can’t’, ‘don’t, etc.) with proper enunciation of each word.
    The farther north the readers venture, the greater the illiteracy rate of the common folk and the more the spoken language becomes informal, even slurred.
    Being that my husband is of British stock and lived over 2 decades in England prior to moving to Canada, some old English slang and sayings have worked their way into my stories and the fans of my book tell me it gives them a sense of texture and added dimension to the characters as well as the ability to determine whom is from where just by the spoken language.
    Thank you for sharing, Juliet!

  10. says

    I attempted to read Lorna Doone a few weeks ago and found myself skipping every conversation that involved the Somerset dialect – it was too disorientating attempting to “hear” every sentence in my head just so I could make head or tail of what they were actually saying. (The raging misogyny was rather a turn off as well!) But on the other hand it would have felt very fake if the regional characters were all speaking with “educated” voices. It seems like it must be tricky combination to include just enough dialect to make a character genuine without alienating the reader. Thankfully it’s not something I’ve tried to attempt before!!

    Juliet, I look forward to reading your new series when they come out.

  11. says

    I don’t mind some dialect, but when it overpowers the story, stopping the flow, it is too much. When I have to stop reading to figure out how the phrase would sound, there is too much dialect. I don’t mind a hint of dialect as in the character Roarke in J.D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts) in Death series, but I have read others and not finished because the dialect is overwhelming.
    Jessica Subject´s last blog post ..July reads

  12. says

    I loved Gabaldon’s dialect/accent in Jamie’s dialogue, but I think what made it work so well is the way Claire reacts to the way he speaks. I’ll never forget how she thinks of the way he pronounces germs with the long roll of the r, and then she goes on to describe how he envisions the germs from his eighteenth-century viewpoint. It’s not just an accent, it’s characterization. Same thing with the way she deliberately provokes him to say, “Mmmph” because she loves the sound of it. That said, I enjoy reading dialect written with a light hand, where the author uses sentence structure and word choices to convey unique speech patterns. Phonetic spellings are awful to read.

    I’m looking forward to your next book, Juliet. And even if you use very little dialect, I promise to hear it in my head.
    Susan Lohrer´s last blog post ..Amberville by Tim Davys

  13. says

    Re Brie: “A good balance of dialect, I think, is adding more sayings and things like that from that particular culture moreso than making an accent. Though as a reader it is entertaining to see little bits of accent put in there, like you did with one particular character. I think it gives it some good flavor.”

    As an addendum, sometimes it’s the vocabulary that can kill. A reader can run into an Irish word like “fanny” which as a different (slang) meaning in American English. They’ll either blank out or don’t see anything unusual at all. Example (Bob and the POV character are Irish, “her/she” is Jewish):

    …He pulled out his PDA and told her, “Well, Hon, scoot your cute fanny around here, and we’ll get some data.” She twitched her butt around until she was beside him looking over his shoulder at the PDA.
    Bob flicked a look at me, and I could see his nostrils flutter with his suppressed laughter as we shared the language double-entendre: “fanny” is the female genitals in Irish/British slang.

    You might put in a glossary or define it in-line as abouve.

    Yet another way is by the dialect’s speach patterns:

    “Sure and you’d not be taking advantage of an old man, right?”

    Seems to be Irish. Yoda in Star Wars is another example of this.

    To me, phonetic dialect or accents are painful both to write and to read.
    Bruce H. Johnson´s last blog post ..The Craft of Writing vs the Art of Writing

  14. says

    I’ve been a long-time anti-dialect writer – I think it’s a lazy way to add local color.

    However, my thinking has been turned on it’s head lately – I reviewed a ms for the writers’ conference I’m on staff for, and found this particular author could make it work.

    The author was VERY Scots and the way she did it gave a greater sense of place and atmosphere. It would break my heart if someone asked her to take it out.

    The difference may be less about the dialect and more about how long that particular character takes to get to the point. If there’s a lot of phoenically-spelled dithering, it may be the dithering more than the dialect that’s at the heart of the issue.
    Hillary Lodge´s last blog post ..The Affair of the Vanilla Bean

  15. says

    I think a light touch is the key. Too much and it becomes overwhelming for the reader, too little and you may as well not bother.

    I really enjoyed the balance Diana Gabalodon has in her books. When I’m reading them I start thinking in a Scottish accent (swoon!) even to the point of having the phrase “Dinna fash yerself” rolling around in my head. Love it!

    I think it helps readers if you break it up by having a mixed cast, so that at least some of your characters speak “real” English.
    Pen´s last blog post ..Conquering the Beast

  16. Ashley Nelson says

    Dialect is the most challenging, but I think the best way to handle it is only use accents that a majority are used to reading and seeing. For instance, when doing an Irish dialect, stick with lad, lassie, aye, etc. and the rest be in English. That way, the reader get a sense of the culture while still understanding what the character is reading.

  17. says

    When used correctly, I think an accent or dialect can tell the reader a lot about the character (education, socio-economic standing or where they live) even better than a prose explanation.

    But I also agree with many of the commenters that they should be used with a light hand. After all, writers are trying to make their characters and stories understood. Phonetic spelling just bogs the story down. Of course, I say that and yet drop Gs in my characters’ speech all the time. Does droppin’ a letter count as phonetic spelling?
    Cam´s last blog post ..Top Top Lists

  18. says

    Fascinating range of comments! I’ll let you know down the track whether my editor makes me change the speech patterns of the one character who still speaks broad Scots.

    Jenn, your response is interesting. There’s no need to apologise for viewing dialect as a turn-off. We all have different reading needs and tastes. I love reading Scots but that is as much to do with my upbringing as anything.

    Who has read Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban? That is one of my favourite novels ever, a tour de force of literary skill and a wonderful piece of thought-provoking storytelling. The entire novel is written in a debased kind of English, created by Hoban as the way the spoken language would have changed in a post-apocalyptic England in which reading and writing have all but vanished among the population. In the book’s version of southern England, remnants of the old, pre-disaster culture have become folklore rather than history. Getting into the novel is a challenge because of the phonetic spelling, but the reader soon starts to ‘hear’ Riddley’s voice and be drawn into the story.

  19. Shannon says

    I loved Diana Gabaldon’s hihglander series and something that made it more loveable was the inclusion of the dialect. It added depth to the characters as well as the setting. In other books where there has been the dialect removed i felt something lacking.

    Dialect can help build a character or change the mood of the story, as well as adding humor in some parts.

    As soon as i started reading this post, i loved it. Simply because i could imagine a Scottish person reading it in the dialect described.

    As a reader i agree with the inclusion of using dialect, as it makes for a stronger character building and memorable moments.


  20. says

    I’ve written two (unpublished–yet) novels set in rural southern US. Rather than try to reproduce the dialect, I’ve mostly chosen to use the phrases of the area: “might could,” “y’all,” “Do what, now?” You do lose some of the flavor, but it’s much easier and less annoying to read.

  21. says

    Every one’s different, but personally I hate it when an author overdoes the dialect.

    Much as I’m a huge fan of Terry Pratchett, the way he spells out every inflection of dialogue for the ‘Wee-Free-Men’ puts me off.

    I think as writers, it’s our job to show the character’s nationality in such a way that the reader ‘hears’ the accent with the minimum of reminders. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t use accent-specific words and phrases, but I try to avoid literally spelling everything out (unless of course, the point is to show that the POV character can’t understand what’s being said).

    Of course, that’s just my opinion :)

  22. Shirley says

    I hope that your Highlander is allowed to keep his accent. I can not see that there would be any difficulty reading with just one person speaking the dialect. I also enjoyed Jamie and his accent in the Highlander series of Diana Gabaldone.

  23. says

    I struggle with this question in my fantasy books, especially the ones that take place in medieval times. I think Ellis Peter’s Cadfeal books do a marvelous job bringing in the dialect of the time without going overboard. I love dialect when it is masterfully done, when it sounds real and true to the character. My drafts go through many changes and often the changes have to do with voice – dialect specific to the characters or, in the case of first person, the voice of the entire novel. I greatly admire the artful writing in the Sevenwaters series, Juliet. The character’s dialects are subtle, and each novel evokes a deep feeling of time and place. I am reading them all just now.

    Well-written dialect can draw me deeper into time, place, and character (and as someone else mentioned, can add needed humor). Language has rhythm and cadence – it is a kind of music. But dialect is not for weaklings. When dialect is poorly done, it feels forced. It seems as if the writer is out to prove something and it absolutely destroys the novel for me.

    Consensus here from all the comments seems to be, tread lightly. Dance well.

  24. Nesssia says

    Hey, nice discussion here. As always, you’ve chosen a good topic to write about, Juliet. I really like your posts. I have another aspect to discuss about :D. I’m not a native English-speaker nor have I ever lived in an English-speaking country. But some great books aren’t available in my mother tongue, or at least I have to wait some years until they’re translated. So I’m used to read English novels every now and then but I’m not used to speak nor have I any knowledge about the different dialects. So reading a novel with lots of charakters speaking in their own dialects would be a problem for me, perhaps I would have to stop reading that book, because I wouldn’t understand or can’t concentrate on the most imprtant things. I understand and admire the idea to make it more authentic through the different way of speaking. I really love your characters, so I’m sure you also love each one :D But please also think of all your readers from all over the world and at least of the translators who have to rewrite your story into another language and have to create a dialect that might even don’t exist in that language!
    Thanks for reading! Good luck for your novels… I can’t wait to read them :D

  25. Ivy says

    I’m going to be honest, I don’t like it! I’ve definitely written characters that speak with an accent, but what I tend to do is focus more on the expressions that are used and the order of the words said, rather than “wools” and “wi’s” and altered spelling.

  26. Emma says

    I seem to be in the minority here, but I appreciate dialect when done well, phonetic spelling included. Although I think I’d limit that to dialogue–I picked up The Help in a bookstore once, saw that the narration was in dialect and put it back down. I don’t “hear” a character’s accent if it’s not written on the page, so if an author can recreate it skillfully I’m fine with it.

  27. Karen says

    As a general rule, I tend to feel patronised by writers spelling out the dialect for me.

    I believe it’s partly because we all have our OWN accents, and what’s “phonetic” for one person can seem weird and laboured to another. Another thing might be that it feels like there’s often a gap between the writer and the accent s/he’s going for, an element of Oh How Quaint! or Look At How Different This One Is rather than real rootedness.

    I LOVE Anne Perry’s Victorian detective novels, though her “phonetic” Mockney accents make my teeth hurt. I feel like she’s natural throughout the rest, and that some odd insecurity? lack of connection? not quite realness gets in the way of the

    When it’s done, well, though… Alan Garner is a genius at our local dialect, partly because he feels intensely and passionately connected to his native turf and its landscape, people, history and mythology, and partly because his focus at university was Anglo-Saxon and mediaeval literature – and much of the local dialect is straight out of that.

    [Try Garner’s ‘Thursbitch’. It is GORGEOUS.]

    Charles Dickens does it, too – I’m hearing the _character_, not the author’s desire for me to hear the character.

    It’s a toughie.