Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 13: Dialects and In-World Jargon

Howard here, folks. On behalf of the entire Writing Excuses team I’d like to apologize in advance for that which you are about to receive.

You know how sometimes one of those crazy thoughts seems like a good idea, and the more you talk about it the better the idea seems, and so then you actually do it and are left looking back at it with a mixture of awe and horror? This episode is like that.

Brandon thought it would be funny to have  a discussion about dialects in which Dan and I actually do dialects. So we did.

We’re all very sorry. In the spirit of eponymy, I shall now write an excuse: “It was late, and we were so tired that we thought this would be funny.”


43 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 13: Dialects and In-World Jargon”

  1. Fantastic episode. Definitely lol-worthy…Totally didn’t catch the name of Dan’s alter-ego though. Sad, that. Sounded like a cool name.

    And I have a question for you guys. Would it be at all possible to do an episode sometime about characterization? I think that would be a rocking episode. Very helpful…

    You guys are awesome!

  2. Oh, now wait a minute. Does that mean you’ve removed the part where you discuss cutting this part? And talk about the timer and what not? I wonder which version I downloaded? Er… which one should I transcribe? It’s not enough I have to deal with accents, dialects, and all that, now we’re playing version tag too?

  3. Okay, after the advertisement three weeks ago in Dan and Howard’s odd dialects, I can say that I am just a little bit scared.
    This should be fun.

  4. Ah yes, dialects. I done a bit of that with my first WIP, which is set in England (Oxford/Thames River Valley). Not a lot mind you, but a few choice words such as trousers/pants (pants on the other side of the Atlantic refer to ladies undergarments) and such.

    I used Wot? instead of What?, metal/crazy, fancy/like, and clever/intelligent.

    It really galls me when someone starts speaking Spanish on American television and it sounds awful even though they are supposed to be native speakers. Problem is that they are not and since the American audience doesn’t know the language any gobbledygook will do. Especially when the speaker has a thick Americanized accent.

    If you want to see a good example word choice- Order of the Phoenix (The Movie). Harry walks into the Gryffindor common room and is confronted by Seamus (that name can be a problem for some if they don’t know of the “sh” sound instead of the straight “se”).

    Seamus (Irish) talks about his “Mam” believing what the Daily Prophet is writing about Harry (English). Harry response that he will have a go at anyone who calls him a liar. Of course if he were to refer to Seamus mother he would probably say “Mum” while an American would say “Mom”. A Canadian would probably say “Mum” too, even though their accent is closer to the North American standard rather than the English recessive style.

    It’s the little details, like word choice that make the difference.

  5. Oh yes…I found that when I was reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I started to read things out loud, and realized I was sounding Scottish. Eventually, I didn’t need to read it out loud any more, because when I was reading, in my mind I was doing a scottish accent… it was quite bizarre, but after listening to this podcast, it makes a lot of sense as to why she chose to do things that wayu

  6. You mean I didn’t get the original episode?! That makes me want to cry! It’s as bad as trying to decide which Lord of the Rings movie’s to watch. Extended? Video? DVD? and they are all different! no fair!

    Alright, now that I am through complaining and criticizing (If I were Sazed, I would be able to criticize while still remaining completely polite of course) The episode was absolutely wonderful and you did well (“I think”)
    My sister was trying to play with dialects in a story we were having fun with, I don’t even remember what accent she was doing, but I finely told her it had to go because it was so confusing.

    I read one book with British accents but instead of dropping words they just reminded you about it because the characters were comparing them, or the girl reminds the boy that if you say ‘hill’ in America without the ‘H’ it changes the meaning. I don’t know if I liked this way because I sometimes forgot about it, so I suppose you just have to find a medium

    Question: How much should I know about an accent of dialect when writing a character? For example, I wanted to have Germans, Polish and American. I was trying to distinguish the difference between the first two, from an American point of view. So, I listened to pod casts in both languages (I have no clue what they were saying) then overlaid them and concentrated on the different sounds and stuff. But this was just for a game I was playing with my sister. In a real book how much should I learn about it? and what would be the best way to go about it?

  7. I’m surprised you never mentioned Spook in this episode considering how heavy going it can be trying to figure out exactly what he is saying in the first Mistborn book. Spook’s dialect was funny, but too much of it would have turned me off to one of the series’s more interesting characters.

  8. I listened to the original episode all the way through!

    I didn’t actually download it, though. Sad. I should have saved it, apparently, for posterity if nothing else.


  9. After all that lead-in to what a scary experience this podcast was going to be you edited it?! I was looking forward to it and was highly disappointed to receive the edited cast. (Which, by the way, had some very good advice in it.) If/when you release this season on CD you must include the original on the bonus features.

  10. I consider myself special for being able to hear the behind-the-scenes action… even if it was just “Um.. lets cut that.”

  11. And don’t forget Jordo’s extremely sceptical-sounding “Oookaay…” I’m guessing that Sanderson got a Look there.

  12. I read on Brandon’s Blog that he got excited because some couple named their baby Kelsier. Well, I would just like him to know that my sister is pregnant, and she says that if the baby’s a girl she wants to name it Vivenna. No Joke.

    Ah, dialects. You know, I wrote a short, short, parody of the first Mistborn book a few weeks ago (purely for my own enjoyment), and since I couldn’t replicate Spook’s dialect from the original book, I just had him speak Izzo.

  13. One of my favorite uses of dialect comes from the Jagermonsters in the webcomic Girl Genius. Yes, it is spelled out, but it’s so darned fun! I don’t think I had to read it out loud to understand it at first (though it was quite a while ago so it’s possible) but I find myself wanting to anyways. I think it works because most of the “accented” words are small and fairly common – once you know that “hyu” is “you” and “dot” is “that”, it reads pretty easily.

    Or maybe it’s just one of those “works for some and not for others” things.

  14. What about more technical jargon – sci fi writers regularly come up with semi-uninteligible words for various things (Can anyone tell me what a “phi-inverted stabilizer” is?) Too much of it and it just gets confusing, but too little can make a sci-fi world (or technologically advanced fantasy world) seem too flat. How do I find a happy medium for that kind of thing?

  15. @Rashkavar

    Consider the world we live in: Tech-speak like you describe is typically only found in highly technical fields where it is used among specialized engineers. And even then they’ll resort to simplifying when context allows it.

    Unless you’re talking to the guy across the counter at the firearm shop you’re unlikely to say “hand me the nine-millimeter Glock with the laser sight,” and even there you’re more likely to say “hand me the Glock Nine. Yeah, that one, with the laser.” No, in the real world we shorten it to “hand me the Nine,” or “hand me the Glock,” or even just “hand me the gun.”

    It’s fine to find the long words that accurately and specifically describe the techno-widget in question, but when the characters start talking about it you need to shorten it the way they would. Then you just let context tell the reader what the widget is actually for.

  16. >>Unless you’re talking to the guy across the counter at the firearm shop you’re unlikely to say “hand me the nine-millimeter Glock with the laser sight,” and even there you’re more likely to say “hand me the Glock Nine. Yeah, that one, with the laser.” No, in the real world we shorten it to “hand me the Nine,” or “hand me the Glock,” or even just “hand me the gun.”<<

    Friends dont let friends play with tupperware grenades. ;)

    (Card carrying Disciple of John Moses Browning)


  17. I have a question about the use of profanity. How do you, as writers, get past your own inhibitions concerning the use of profanity in order to write a character who does use it? Would that a good place for “in-world jargon”? I have a character who doesn’t feel complete without the use of profanity, but I feel a little guilty for writing those words (silly, I know, but there you go). I’m not sure in-world profanity would feel the same on the character. I dunno. Any thoughts?

  18. Another great example of dialect are the poems of Louise Bennett, all written in a thick Jamaican dialect. I agree that speaking them aloud makes it easier to understand.
    In her poem, Bans O’ Killing, she rails against the efforts to standardize English.


    Bans O’ Killing
    by Louise “Ms. Lou”Bennett

    So yuh a de man, me hear bout!
    Ah yuh dem sey dah-teck
    Whole heap o’ English oat sey dat
    Yuh gwine kill dialect!

    Meck me get it straight Mass Charlie
    For me noh quite undastan,
    Yuh gwine kill all English dialect
    Or jus Jamaica one?

    Ef yuh dah-equal up wid English
    Language, den wha meck
    Yuh gwine go feel inferior, wen
    It come to dialect?

    Ef yuh kean sing “Linstead Market”
    An “Wata come a me y’eye”,
    Yuh wi haffi tap sing “Auld lang syne”
    An “Comin thru de rye”.

    Dah language weh yuh proad o’,
    Weh yuh honour and respeck,
    Po’ Mass Charlie! Yuh noh know sey
    Dat it spring from dialect!

    Dat dem start fe try tun language,
    From de fourteen century,
    Five hundred years gawn an dem got
    More dialect dan we!

    Yuh wi haffe kill de Lancashire
    De Yorkshire, de Cockney
    De broad Scotch an de Irish brogue
    Before yuh start to kill me!

    Yuh wi haffe get de Oxford book
    O’ English verse, an tear
    Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
    An plenty o’ Shakespeare!

    Wen yuh done kill “wit” an “humour”
    Wen yuh kill “Variety”
    Yuh wi haffe fine a way fe kill

    An mine how yuh dah-read dem English
    Book deh pon yuh shelf
    For ef yuh drop a “h” yuh mighta
    Haffe kill yuhself.

  19. I also love the Jaegers :) I’m thinking the Foglio’s can get away with it there because they have so much to suck you in, most people will deal with it until they either love the characters, or just accept that these are freaking wierd…are Jaegerkin technically constructs or not? Anyway, the strange speech fits their out-there mentality. Like the big hats.

    My thinking is that it’s not a “don’t do this” or “must do this” rule–the further you deviate from standard English, the more likely you are to turn off a larger segment of your potential audience. You have to find an equilibrium point where the need of your story to differentiate/mark a character is balanced against the need of your book to be widely read. Every author will find their own point.

  20. Terry Pratchett uses dialect in “Wee Free Men” and other books in the Tiffany Aching series. The wee free men start out with HEAVY brogue. It is quite funny of course, if you can parse it, and yes, you usually have to read it out loud. However, Pratchett gradually eases off after the first chapter or two making it easier to read and parse, but now your brain “hears” the brogue.

    On the Jaegers, sometimes the dialect drives me beserk, and sometimes it cracks me up. I think it depends on my mood and patience that day.

    In a college novel writing course, I wrote my first chapter using a narrator and the dialect of the Smokey Mountains area of Virginia where my family is from. I nailed it pretty much but did it using all the word hacking and mispelling tricks–pretty ugly looking. Some readers loved it, and others hated it. My second draft backed off, kept the essence (word choice and order), but was readable. The follow-up critiques worked for a broader group. I think at that point, I learned what was pointed out in the podcast. I wanted to tell a story, not draw attention to my writing.

  21. Hmm…I guess Jaeger-speech doesn’t work as well for everybody! Good to know.

    On Tech-speak…I’m thinking you might use some if you have a character that is really technically minded, because then it would kind of be part of character development too. Of course, you could say that about anything! Even groceries…if you’re writing about a chef.

    “Hey, can you grab some organic butter lettuce and mesclun greens while you’re at the store?”


    “Hey can you grab some lettuce at the store?”

    “What kind?”

    “Uh…the green kind?”

  22. Sam,

    How do you, as writers, get past your own inhibitions concerning the use of profanity in order to write a character who does use it?

    Why get around it?

    Any given audience has values (as do you as a reader). Stomp on the values too much and you will make the readers so uncomfortable or angry that their discomfort will outweigh the draw of the story. They will put you down and never read you again. For one audience it’s gore. Another it’s explicit sex or vulgarity. For another it’s the bashing of a political stance or a particular demographic.

    If you or your audience is uncomfortable with profanity then say “he swore” OR find another way to convey the information the profanity does.

    Writing is the process of triggering types and all the data that comes with them in the reader’s mind. As well as type resistors for surprise, curiosity, humor, etc. Profanity is one way to trigger a type or work against type in the reader’s mind. But there are many other ways to evoke that same type, many ways to produce the same effect. Profanity is a powerful and efficient method, but it’s not the only one.

    You want a mean cruel man? You can have him call his wife a “cu**” all the time. OR you can just show him doing something cruel to her or slapping her, e.g. he grabs her by the neck and makes her look at the food on his plate up close like some pet owners do to dogs when they poop where they shouldn’t–“Does that look like beef stroganoff to you? Stupid whore.”

    Look at Prison Break. Teddy needed to be scary. Profanity could have helped paint him. After all, cons use a lot of it. But Prison Break was prime time so they used other things to evoke the types they needed. Teddy worked for the purposes of that story. All of the cons did. And they did it without a deluge of profanity.

    Stay away from replacement profanity that evokes a different type. For example, if you had Teddy using “darn it” all the time, unless it was part of some particular character attribute, it would have “not been believable” because it evokes the wrong type.

    So if you don’t want to use profanity, don’t. Think about your objective and find another type trigger.

  23. one minor note. “Frak” didn’t originate with the new battlestar. i’ve seen it in science fiction books as far back as the 80’s. and since these books (Battletech novels) were not exactly trendsetting in the realm of scifi, it’s likely that they got it from an even earlier source. BSG may have popularized the word (it’s downright infectious, and i’ve heard regular people using it without realizing it), but it is hardly the originator of it.

  24. @mithril “Frak” originated with the original Battlestar Galactica in 1978, and was quickly copied and adopted by fandom. No surprise that you saw it around a lot in the ’80s.

  25. Don’t forget “felgercarb”. Glad that one didn’t make the transition to the new show.

    Another good book series for dialects is the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Lots of good English dialects show up there, most of them written phonically. The moles in particular have a memorable way of speaking.

  26. To paraphrase Dan,

    “Allow yourselves to have a bad episode.”

    Could you do a little more of it? It helps us amatures feel better about out attempts at writing. :)

  27. I liked Howard’s voice quite a bit, but I think Dan’s sounded more like Count Dracula than necessarily a spanish accent. Though that in itself was amusing.

  28. A horror novelist sounding like a vampire…do we even need to look at the psychological implications of such a trait?

  29. If the accents were Brandon’s idea, how did we end up with Howard and Dan as the two doing them?

  30. Heya.

    I slightly disagree with the need to read out loud some dialects. Especially with The Name of the Wind.
    The dialect just naturally formed in my mind, no need to ACTUALLY read it out loud. ;]

  31. I am not a big fan of the Mark Twain style of writing dialects. It makes it so much harder for me to read a book, and I have put down books because the writer tried to put in a dialect without making it readable.

    However, one good example is Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men. Like Guerry said, they speak in brogue, and it just sounds great when you read it out loud. However, I think it would have been more likely to turn me off if I had not heard a sample from the audio book.

    Also, there are some good examples from the Wheel of Time. What I like about Robert Jordan is that he doesn’t play tricks with spelling to get a different dialect, he just uses different words and phrases. Therefore, the characters sound like they are from different places. I think this kind of dialect is much more powerful in a book, because it establishes setting and character so much better. Spelling tricks make a character seem stupid, although they may not be. But word and phrase differences give a weight of history to the stories. I feel the culture behind the words. I feel that certain things are important to those characters (like Sazed being polite), and so I care more about them.

    I guess the best way to make characters seem like they have a unique voice is to give them a unique voice, instead of changing the way you spell their words.

  32. I think one of my favorite uses of in-world jargon is from the 2003 TMNT series. I’m not really sure why but ‘what the shell?’ just make me giggle every time I hear it.

    Mind you, I like it because its so bad and incredibly cheesy. Although oddly appropriate at the same time.

  33. So, Dan really considered giving up on The Name of the Wind at page 576? 4/5 of the way through the book? That cracks me up. That dialect bothered me at first, until the main character started speaking back in the same dialect. Then I started enjoying the scene more, because it felt like the accent became more of a plot point.

  34. This is an interesting subject. I have drifted almost exclusively to audio books. As has been pointed out in other podcasts on here and by others such as Orson Scott Card, reading a novel is an audio experience weather we realize it or not. I enjoy a good reader in some cases as much as the material, and I know that the pro’s will do it better than the voices in my own head. Thus I think dialect becomes a more integral part of any story when you recognize the oral aspect of story telling.

    One great example for me is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, especially the audio versions that are so masterfully read by Patrick Tull. The combination of O’Brian’s ability to write the correct words and Tull’s ability to read them seamlessly is amazing. For comparison if you read C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series (which cover almost identical subject matter) there is a distinct lack of dialect that O’Brian’s stories contain and really immerse the reader into the Napoleonic era British Royal Navy. (though both are great and respected works)

  35. I know this is far after the fact, but I’m still catching up with your podcasts after getting to the party late.

    When I heard what the subject for this podcast would be (I never look before hand, just load ’em up in order on the old MP3 player and play them in sequence along with all of my other ‘casts), I immediately thought of Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, which has some of the best dialect-intensive prose in the SF/F industry. The opening couple of paragraphs illustrate it well:

    “I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect – and tax – public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize “Sons of Revolution” talk-talk.
    “My old man taught me two things: “Mind own business” and “Always cut cards.” Politics never tempted me. But on Monday 13 May 2075 I was in computer room of Lunar Authority Complex, visiting with computer boss Mike while other machines whispered among themselves. Mike was not official name; I had nicknamed him for Mycroft Holmes, in a story written by Dr. Watson before he founded IBM. This story character would just sit and think – and that’s what Mike did. Mike was a fair dinkum thinkum, sharpest computer you’ll ever meet.”

    It’s subtle, but the lack of definite and indefinite articles in certain places, slightly skewed sentence structure, and nary a misspelling in the lot are exactly what you gents were talking about in this episode – Heinlein has given Mannie a distinct voice with a very Russian accent, but he’s not beating you over the head with it. And it keeps the story readable, which is good because it’s first person perspective from the point of Mannie.

    Sorry for the comment necromancy, but I finally had something pertinent to add to the discussion and couldn’t contain it anymore.

  36. I just wish to say that not everyone may understand dialect or like hearing persons speak it, but without it where would varieties of language be? It has its importance and place in this world and I believe persons should just know, they have their own language but the standard universally accepted one especially in society is Standard English. So do not trade yours, be equipped with both so you simply use the appropriate one in the right environment.

Comments are closed.