Provincial Curiosity: The Dialogue About Dialect
By Michael Nye
Over the holidays, between reading Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” and drowning myself in Christmas cookies, I spent very little time online. There was enough to do with my aunt’s DVR loaded with terrible Xmas movies, board games with the family such as Cards Against Humanity, and, of course, ample time for naps.
But one of the few things I did read online over the break was this New York Times interactive dialect quiz. My mother’s family is from New Jersey, but my sister and I were raised in Cincinnati. My aunt raised her children in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I lived in Boston for three years, and then have spent the last decade in Missouri. So, around the dining room table, we had a pretty fun discussion of why on earth we talk the way we do.
The Times quiz gives you twenty-five multiple choice questions. Stuff like “What do you call the rubber-soled shoes worn in gym class or for athletic activities?”, “What do you call the night before Halloween?”, “What do you call a traffic situation in which several roads meet in a circle?”, and “What do you call a sweetened carbonated beverage?” I particularly enjoyed when one of the answer options was “I have no word for this.”
(and, in case you’re wondering: sneakers, I have no word for this, rotary, and soda, respectively)
Even more fun (to me, anyway) was where the interactive Times quiz came from: the Harvard Dialect Quiz, which has 122 questions and participant data broken down by all fifty states. Yahtzee! Here, there are even more in-depth questions about pronunciation, syntax, and, yup, more word choices. I spent a couple of hours with the Harvard Dialect Quiz for no other reason than curiosity. I didn’t realize there were so many delightful phrases for rain when the sun is shining.
I’m not sure dialogue is the most important thing in writing fiction, but it’s certainly one of the key ingredients. Boring is boring, no matter what, but boring dialogue in fiction is a pet peeve of mine. As with anything else in creating narratives, it isn’t just about using the right word, but about using the right word in the right place in the right way at the right time.
One of my favorite answers in the Quiz was about this question: “What do you call a beverage made of milk and ice cream?” For most of the United States, the answer is “milkshake.” But in regional New England, the Quiz indicates two additional answers: “frappe” and “cabinet.” I lived in Boston for a few years, and, yeah, you would hear “frappe” from time to time though I never considered it commonplace. But “cabinet”? I’ve never heard that one. And I ran it by a few friends from the region, and they all came back with the same response: What the hell is a “cabinet”?
Apparently, I need to ask people from Rhode Island. They know.
I’m never a fan of vernacular in fiction; to paraphrase John Updike, it too often comes off as “provincial curiosity” rather than genuine understanding and love of a region’s speech. Wielding the language of place is always a tremendous challenge. But it’s one of the differences between great and good dialogue, the sort of thing that can make a story vivid and memorable. Take the quiz and then let the answers, and all the memories and recognition and delight and new questions that it will almost certainly raise, and see what it does in your narratives. I know I have.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye