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I'm from Ireland, most of my stories take place in Ireland, and many of my characters will speak with Irish accents and/or dialects to varying degrees. For the most part I think this is OK, and can often be endearing to non-Irish readers. However I know from experience that certain phrases and colloquialisms can be quite jarring for someone who is not familiar with them. Usually this occurs when messing with grammar, for example:

amn’t (am not)

yous (you plural)

usen’t to (used to not, i.e. didn’t used to)

These are just some examples from my own life where a non-Irish person was downright offended when I’ve said one of the above. In my writing, I had one reviewer comment “yous is not a word you absolute nutcase”!

In some cases I think the Irishness of the story or character allows for this sort of thing, and it’s stylistically important. Other times it’s completely irrelevant but it’s just what comes naturally to me as I’m writing. In the latter cases, is there a benefit to leaving these sorts of things out and trying to neutralise the language (mostly for dialogue and first person narration)? Or is there any reason I should leave them in?

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    I believe that Dublin and Ulster use yous, while the rest of the country uses ye. I'm from Offaly, and yous does not come naturally to me, though it certainly doesn't trip me up in others. I'd be surprised if anyone found it confusing. Yiz ("yours", pl.), on the other hand, may confuse some. – TRiG Feb 27 '18 at 16:01
  • @TRiG You're right, I'd consider "yous" a Dublin thing. I think a foreign audience might be more forgiving/aware of "ye", but not sure. I think it's not so much that it's confusing, but that anyone with a passion for grammar might recoil at the sight of it. – sudowoodo Feb 27 '18 at 16:41
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    For what it's worth, I'm American and these examples were understandable to me. I've seen "yous" before in some American dialects, but the other two make sense even though I've never seen them before. – Justin Lardinois Feb 27 '18 at 19:19
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    I swear Stephen King just makes weird slang up and says "people from New England talk like this" so I think you're totally fine with some obscure colloquialisms – Schrodinger'sStat Feb 27 '18 at 20:03
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    coughs Hagrid coughs – AJFaraday Feb 28 '18 at 10:56

10 Answers 10

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It worth noting that this kind of thing has been done many times before. Stories such as The Red Badge of Courage, The Unvanquished, and Their Eyes Were Watching God all do this. Their Eyes Were Watching God takes it to an extreme as the narrator sometimes starts to talk in dialect and make the poor reader quite uncomfortable.

Generally, I think reader will be able to figure what you mean in context. To test this, you might want beta readers not familiar with the Irish dialect.

Using a dialect helps the reader understand the culture and makes you look more authoritative on the topic.

However, there is a down side to dialect. They can distract the reader from the message of the story. Take for example the movie Schindler's List. The director decided to use English in the movie so there would be nothing to distract the viewer from the harsh topics. In contrast, The Passion of the Christ does not have a single line of English. Both are powerful movies, and I would say achieve what they want.

There isn't a black and white answer to this. If it comes naturally to you, try it (at least in character dialogue, maybe not as the narrator). Do be mindful not to overwhelm the reader.

One thing you could do is have a non-Irish person (probably American, considering how oblivious they are to other cultures) who doesn't understand the dialect and asks for clarification.

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    "probably American, considering how oblivious they are to other cultures" -- hey, I resemble that remark! (yes, intentional word play). – phyrfox Feb 27 '18 at 14:11
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    @phyrfox it was actually a bit of a reference to Douglas Adams' unfinished "The Salmon of Doubt" in which there is an American who thinks all other countries are part of New Zealand. After reading that, I realized just how little Americans paid attention to other cultures. – White Eagle Feb 27 '18 at 14:18
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    @WhiteEagle: As an American, I blame geography. For travel, we have Canada, Mexico, a bunch of countries with good beaches whose names nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to, and fly to Europe or Asia (or occasionally one of the other continents), which is expensive and therefore not done. You can't just hop in a car, drive for a few hours, and find yourself in a new country. Hell, the state of Texas alone has a larger area than France. And then you have Schengen being a lot simpler than the Visa Waiver Program, and on and on it goes. – Kevin Feb 27 '18 at 20:51
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    I would like to add that you have the pleasure of living and writing in the internet age. If anyone runs across a piece of dialect that they find confusing (that they can't get from context), they can simply look it up. With all the new daily additions to language these days, we're used to it. – IchabodE Feb 28 '18 at 1:04
  • It is probably me, but I do not get the argumentation in the 4th paragraph. To me, it is not really a 'downside to dialect' that there are movies which worked fine without using dialects, or? – Arsak Feb 28 '18 at 16:07
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Dialect used in dialogue can work well, especially when the writer is fluent. (Writers who aren't fluent in the dialect they're trying to use can make a mess of it.) Dialect is another aspect of how your characters speak. If you do it in a way that the meaning is either clear or supplied by context, your readers will be able to follow. Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon did this well; some of her Nigerian characters heavily used a pidgin English, and while I had the occasional "huh?" while reading, I was never lost. (She also included a glossary, which I didn't notice until I got to the end.)

Writing in first person from the POV of dialect-using character could be more of a strain for your readers. Readers want to be able to immerse themselves in a story, and have different levels of tolerance for things that throw them out of it. I suspect you'll find it easier to use dialect, without using a cabbagehead (or Watson) character, if you use third person instead of first person.

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I think this depends on your intended audience; if it is almost entirely Irish familiar with the dialect, leave it. It sounds authentic to them, and is not jarring. Even if it is just that story; which it may be if you are trying to get started by publishing locally, a short story in a magazine or something.

If you hope that your story is going to be published more widely, so the majority of readers are NOT familiar with the colloquialisms, then I would adopt an attitude of "spicing" your language with colloquialisms that aren't going to drive editors and grammarians to put the book down, because it is just too difficult to read.

Give readers a taste of the Irish flavor, something you do once per page or so, don't douse them with it on every third line of dialogue.

You will likely not lose any Irish readers by doing that, or at least you will lose fewer of them than you would lose non-Irish English speakers. And you won't lose any of the critics and opinion-setters in other countries that might consider your authenticity overdone to the point of cliché (even if that is the real world in Ireland).

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Not much of an answer I'm afraid, but too much for a comment, IMHO:

One way to address this is to have one character who knows less than the audience. Meaning, if there is a character who doesn't know the colloquialisms and occasionally is confused and/or asks for clarification, then that would be a subtle way to help your readers understand better.

Of course it would help to have a solid motivation for that character to be in the story. If it's a detective story, for example, perhaps an American FBI agent is investigating related crimes committed in the USA and has come to Ireland to work with local law enforcement on their case. Even better might be a character who speaks English as a second language but otherwise has a compelling reason to be in the story. That gives you lots of opportunities to clarify almost anything you want to make sure doesn't go by the reader too quickly.

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In dialogue and first person narration, I think this sort of thing would be a nice addition (then again, I always hear the phrase "this sort of thing" in Dermot Morgan's voice, so I'm probably not one of the readers that are concerning you). You will gain the affection of some readers, while others might find the going a bit more difficult - how you choose to resolve that balancing act will be up to you.

Unless it's first person narration or a firmly developed character as the narrator, it would probably be safest to stick to more standard expressions outside dialogue.

I just answered a different question about POV narration with a reference to Trainspotting, which wasn't shy about using Edinburgh dialects, so it can be done well and successfully (which are not necessarily the same thing).

I was going to close this answer by suggesting it was all about the intended audience, but made the mistake of refreshing the page and seeing that Amadeus had beaten me to it.

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    Prefixed with "down with" and "careful now", no doubt... :) – Graham Mar 1 '18 at 13:03
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I think colloquialisms in a story written by a person who speaks that dialect are great and really add something to the story.

What I dislike is if someone who doesn't speak a particular dialect writes a parody of that dialect. I recently read Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and was horrified by the (frankly racist, but thankfully brief) parody of a Chinese man speaking English.

Contrast that with the totally marvellous Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, where the main character starts out writing in Chinglish and gradually changes to English, and it's completely believable.

If you have dialect words in your story, it is usual to add a glossary at the end. I have lived in various places around the UK, and when you tell people from another region about the dialect of the place you used to live in, they are totally baffled - e.g. "gey brant" (very steep, Cumbria), "gert lush" (very nice, Bristol), "messages" (shopping, Glasgow).

I am a fan of descriptive grammar rather than prescriptive, so I'd be fascinated by usages like "amn't" and "yous".

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The answer to this depends very much on your audience AND your aims. If you are writing primarily for the narrow audience that shares your cultural context, use as much dialect as you want. If you are writing for a wide general audience, use dialect sparingly, and either add context, or use it in places where context will make it clear.

These are not, however, the only options. James Joyce wrote Finnegan's Wake entirely in an invented dialect that is incomprehensible to everyone, especially if they don't share Joyce's Irish background. His goal, presumably, was to challenge the audience. It is still considered an important and closely studied book, even though few people have ever actually read it. Similarly, Zora Neale Hurston deliberately wrote in frequently in dialect, knowing that much of her audience would find it challenging. It was a political as well as an aesthetic statement, expressing the value, worth and beauty of African-American dialect speech, and an implicit interrogation of the convention that African Americans must conform to mainstream English, but never the other way around. Both Joyce and Hurston, however, were geniuses with well-established reputations --this isn't an easy thing to pull off.

A hundred or so years ago, the reading public had a seemingly endless appetite for works written wholly in dialect, usually for humorous effect, but those days are long gone, and the work did NOT hold up well. On the other hand, a more recent work that deployed dialect sparingly, but to good effect, was Angela's Ashes --it might be a good model to look up. As a side note, the usual convention is that characters use dialect, the narrator does not, unless written in the first person. This can be broken, but not without encountering stiff resistance.

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In some cases I think the Irishness of the story or character allows for this sort of thing, and it’s stylistically important. Other times it’s completely irrelevant but it’s just what comes naturally to me as I’m writing. In the latter cases, is there a benefit to leaving these sorts of things out and trying to neutralise the language (mostly for dialogue and first person narration)? Or is there any reason I should leave them in?

This seems simple enough:

Stylistically important? Leave it - that's your style, the reader should adapt to it.

Not stylistically important? Change it to something less colloquial - why makes things difficult or alienate a reader when it's not necessary?

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The simple answer is that your reviewer didn't know what the hell they were talking about. Not in terms of Irish colloquialisms, nor even in terms of literature. As far as reviewing goes, they're so ignorant that they're not even wrong.

Pretty much as long as there has been English literature, authors have written for colloquialisms and accents, whether that was for effect or simply to try to accurately represent how people in an area would talk. Shakespeare's mechanicals talk very differently from other characters, as do all his lower-class characters. Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens both used phonetic representation of dialect extensively. And coming more up-to-date, Irvine Welsh's books use Scottish dialect throughout, even for the narration. It's easy to fill in authors between all those points, and English-language authors from other countries (particularly the US and Canada). The point to take away though is that you're right and they are wrong, unless they think that Shakespeare, Fielding, Dickens and Welsh are not considered significant authors!

  • You're right, but I still think there's something to take from that review. The colloquialisms I was using were not really important to the story or style in any way and they came up quite infrequently. I think that's why the reader found them a little jarring when they did suddenly appear. That said, after reading these answers I'm leaning more towards making them more consistent than removing them altogether. Thanks for the affirmation! – sudowoodo Mar 1 '18 at 15:46
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It is fine that you use colloquialisms.

This further deepens the feel of the story and allows the reader to become immersed into the setting. In my opinion, slang/colloquialisms/jargon, when used correctly can add to the immersion. You shouldn't use it too much to cause your reader to run to a dictionary so often but enough to keep them in the setting you portray.

I'd like to point out fantasy and scifi novels, where words are thrown around with no actual meaning before the author made them and gave it meaning. This could have also gave the same reaction from that reviewer. Yours is different since, you are Irish and can use them with authenticity on how they are used normally. You are a real world example on how it is used.

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