5 Novels Written in Dialect that are Wicked Good (Towerbabel in Boston)

Coming to you from Boston, Massachusetts, this week and, inspired by the beauty of the voices I’m hearing on the street, in the subway, in the store, I couldn’t help but have dialect on the brain. Deciding to write in an accent or dialect can be a bold move, often criticized for alienating readers, or for being a gimmick, but when it works, it makes for vibrant, personality-full writing, memorable characters, and settings that buzz off the page with atmosphere.

Here are some success stories I recommend:

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

“Well, well, well, well. If it isn’t fat, stinking billygoat Billy-Boy in poison. How art thou, thy globby bottle of cheap, stinking chip-oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou.”

The dystopian trend that’s raging in the book market right now has an eccentric predecessor in A Clockwork Orange; this cult-followed novel has a lot to teach anybody trying to write in the genre, especially about world-building. Through Burgess’ creation of an original set of words and slang phrases, the dialogue becomes highly original and heightens the foreign, unhinged feeling of the novel’s vision of futuristic English society.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

“It’s all okay, it’s all beautiful; but ah fear that this internal sea is gaunnae subside soon, leaving this poisonous shite washed up, stranded up in ma body.”

Welsh uses his native Scottish to push the dialogue in his novel Trainspotting to an intensity that immerses his reader with his settings and characters. By writing phonetically, the thick Scottish brogue of his characters, living in Leith in Edinburgh, rolls easily off the tongue, and even when not reading aloud, the reading mind becomes loud with the sounds of these voices.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

You are Texas? he said.

The kid looked at Toadvine.

You are Texas, the old man said. I was Texas three year. He held up his hand. The forefinger was gone at the first joint and perhaps he was showing them what happened in Texas or perhaps he merely meant to count the years.

I could have picked any one of McCarthy’s works; the Tennessean writer routinely fills his prose with dialect and drawl. This one though is set in the North American Southwest, and as in the narrative, the wide, boundary-less and violent country spreads as far as the eye can see, characters roam like creatures over the land, and the magic of McCarthy’s language is at full force, using voice and dialect to give these creatures their own, almost feral way of communicating.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

Do your Ma and Da have fights?

No.

Not fights like thumping and kicking, I said. – Shouting. Giving it out to each other.

Yeah, then, said Kevin. – They have them all the time.

This Irish novel won the Booker Prize in 1993, and is famous for its use of language, to vividly create the world of its young boy protagonist. Though Doyle doesn’t go so far as to write the dialect phonetically, the rhythm and word choice of the dialogue surround the reader with Irish youth culture. As with many of these books written in dialect, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha carries through its experiment with language into its structure, Doyle plotting the novel into short vignettes rather than a traditional whole shape.

Ulysses by James Joyce

“Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a’.

Won’t you come to Sandymount, Madeline the mare?

Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. A catalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: deline the mare.”

Joyce packs almost every regional English and Irish dialect into his opus Ulysses, as part of the exhausting, tumbling vocabulary that the novel is famous for. Above is one of my favorite examples of how lyric, Latin, Irish, poetic, academic and onomatopoeic language occur rapidly mixed up, so that the overall effect of the passage is both the intense, sensual experience of the characters and heady confusion.

And if you fancy trying your hand at some dialect in your own writing, why not try listening around you for some gems of verbatim dialogue with this writing exercise on the Towerbabel Blog.

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