June 30, 2017

Writing Dialect – Tattooing on the Bones

By Drema Hall Berkheimer

Linda deRossier, Kentucky author and professor, wrote in her memoir, Creeker, that when folks find out you’re from Appalachia they subtract a hundred points from your IQ.

If they judge intellect by dialect, I’m in trouble.

At a recent meeting at my house, I cautioned a group of writers leaving the table to be careful, the rug was hooved up. Eyebrows shot up like I’d turned into an alien. In a way I had, because once again I’d reverted to my native tongue, Appalachian. We have a penchant for using words unfamiliar to those outside the clan.

People tend to judge Appalachians by the stereotypes they see on TV, and those do exist, along with a fair share of doctors, lawyers, merchants, and chiefs. And rocket scientists. And yet Appalachia remains exotic and heroic—a place where coalminers still put on helmets like gladiators before descending into the dark to dig what could become their grave, like my father did. Appalachia is complex. There’s a romance to it that defies definition. My family migrated to Florida, so I’ve only been back to my hometown once since I left sixty years ago. I became the Methodist I’d decided to be at age five, decided not to be a gypsy after all, and retired from a big corporation. I thought I’d left it all behind. How silly of me.

Appalachia is imprinted on me as surely as if it were tattooed on my bones.

I love all dialects, and I’m especially fond of the Appalachian way of speaking. But if I drop every ‘g’ and write comin’ and goin’ and givin’ and takin’, I find it tiresome to read. I’m not sure why. Southerners do drop those g’s, every last one of them. But too many apostrophes winkin’ and blinkin’ all over the page are, well, too many. It’s the same if I’m reading an Irish brogue—I can only take so many “wee bairns” before I want to strangle something. Then there’s the English with their blimey this and blimey that. No matter where we’re from, we have a dialect. It applies to corporate-speak too. My husband is an IT guy, and I’ve heard him hold entire conversations in computer mumbo-jumbo. But if he wrote a book with an IT setting, his tech-talking characters would have to show us some mercy.

So if too much dialect in writing can become a distraction, and in many cases an annoyance to the reader, what’s the answer?  For me, it was less is more. When an artist paints a rocky road, he may paint only a few rocks, allowing us to visualize a rocky road without noticing the technique. The same is true with dialect—a little goes a long way.

I used some Appalachian dialect in the memoir I wrote for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and those yet to be born. I wanted them to know they come from coal. I wanted them to feel the proud Appalachian DNA rushing through their veins. I wanted them to hear the twang of the voices and see the glory of the hills and hollers. And I wanted them to see it through my eyes as a child. Of course, that was not possible, so I did my imperfect best to write it down.

And sometimes I dropped the ‘g’.
Drema Hall Berkheimer was born in a coal camp in Penman, West Virginia, the child of a coalminer who was killed in the mines, a Rosie the Riveter mother, and devout Pentecostal grandparents. Her tales of growing up in the company of gypsies, moonshiners, snake handlers, hobos, and faith healers, are published in numerous online and print journals. Excerpts from her memoir, RUNNING ON RED DOG ROAD and Other Perils of an AppalachianChildhood, won first place Nonfiction and First Honorable Mention Nonfiction in the 2010 West Virginia Writers competition. She is a member of West Virginia Writers and The Writer’s Garret. She lives in uptown Dallas with her husband and a neurotic cat who takes after her. Her husband is mostly normal. Drema Hall Berkheimer’s Social Media links are:  published by Zondervan, a HarperCollins Company 

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