Looking at the photos from my alma mater’s Final Exercises (and trying to forget that my 20-year reunion is next year), I am reminded of something my high school English teacher once told me.
After I’d read Jane Eyre – still one of my favorite books – I tried to take up Wuthering Heights. Before long (indeed, before the end of the second chapter), I grew disenchanted with Heathcliff. When my teacher asked what I thought of the story, I told her I couldn’t figure out what Cathy saw in Heathcliff.
“Wait until you’re a few years older,” she said. “You may find you’ve forgiven Heathcliff.”
I was intrigued. What on earth did she mean by that? I tucked my copy of Wuthering Heights away and resolved to try it again when I was “a few years older.” I couldn’t wait to find out whatever my English teacher seemed to know about me, Heathcliff, and our potential relationship together.
It’s been a lot more than a few years. That same copy of Wuthering Heights is on my work table as I write this. I am a totally different person now than I was in high school, of course. I’m not sure how Heathcliff and I would get along, though, because someone is in our way.
It’s Joseph. Joseph is the problem.
See, I started to read Wuthering Heights maybe a dozen times over the years, eager to find out what secret I now knew that would make Heathcliff palatable. I’d get settled into the story quickly. There’s Cathy again, going to see Heathcliff. She knocks on the door, and then she becomes frustrated and shakes the latch. It’s begun to snow, and she really wants to get inside. At this point, Joseph appears at the window of the barn and yells:
“Whet are ye for? T’ maister’s dahn i’ t’fowld. Goa rahnd by th’ end ut’ laith, if yah went to spake tull him.”
Joseph went on:
“They’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll nut open ‘t an ye mak yer flaysome dins till neeght.”
I believe I got past Joseph the first time I tried to read the book. Today, Joseph is winning. All that dialect has gotten the better of me.
I’ve never been a huge fan of dialect in my reading. I think it’s a way to tell without showing. I think it’s better to demonstrate to the reader in some other way that the speaker is either unintelligible to those around him or that some masterful code-switcher understands him perfectly. In either case, the reader isn’t left scratching her head, reading out loud, or both. Here are a couple of alternatives.
- Allude to the dialect. You can always describe the way that person speaks instead of confronting us with the speech itself. Most of us have an idea of what an island lilt sounds like. We have a sense for how Russian-accented English pushes words up to the front of a person’s mouth. We know Teutonic sibilance. We get it.
- Allude to the difficulty. Have your listening character run through something in her head if she’s confused. If she understands beautifully, refer to how she feels about the sound of the language. Use the accent as a way to get to all the characters, not just the speaker.
- A little dab’ll do ya. This month’s issue of Writer’s Digest addresses the thorny matter of dialect. In “Living the Language: Writing Authentic Dialect,” Tom Chiarella offers loads of great advice for writers struggling for balance in their use of dialect. Chiarella encourages the writer to reduce but not eliminate dialect. “All language has logic; all language has dignity,” he writes. “It’s words as much as sounds.” (Tom Chiarella, “Living the Language: Writing Authentic Dialect,” Writer’s Digest 93, no. 4 (2013): 54.)
It’s possible that one of the Kindle editions of Wuthering Heights has interlinear translations for Joseph. I’d be willing to pay for that, even though my copy has been on my keeper shelf for years and years. I really do want to forgive Heathcliff before either of us gets too much older.
**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.