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Dialect in Literature: Definition, Examples, and Writing Tips

dialect in literature

Creating strong voices in characters begins with the way we use language. We can, without even knowing it, reveal beliefs, culture, identity, and experience. The words we say and how we say them can also show variations of regional dialect and accent. Writers showing characters from specific time periods and/ or regions should understand not only the difference between the two, but also the reason for using them.

What Is Dialect in Literatue?

A dialect is a regional expression of specific vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and spelling.

An accent is the way words are pronounced, characteristic of a region or country.

When to Use Accent and Dialect in a Story

Writers wanting to show a character’s voice can begin by considering how that voice sounds.

A writer might begin showing regional dialect as part of a character voice. However, this choice comes with a responsibility to further question the purpose for showing dialect.

Historically, dialects have shown not only a regional cultural background, but have also perpetuated stereotypes. When creating character voice, a writer should establish a strong reason for using them.

regional dialect

Dialect in Literature Questions

  • Is showing regional dialect important to understanding the character and their cultural identity?
  • Is this cultural identity of the character crucial to the story?
  • Is the language being used revealing an individual and avoiding the perpetuation of stereotypes?
  • Are there other identifiers of region and culture besides dialect being used to develop character?

How to Write Dialect in Literature

If a writer determines the dialect is essential to representing character and is an integral part of the story, the next step is to make conscious decisions for how to show dialect for a character.

Using a purposeful phonetic spelling of a word to represent dialect is called an “eye-dialect”.

Writers choosing to use an eye-dialect should make minimal adjustments to the spelling of the words. These minimal choices will allow the reader to differentiate between characters and avoid the distraction and potential harm of overusing dialect.

For example, a writer might replace th or wh sounds with v and z sounds for representing a character with a German or Slavic accent. “Vat is zis story about, my friend?” Words might also be spelled in a way to show the reader the drawl of a character from the American South, such as frum (from), gurl (girl), cuz (because).

Writers should also consider limiting the use of a single word to convey an accent. For example the word “y’all” could be easily relied on to convey a Southern American accent, and thus would be enough to convey regional dialect. By limiting this word, and choosing other varieties of colloquial phrasings and spellings, the writer will paint a more developed portrait of the character’s language and personality.

The important distinction to be made with these spellings is to keep the choice minimal and remember the purpose to reveal character through dialect. This considered approach is particularly important for writers who choose to create characters from cultures other than their own, showing context of dialect and depth in the character through their language.

regional dialect

Dialect Examples in Literature

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“What are ye for?” he shouted. ‘T’ Maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith if ye went to spake to him.
“Is there nobody inside to open the door?” I hallowed, responsively.
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis, and shoo’ll not open ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysone dins till neeght.’
—Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

In the above quote, Bronte shows the contrast between Joseph, the servant at Wuthering Heights and Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange. Joseph’s dialect shows the short sharp nature of his personality, while also revealing the station of his position in comparison to Lockwood.

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

“O.K. – O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time telling’ you things and then you forget ‘em and I tell you again.”
—John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

In the above quote, the reader is introduced to the relationship between George and Lennie.

George’s language reveals not only the responsibility he feels for taking care of Lennie, but also the time-period of the 1930’s depression when work and survival dominated the lives these men.

Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

“You can hold the reins, if Jamie canna manage one-handed, but do ye take care to keep close wi’ the rest of us. Should ye try anythin’ else, I shall cut your throat. D’ye understand me?”
I nodded, throat too dry to answer. His voice was not particularly threatening, but I believed every word. I was the less tempted to “try anythin’”, in that I had no idea what to try.
—Diana Gabaldon, Outlander

In this quote, we get a sense of the Scottish accent from Dougal’s warning to Claire, the contemporary English narrator. We are aware of the cultural differences of their time-periods and regions by the way she notices his regional dialect here and the formation of language in her own thoughts.

The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

“’There’s a school of thought,’ I said, ‘that parents should encourage instead. You know, people rise to other people’s expectations. And when you criticize, it just means you’re expecting failure.’
‘That’s the trouble,’ my mother said. ‘You never rise. Lazy to get up. Lazy to rise to expectations.’”
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

Tan reveals the difference of generations between the narrator, Jing-mei, “June” and her mother, Suyuan Woo in an interesting way, here.

While there are no changes to the spellings of the words Suyuan speaks, the dialect of her English, with Chinese as her first language, is clear from the short sharp sentences and the arrangement of syntax in the second two sentences of her quote.

regional dialect

Throughout the story, June assumes a misunderstanding of language and culture with her mother, because she was raised as an American-Chinese woman. However, she comes to find that her mother’s Chinese and use of English revealed a deeper connection to her daughter that June could only appreciate after her mother’s death. 

Steps a Writer Should Take When Writing Dialect in a Story

As characters reveal themselves in a story, a writer might hear a specific dialect they know to be important to understanding the character.

In these initial stages, a writer should also ask the question, “What do I want my character’s language to reveal about them?” The answer to this question can guide a writer to use dialect in a way that shows voice in sound, but more importantly in depth for a character.


Language allows us to express ourselves as unique individuals. Writers can give their characters that same unique individuality and depth by showing voice through regional dialect.


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