The Art of Dialects (1)

I type these words from my favorite leather chair in my favorite mystery cigar store. For the “Mystery Photo” in the Mar/Apr ’09 issue of Script Mag, I snapped a pic of this very chair with a piece of paper (handwritten by me) that says, “MM SITS HERE.”


All the boys are here, too. They’re watching football. I probably shouldn’t say which game. They scream a lot and jump around like monkeys. I know nothing about sports. I do enjoy the cheerleaders, though. Someone usually elbows me when they come on TV.

I come here not only for the great smokes (San Cristobals today) and the free cognac (Hennessy), which someone always brings every weekend, but also to observe some rather crazy real-life characters. I will happily use them in any story I see fit and never tell them.

If I’m lucky, I might hear good dialogue. You see, this is a tough crowd. You gotta keep your wits about you to survive, especially if a “hot chick” is present because every guy will try to outwit each other to prove, I guess, (pardon the expression) who has the bigger dick.

We boys are so dumb, aren’t we?
(Paintings by Todd White.)

Anyway, no one is safe. There have been some good zingers today. One man tried to give another man grief for drinking a Corona without a lemon. “Hey, if you’re having this just for the lemon, go drink lemonade.” I like this line, but I believe they usually put lime in Coronas, don’t they? I didn’t have the heart to point this out.

A short yet well-built New Yorker (who is quite the player and has a new “hot chick” sitting next to him) was giving grief to a New Englander about his sweater vest because it had noticeable lumps on the shoulders from being on a hanger. “What do you do? Hang that thing in the bathroom closet?” This went on until the New Englander said, “Shouldn’t you be in the North Pole making toys for Santa? Hey, my kid wants a fire truck. While you’re at it, carve your initials on the back, will ya? Initial ‘LF.’ Little Fuck.”

Hehehe… This I have mentally noted.

Of course, I have not gone unscathed. That I’m sitting here writing on my laptop while ignoring a big football game has been ripe for jokes. New Yorker said, “What are you doing? Looking at gay porn?”

I told him I’m okay with gay porn, especially if there are lesbians.

A few jokes and he said, “Yeah? I’m the one sitting here with a chick.”

I said, “So is she.”

Set and match. Now he won’t bother me for about half an hour. I actually love Mr. New Yorker. He’s hilarious. By the end of the night we will hug, as we always do (and truly mean it) despite all the insults, and talk about how we can’t wait to do it again.

We boys are so dumb, aren’t we?

Listening to these guys from different parts of the country throw zingers at each other brings to mind the subject of dialects. I’m a purist. If a character’s from the south, he/she should talk like a southerner. But I wouldn’t write-out pronunciations like, for example, the jailhouse locutions in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full: “Look, bruvva… I ain’t tryin’ a disrespectchoo… I ain’t tryin’ a sweatchoo, an I ain’t tryin’ a play you. So whatchoo doggin’ me for?”

The key, I believe, is to keep the dialect very light. Of course, many in the industry would disagree, I know, as most prefer generic lines regardless of location so that the widest possible audience can understand the dialogue. Bleh. I’ve heard it said, “Just write the line and let the actors add the dialect.” I’m sorry, but that’s just a ridiculously ignorant thing to say. People do not speak the same sentences with different accents. The actual construction of those sentences in dialogue varies greatly according to the region.

People do not speak the same sentences
with different accents.

For example, in the south, they wouldn’t say, “Nobody went,” which is a proper sentence. Instead, they might say, “Didn’t nobody go.” Instead of “I only have thirty cents,” they might say, “Ain’t got but thirty cents.” Instead of “That was very nice of you,” they’d say, “That was right nice of you.” Same goes for something pretty: “That’s right pretty, isn’t it?” Instead of “It’s a very big fish,” they might say, “It’s a powerful big fish.” “She cooked a lot of bread” might be spoken as, “She cooked a mess of bread.” Or instead of “I might be able to help you,” they’d say, “I might could help you.”

Of course, in Louisiana, it’s different still. I love how some sentences end with the name of the person they’re talking about. Like, for example, instead of saying, “My uncle always smokes,” they’d say, “He all the time smokes, my uncle.” Of course, how well they speak, depends upon education level, but even educated people like to hang on to flavors of dialect that distinguishes them from others.

How about foreigners? I remember writing in one of my first script reviews on TriggerStreet about the Irish dialect found in a story about Charles Stewart Parnell, which I really enjoyed:

I think one is first drawn into this story by John Browner’s wonderful rendition of the Irish dialect, not to mention the speech and mannerisms characteristic of the late 1800’s, no small feat that. You almost can hear the infectious Irish lilt in Parnell’s voice.

There is peppered throughout this spec the famously characteristic and highly-colored Irish hyperbole, the flowery exaggerations – “It is a good sign that this masquerading knight-errant, this pretended champion of the liberties of every other nation except those of the Irish nation, should be obliged to throw off the mask today…”

And there is also a taste of some vivid simile filled with a soulfulness that would typify a sentimental Irishman – “The National Land League is fraying apart like an old blanket.” Aye, lad, it’d scald the heart out of ye.

“I will most definitely and with great pleasure
accede to your wishes.”

I also loved the etiquette. “And to what, Mrs. O’Shea, do I owe the honor and pleasure of your summons?” “I was hoping, sir, that you might be persuaded to join my husband and me at a small dinner at Thomas’s Hotel in two nights time…” “I will most definitely and with great pleasure accede to your wishes.” At a time when our loved one would say to us, “Don’t be such an ass,” Katie would ever so politely say to Parnell, “Pray be not petulant, Sire.”

How about Italians trying to speak English? Consider the monolog below. I love the hell out of this monolog. To set it up, a young Italian immigrant nervously paces the floor in a hospital waiting room. He looks at the clock. He looks at his nails. He looks at the nurse. And the man finally gathers up enough courage to speak to her:

My wife, she make the bambino and the doc, he tell me to wait right here. Is all right with you? I no can sit still. Oh! I no afraid, oh, no! Is just I kind of nervous, that’s all. Is not I think anything she happen to my Rosa. She so strong like the horse. She no got no operation – she no sick all her life – you bet my life, no! Say! What’s the most kids born? The boy or the girl? I want the boy. You bet my life! Rosa, she want the girl. Son of a gun! What is she be twin? When is more is all right, too. Oh! Excuse me! Please no mind! Is because this is my first one. Is make me excite. Say! Is lots… what I mean… sometime, something happen… they… they die, no? Sometime… no! My Rosa, she no die! Is no good she die! I go in, nurse! We so happy all the time! Whyfor we want the bambino? Let me go in, nurse! That’s all right! I go in! Help my Rosa! Whyfor she must got all that hurt? She very fine woman! I no let her die! You got to let me in to her, nurse! She hurt! She want me! She need me! …eh! What’s that? You hear that? Is bambino crying! Son-of-a-gun! Is my bambino! Is my kid! Some yell, no? What he is, nurse? Boy or girl? I think is boy! What the difference? Is girl, so we get the boy next time! Oh boy! I’m papa! Here, nurse, have a cigar!


And you know he doesn’t say “cigar,” he says, “sEEgahruh!” But you see, one doesn’t write-out how it’s pronounced. One simply writes “cigar.” Some might object to the above dialect – I love it.

– Mystery Man

(continued next week)

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.

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