Dialect in Children’s Literature

Dialect in literature is a helpful tool that an author may use in order to make his or her characters well-rounded. By using a certain dialect for a character, the author is actually telling the reader more about that character’s background without directly stating anything. It is a subconscious detail that readers sometimes rarely notice if they are caught up in the book. The understanding of a particular dialect requires that the reader understand the stereotype behind that dialect. There is no set standard dialect and so “many writers often lapse into stereotypes based upon a mixture of personal experience and a conventional set of structures taken from other authors’ literary representations of dialect” (Wolfram 309). Many small children are yet unaware of these stereotypes and so dialect in their books is very uncommon. Creating dialect for characters in children’s books can get a little tricky because kids are still learning how to spell words and form grammatically correct sentences.

Most authors of young children’s books will not include dialect because it can get confusing. By the time a child is middle school age, they will have a better understanding of what the different dialects of a character indicate and the author may then choose to sprinkle the dialect throughout the text. The different kinds of dialect an author may choose to incorporate are eye dialect, lexicon (slang), pronunciation, grammar, or pragmatics (speech acts). Eye dialect is often used to make the speaker seem ignorant and “typically consists of a set of spelling changes that have nothing to do with the phonological differences of real dialects” (Wolfram 308). Even though the pronunciation is exactly the same, the word is misspelled and thus signals a lack of intelligence. Different types of slang used in a book may also indicate inferiority on the part of the speaker, the speaker’s age, or the particular geographic location in which they live. The same reasoning applies to pronunciation, grammar, and pragmatics. These features of dialect can all be employed to alert the reader to the speaker’s social status or regional location.

When searching for books to use, I first scanned the titles for a clue that the book dealt with characters that lived in different regions. That way, I would be sure to find varying patterns of dialect throughout the book that could be easily compared. I thumbed through the books scanning the dialogue for changes in spelling or vocabulary words that seemed unfamiliar. If it seemed there were numerous examples throughout the book, then I chose to use it. By coincidence, I chose three books that were all about children who were running away from home or had to be moved out of their homes. This worked out well because it allowed me to compare the different dialects in each of the places they lived. Two of the books I chose were set in England and had British authors. Since they were all books about troubled children in broken homes, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on how the children’s dialect compares based on their social classes. Each book had characters that were of a higher social standing and characters that were of low social standing. The differences in the vocabulary and dialect of educated versus uneducated was astounding and was obviously intentionally done by the authors. There were also lexicon differences in the books written by the British authors as compared to the book I had from the American author. Although some of that vocabulary may be standard in British dialect, it is noticeably different to an American ear.

The first book I chose is Flood by James Heneghan. Heneghan grew up in Liverpool, England. The story takes place in Halifax which is in Nova Scotia, Canada. It is about a boy who is searching for his real father and trying to escape the clutches of his mean aunt. He encounters different dialects in the “good part of town” with his aunt and the “bad part of town” with his father. The first thing I noticed was the frequency of eye dialect when Andy, the main character, walks into a shabby restaurant. The woman behind the counter says “Help yerself” and one of the men Andy meets there says “Gimme wan” when he wants a cigarette (Heneghan 27). In these examples, Heneghan is trying to portray the people in this run-down restaurant to be uneducated. By simply altering the spelling of a few words, the reader automatically forms an impression of this place. There is also a plethora of regional expressions throughout the book like “wee lad” (32), “Aye!” (56), “dreadful wet” (99), “will ye hush?” (104), “shall” (148), and “it’s a grand day” (176). There is also a speech by Andy’s father that is filled with phrases from old English expressions: “Ah! It was at the ceilidh dancing I met your mother, God save her. Those were the days, when we’d dance the whole night long. Judith the great little dancer, so she was. She’d lepp all night if she was let” (52).

The next book I chose is Lottery Rose by Irene Hunt. It is about an abused little boy who escapes from his mother and her boyfriend and goes to a home where he is safe and protected. Georgie, the main character, is uneducated when he arrives at the safe home, but is enthusiastic about learning and going to school. The vocabulary and grammar that Hunt creates for Georgie is poor and this signals to the reader that he has an underprivileged background. But she does not use eye dialect to make Georgie seem ignorant. This says that Hunt doesn’t want us to see Georgie as stupid, only that he hasn’t been given a chance yet to learn. Georgie’s dialect follows a grammatically poor structure with a bit of slang that can be found in the sentence, “Bein’ proud of a child they know is a-goin’ to shine in the world and havin’ folks say, ‘That there fine young fellow’s your boy, ain’t he?” (134) Georgie’s mother often beats Georgie and Hunt wants to portray her as ignorant and uneducated as well by giving her a rough, low-class dialect. She says to Georgie, “My old man flogged me when I was a kid your age. Plenty of times I got beat up ’til I was raw. You ain’t the only one that’s had leather laid on youâÂ?¦He just naturally starts to think about givin’ a screamin’ kid a good lickin'” (Hunt 22). The lowly janitor is seen as uneducated too when he says “Them two ought to be held li’ble for the damage they done around here tonight-half-killin’ the kid and breakin’ up ever’thing in the place” (35). In this dialogue, li’ble and ever’thing are examples of eye dialect used to show the social status of the janitor. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the nun that later cares for Georgie has grammatically correct English and uses a more extensive vocabulary. She says “I am well acquainted with the way and words of little boys from city streets, Mrs. Sims. I don’t go into shock easily” (44-45).

The third book I chose is Heaven Eyes by David Almond. Almond is also an author from northeast England. This book is about two girls who run away to a place called Black Middens and find a girl named Heaven Eyes. Most of the nonstandard dialect in this book is from the strange girl, Heaven Eyes, that they run into. The two girls who are on the run have a standard dialect. Although the girls do show their geographic location in their dialogue when they use words like “aye!” to say ‘yes’ and “eh?” at the end of sentences (Almond 13). Heaven Eyes is given poor grammar with some eye dialect because it is assumed that English is not her first language. She comes from a magical place and seems to be trying to acquaint herself with these new people around her. She says “Grampa. Mebbe true these is my treasures come at last” (55) and “They cum from Gaybrils. They ar hapy hapy.” (74) She even uses the wrong words in certain places that would alert us that she isn’t completely familiar with the English language: “You does eye what gentleness he has? You does eye how he is kind?” (113) Here Heaven Eyes is trying to say “do you see?” but instead she says “eye” in place of see.

It is very beneficial for me as a reader to understand how dialect is used in all types of literature. I will be able to better understand the characters and how the author wishes to portray them. When teaching the literature to younger children, I will be able to point out these subtle differences that may seem confusing or misplaced to young minds. Due to the fact that they are still learning about language makes heavy usage of dialect difficult to deal with. Studying dialect in literature “should prove helpful to students as they work to develop the language skills required as a part of the educational process, including the use of the standard variety” (Wolfram 312). Some teachers may worry that acknowledging the different dialects in literature will make children unaware of the correct forms of grammar, spelling, etc. But “if anything, it enhances the learning of the standard variety through the heightened sensitivity to language variation” (312).

Works Cited
Almond, David. Heaven Eyes. Delacorte Press: New York, 2000.
Heneghan, James. Flood. Frances Foster Books: New York, 2002.
Hunt, Irene. Lottery Rose. Berkley Books: New York, 1976.
Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English. Malden, MA:
Blackwell, 1998.

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