Regional dialects and vernaculars in fiction and television?
September 8, 2014 4:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious as to how writers of fiction or television (specifically writers who are not from the depicted region or culture or economic class themselves) of shows like The Wire or Deadwood or The Sopranos, are able to write a wide range of dialects, vernaculars and idioms so successfully.*

I assume the writers did not grow up in the projects themselves, or live in frontier settlements in the 1870s, yet their character's voices seem very authentic. Do the writers employee consultants, or use resources to "translate" (something like a handbook of AAVE) or do they just have that good an ear and recall for the spoken word? Or have they immersed themselves in it to the extent that they are capable of replicating it?

* I suppose I'm wondering about television more so than fiction. I know Simon was from Baltimore, and I'm putting aside the profanity anachronism of Deadwood.
posted by Mrs. Buck Turgidson to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Dialect consultants. I know that James Gandalfini worked with one, and I'm sure the scripts were calibrated to account for those regionalisms.

Some actors bring their regional dialects with them. Michael Keaton used "jag off" in Gung Ho, and we Pittsburghers all perked up. That is distinctly Pittsburgh in nature.

People with a good ear for dialect and idiom often impart that to characters.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:47 PM on September 8, 2014

I would call "successfully" into question.

I basically cannot ever watch True Blood, thanks to Charlaine Harris and the show's various writers/directors/etc. completely massacring absolutely every single detail about life in Louisiana, down to the accents.

Also, oy vey, the British and Irish accents in Buffy and Angel were probably considered war crimes. Despite the fact that Joss Whedon has a great sense of "voice" for writing his characters.

But, sure, if you assume it's possible to do this well -- and I'm sure there are movies and TV series that get it right -- here's how it usually works:

1. The writing. Some writers have a really strong sense of voice and dialect for their characters. For example the film True Grit. Those old west accents are written into the script, but not in hackneyed "Ah tole 'im yoo wer a injun" dialect. It's all done with word choice. How would a character from this place and time phrase this particular line? Brilliant. Other writers have less of a gift for this and tend to leave it up to the actors and director to nudge the dialogue into the right regionalisms.

There usually will not be a script "doctor" for dialect, though a writer might get notes about this from the studio or director in terms of how the dialect as written works in general. Also, if there's a team of writers (as in TV) or multiple writers doing passes on a feature script, it could be that either one of the writers is from the region in question, or just happens to have a gift for writing dialect. But typically other writers aren't brought in for the purpose of punching up the dialect.

2. The performance. Yes, it's absolutely routine to hire a dialect coach. Some actors are better at accents than others, and in my opinion some actors' native accents lend themselves to particular accents. For instance the long tradition of British actors playing US southerners. I also feel like a lot of Australians do American accents passably well. There will also be an element of direction, here, as the director advises the actor exactly how thick their accent should be.

3. In terms of things like Shakespeare, Deadwood, and other projects that take place in times or places that no longer actually exist, a lot depends on what the audience will expect to hear. Nobody in Elizabethan England ever sounded like Patrick Stewart, but audiences would bug out if the actors sounded like they were from Appalachia or New Delhi or the Bronx. The same goes for Westerns -- we have a strong idea of what people in The Old West talked like, whether that has any basis in reality or not. If you decide to write a Western where the leads are from Glasgow and Newfoundland, you're going to have to come up with a really strong sense of how everyone is going to talk, and why.
posted by Sara C. at 5:12 PM on September 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is a wonderful article by and about George Pelecanos, one of the chief writers of The Wire, where he talks about his life experiences:

Once upon a life: George Pelecanos

In 1976, George Pelecanos, writer of The Wire, was an 18-year-old tearaway and a disappointment to his father. That summer, he was forced to take over running the family diner – and life changed forever

posted by invisible ink at 5:57 PM on September 8, 2014

David Simon collected dialogue using, basically, ethnographic methods for The Wire, which he wrote with Ed Burns (whose ear was tuned in his previous career as a police detective).

From the first link:

So yes, for the drug dealers and the cops, I spent years gathering string on who they are, how they think and talk. When we needed to add politicians, well, I covered some politics so I had the general tone, but we added Bill Zorzi, the Baltimore Sun’s best political reporter, to the writing staff. When it came to longshoremen, we added Rafael Alvarez, a former reporter and short-story writer who had quit to join the seamen’s union and whose family was three generations in the maritime industry. And the rest of us, myself included, spent weeks getting to know longshoremen and the operations of the port and the port unions, just hanging around the shipping terminals for days on end, so as to credibly achieve those voices. Again, what I wanted was that longshoremen across America would watch The Wire and say, Cool, they know my world. I’ve never seen my world depicted on TV, and these guys got it. And I feared that one of them would stand up and say: No, that’s complete bullshit. So that never changes for me.

He also spent a full year with cops to write Homicide: A Life on the Killing Streets, a lot of which made it into The Wire.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:36 PM on September 8, 2014

I agree with Sara C, absolutely NOBODY gets Louisiana right. The accent isn't a southern drawl, it's sort of a cross between Texas and Brooklyn, and it's incredibly distinctive and I defy anyone who isn't from there to duplicate it. Even the lady on the Zataran's commercial murders it.

English actors can do a standard North American accent okay. You'll hear some wrong twangs and a flat A every now and then, but it could pass. American's typically miss the subtlety of the different English accents, and what they come up with it is pretty messy.

The fake southern accent really flips me out. It may interest you to know that North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia accents are VASTLY different and have completely different syntax and idiom.

Now my cat wants petting, so I'm going to redd up the room for bed.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:14 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do the writers employee consultants, or use resources to "translate" (something like a handbook of AAVE) or do they just have that good an ear and recall for the spoken word?

Building off of Sara C.'s answer, here's an exercise for you: Since you know what AAVE is, I assume you know what the proper use of the invariant form of "be" is (hint: It's not the same as "is/are/am". "Johnny (is) running" != "Johnny be running".) Take a listen the next time you watch a show with a black character; odds are, it'll just be somebody substituting in "be" for "is/are/am".

Situations like this do apparently happen, but, sadly, are rare. See this Language Log post on Downton Abbey, for example.
posted by damayanti at 7:22 PM on September 8, 2014

Also, to be a bit less pessimistic:

There are also resources like The International Dialects of English Archives; however, how widely used by actors they are, I have no idea.
posted by damayanti at 7:25 PM on September 8, 2014

Issues that arise in period projects like Downton Abbey and Mad Men are a whole other kettle of fish. One could make a rough venn diagram between language appropriate to the period and language that best gets ideas across for the audience, with a rough gradient of "maybe probably OK" somewhere in the middle that probably still wouldn't pass muster as actual period speech.
posted by Sara C. at 8:14 PM on September 8, 2014

I don't recall how large of a roll it played, but Milch discussed studying Mencken's The American Language: A Preliminary Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States to aid the formulation of Deadwood dialog.
posted by mr. digits at 7:31 AM on September 9, 2014

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