Take a Lesson from Uncle Remus

Not just everyone grew up with Uncle Remus, but he was a frequent bedtime favorite in my family. My dad was born in Oklahoma into a family that hailed from further South only a generation or two earlier, and he read Uncle Remus with gusto. But my sister got the Uncle Remus book when we were grown, and I’d quite forgotten good old Br’er Rabbit until a friend used the Tar Baby as a metaphor.

Wanting to read the story again, I headed to Google, and sure enough. Uncle Remus is on the web. “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story" is found on a website sponsored by the University of Virginia. As I reread about Br’er Rabbit's encounter with the Tar Baby, I could just hear my daddy readin’ along, drawlin’ and havin’ the bess ole time. He didn’t always talk that way, but he sure could when he read Uncle Remus stories.

This story reminded me that people from other countries or ethic backgrounds, or Americans who have lived or traveled abroad, often wonder how to handle dialect in their writing. “It just doesn’t sound like Grandpa if I don’t include some of his funny sayings, and even spell words to sound like he said them. So how should I handle that?” Grandpa, Mama, or even you may have come from the old country and use a lot of foreign colloquialisms.

Let’s take a look at a couple of lines from Tar Baby and see what to make of it:

One day atter Brer Rabbit fool 'im wid dat calamus root, Br’er Fox went ter wuk en got 'im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w'at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot 'er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be.

Would that sentence have the same impact if it read,

Mister Fox mixed some tar with turpentine and used it to coat a contraption he called a Tar-Baby. He set the Tar-Baby in the road, and hid in the bushes awaiting further developments.”?

Of course not! You see the main challenge though. It’s a little hard to read the original as Joel Harris wrote it, but most people can rise to the occasion and feel the richer for the experience. In your case, your dialect scenes will probably not be a major part of your book, and you may want to dilute it a little. The other aspect of dialect you may need to know is the use of foreign words. It’s fine to sprinkle in a few. Put the original in italics, and follow it with the English translation the first time you use it unless it’s a word like pizza that’s in such common usage it needs no translation. For example, “ ‘Te amo, I love you,’ he crooned softly.”

Write now: a story featuring a relative or friend with unusual dialect. Use plenty of dialogue and work in some colorful words and phrases, adapting spelling to convey the flavor of their speech.


ybonesy said...

Ah, these old books. I like how you turned this into a Write now topic. I can think of several relatives, including my grandfather, who had certain accents or ways of saying things. It's quite the exercise to capture that.

Sharon Lippincott said...

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who remembers them. :-)