before about the danger of writing street slang: you don’t want to sound racist or judgmental, but you know that you can’t use the Queen’s English and sound authentic. In that earlier post, I talked about the importance of giving each character within the setting a unique voice, which is essential, but this time let’s talk about the dialogue itself, and how to include cultural signifiers that don’t sound insulting.
If you’re white and writing black street slang, the danger is that you’re going to be tempted to write something like “I ain’t goin’ to no jail, you got dat?” That sounds awful, of course, and one reason is that it’s based on how it would sound to you, and not on how the speaker would choose to say that.
Instead, on “The Wire”, we get, “I don’t plan on knowing shit about jail, you feel me?” This is the difference between dialect and syntax. In the “Wire” version, other than the expletive, it’s normal English, except with a different syntax. There’s no need to drop the “g” in “knowing”, because the unique syntax makes it inevitable that the line will be read in a certain way.
To go with another example from that series, a white writer’s first instinct might be to write, “Dat’s true”, but that sounds inauthentic, and reads as if the writer is judging the speaker. “True that,” conveys the same cultural connotation in a way that more authentic, sounds more respectful, and has more personality.
You don’t want to say, “Hey this character wouldn’t use the my kind of English, so I’ll have them use my kind of English poorly, with abbreviations, mispronunciations and grammatical errors.” Subcultures don’t try to use your syntax and fail, they develop parallel systems of syntax and they obey those rules as much as Oxford dons obey theirs.
With working class British dialogue, in a situation where we would say “That’s right,” the first instinct of an American writer is to have a British character say “’at’s right!”, because that’s how it would sound to us if they tried to say it the same way. But you need not resort to dialect if you focus on their syntax: If you want it to “sound British” on the page, then have the Brit say “Too right” instead. You don’t need to indicate a British pronunciation, because you’re using an inherently British phrase.
Let’s look at the southern/western dialogue used by Charles Portis for his novel “True Grit”, (dialogue that the Coen brothers transcribed wholesale for their adaptation) Far too many Westerns would include a clichéd line like “He wuz a lyin’ sack a’trash!” but Portis uses the far more authentic-sounding and delightful, “There is trash for you.” Too many writer associate “southern” or “western” with a lazy drawl, but Portis knew how to capture the unique syntax respectfully, without casting aspersions on the character of the speakers.