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On Dialect – How Caribbean people supposed tuh talk in a story, eh?

In a previous post about how I met Olive Senior, I mentioned that I wanted to do a separate blog post on the Bocas Lit Fest session with Irvine Welsh, author of the very famous Scottish novel, Trainspotting. 


Irvine Welsh -Scottish author

Anyone who knows me knows I have a very soft spot for anything Scottish, as I consider it my second home. The Scots are very similar to us here in the Caribbean; they are friendly, love to laugh and love to drink – can’t get any better than that.

Irvine Welsh was refreshing. He reeked of confidence. He sat on the stage chewing the life out of a piece of gum, not caring about the hundred or so eyes staring at him. He gave honest answers to every question; even the rather rude one from a nosy audience member who asked about the contents of his personal bag. I mean, come on! (All sane Caribbean people covered their face in shame when Welsh actually answered “a shirt and a pair of sneakers”).

He should also give lessons in how to read fiction to an audience. It was one of the best readings I have witnessed. He captivated us with every word and antic, he did not apologise for any of the cuss words which occurred every sentence or so, and his language…was brilliantly Scottish.

Did he get a standing ovation? I can’t remember. But we in the audience were glad that he read another piece, despite it being a questionable excerpt requested by interviewer, B.C. Pires, on the slaying of a dog. And I thought my humour was dark!

My friend (and excellent writer) Desiree, had just bought Trainspotting, and I, still  completely mindblown and impressed with this man who had perfected balancing on the line between confidence and arrogance, asked for a quick peek of the novel. Here is a shot of the first page:



I want you to understand this is the novel “that became the cult sensations of Britain. Trainspotting is the novel that first launched Irvine Welsh’s spectacular career—an authentic, unrelenting, and strangely exhilarating episodic group portrait of blasted lives.”

My point – and I always get there – is how the ramgeorge people can love, read and accept the language in this book, and then complain and cry down bout lil Caribbean dialect in novels, saying nuhbody won’t be able to understand it?


Did you understand that?

That my friends, was Bajan dialect. It is still English, just not standard. It is still readable, and I bet when you read the line, you heard the musical rhythm that represents the voice of a Caribbean person.

Check out this line from a review: “American readers can use the glossary in the back to translate the slang and dialect–essential, since the dialogue makes the book.”

Wuh heyyyyyy… People can use a glossary??? Imagine that.

A friend of mine (Shelly) recently got into an argument with someone who insisted that West Indian novels should be in proper English.

She commented: “While language is intended to be dynamic and words and phrases fall into desuetude, our “creole” dialect with its fusion of languages is one of the few things that is truly unique to the Caribbean. Don’t we have a responsibility to preserve it?”

So, do we?

I think we do. If a Caribbean author doesn’t write Caribbean dialect, who else will? Will some foreign author try to import the dialect for a Caribbean character from China? In movies, we get upset at the accent of the token black person from the Caribbean (normally representing Jamaica), complaining about how fake it sounds. Does it then make sense, to make a Caribbean story/film, but then sound fake trying to suppress your natural accent so that “everyone may understand it”? Of course, hearing is different to reading but I need a whole other blog post on this “generic Caribbean accent”.

I will go as far to say it is our duty to preserve the language, BUT, if you do decide to write a story in Standard English, let it be YOUR personal preference, and not because you feel that persons outside of the island won’t understand the words or the terms, or “you want to appeal to a mass audience”.

In terms of appealing to a mass audience, I personally think that the mass audiences are tired of the same old stories, and are actually looking for anything that makes a story unique. Your use of Caribbean dialect could be your secret weapon.

Check these comments from Trainspotting readers:

“By the end of the novel I was quite used to the Scottish dialect, and I was rather attached to the characters. I did not want the story to end. Though it is graphic at times, and the dialect is a challenge at the start, I definitely urge everyone to read this harshly entertaining and highly engrossing novel.”

“In any event, don’t be intimidated by the dialect and slang, it’s great fun once you get into it.”

The mass audience has spoken.

This applies to every dialect out there, not just the Caribbean. Make no apology for your language, and nobody will expect one. It is only when you show an ounce of shame or apprehension, that someone will feel obliged to question you. 

After looking at the page in shock, I gathered up the courage to ask Welsh about his use of dialect in the novel, and whether any publisher asked him about changing it to Standard English.

He simply replied, “No, it wasn’t a problem.” He didn’t pause…he didn’t blink. He looked like he never even considered that his book with its use of Scottish language, set in Scotland, written by a Scottish author, would ever be inappropriate. Why would it?


Maybe it was a different time, and so publishers were more open-minded and accommodating. Maybe he was a confident, white male and so no one thought to question him. Maybe it is us Caribbean people not having an appreciation for our own, and consider our dialect to be inferior – I mean, people do call it “bastardising the English”. Who knows?

But I have struggled with how to write dialect in my stories and I refuse to struggle anymore. Other Caribbean authors have mastered writing dialect (Olive Senior and Samuel Selvon) and have proven that the writing can be respected internationally. Other international authors (Charles Dickens) write against the standard language and are praised. Check out this 2 min video of Oprah and expert, Jane Smiley, talking about the importance of dialect in Dickens’ work.

I’ve come up with my own little strategies for using dialect in my stories:

Use it in context

If you are wary of persons not understanding the meaning of a term, then make sure you use it in a context so that the meaning is understandable. Think about it – if you’re reading a book in standard English, and the author uses a big word that you’ve never heard before, normally you can decipher its meaning from the sentence. Why not do the same with dialect?

Example, “the parro was sitting on the street, begging the passersby for money” (parro = vagrant).

“She slipped on the oil-laced pavement, and fell catspraddled on the floor, her pink and gold underwear exposed for the world to see.” (catspraddled = sprawled)

Heck, you can even let another character explain the the meaning of the word:

Bob – “Linda, you too gypsy though.”

Linda – “I am not being gypsy, it is my duty to know everything that is going on in the neighbourhood.”

Compromise with spelling aka ‘bastardising’ the language

I attended a workshop were one facilitator was adamant that we should never “bastardise the English”, that is, spell the word how it is pronounced. She didn’t believe that we should use “tuh” for to, “yuh” for you, “de” for the, etc etc. She believed that if it sounded the same in Standard English, there was no need to change the spelling. Another facilitator was an advocate for writing dialect as it is spoken, because he believed that was the only way to make a true representation of the language, for example, “wunna” for you all, “wha” instead of what.

They both made good points.

I personally find it difficult to read full blocks of dialect, simply because there is no standard spelling, and we are taught to read in Standard English. I find it difficult to read newspaper columns written in full dialect like Cou-Cou and Flying Fish – it gives me a headache.

So, I made a compromise between the two. I rarely change the spelling of words that sound the same in Standard English, for example “de” for the, but then I also try to capture the rhythm of the language in how my sentences are structured. So a Barbadian person would read it and naturally hear the accent, and a foreigner would hopefully be able to hear that voice as well, but still be able to easily read the language.

Example, a sentence from my story, Getting Marry“When my parents tell me that they was going to get marry, join in holy matrimony and have their relationship bless before God, I was worried because I cudda swear that them was married every since.”

Be consistent – If you decide to use “tuh” for to, or “wunna” for you all, keep doing it throughout the story.

In my research, I found this excellent article written by author, Rob Young, entitled “Do or Dialect: 6 Tips for Building a Believable Voice. It is a must read.

How to write dialect will always be a controversial topic, but I for one am done making apologies.



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