Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dialect and Dialog, and oh, Cave People, too.

Mark Twain was a remarkable writer, no pun intended, but very few authors can pull off the feat of dialect in dialog, and ever fewer ought to try. Asimov, in his most excellent and award winning “Foundation” series, had to find a way to present dialog in a group of people who rarely spoke at all, and where the slightest gesture carrying much meaning. Asimov was a master wordsmith and deftly carried the day by simply telling his readers the story involved a group of people who rarely spoke and where even simple gestures carry much meaning, but he would treat all of this as plainly spoken conversation. The results are a stunning masterpiece of understanding between the writer and the reader, with the reader taking up some of the imagination and invention of the author. Asimov, freed from the nuance of nonverbal communication weaves the tale expertly, and gains much more than he would have trying to describe the scene as conceived. Twain does this in “Huckleberry Finn” by allowing Finn to narrate a lot of tale without an overabundance of dialect, yet he does stick close to the colloquial. The two writers wrote in settings hundreds of years apart, with Twain sticking to the very roots of his own existence, and Asimov flinging his craft far into the future. Both manage to create very different worlds, yet with strikingly similar high degrees of success. Before you pick up the idea of writing about human beings, or even some other creatures who speak less than plainly, I suggest you pick up a copy of Twain’s work, or Asimov’s.

Another great use without abuse of dialect can be found in Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Ring” series. The creature Gollum always speaks in dialect but the Wizard Gandalf relates most of Gollum’s back-story through a narrative explaining how Gollum first came to possess the One Ring. Tolkien’s parsimony in using Gollum as a speaker isn’t constrictive, but it eases much of the creature’s story out of the way, to make room for more easily read speech. Indeed, in a such a massive tome with some many different races and characters, all of the Elves, humans, Dwarves, Ents, and other creatures invented to populate Middle Earth, nearly all speak plainly. Gollum is one of the very few characters, out of hundreds, who speaks in dialect. It is not a shortcoming of imagination on Tolkien’s part, assuredly.
As an aside that isn’t totally off the subject, it’s been my experience writers use speakers of dialect as agents of contrast. Huck Finn and his friend Jim run into plenty of folk who speak dialect, but it is in the characters who speak differently where the real story lies. Likewise in the case of the creature Gollum who cannot be compared in speech to Elrond or even Boromir. Most authors use dialect to denote a certain lack of education, or perhaps even intelligence. This is an observation lost on far too many of my Southern brethren.
This entire thing started out when I decided to write a short work of fiction based on there being an original Firesmith. This would be the first person in history to be able to build a fire at will. Of course, this would take place many thousands of years ago, and human language would not be as it is today. So what if I wrote this story but instead of trying to figure out how my combustible ancestor and his kin spoke to one another, why not just write it as if there were using modern day English?

It’s hard to imagine, us being so advanced, and those people living in caves being so primitive, but who is to say we are who we think we are, and they are who we presuppose they are? Strip away the toy and the plastic money and we are still a people afraid of the dark, who live in communities, and who love their children. Would not a man worried about the welfare of his family fifty thousand years ago be so different from the person living next door to you right now?

The first person, man or woman, who could by any method, be able to bring forth flame at will or at least under the right conditions would be invaluable. What would the other tribes think when there was one group who was able to control fire? Would the group with the fire share, or would they be attacked, or is this all terribly wrong and completely how it was not played out?

However it went, if firesmithing was brought forth by one person, or if it gradually evolved as we as a race became more intelligent, we will likely never know but as writers we have some sort of commission to rewrite history, fictionally and openly so, just to make other people wonder how in the hell did certain thing happen.

It’s going to take a while to hammer out, but I was wondering if anyone had any ideas as far as names. I know Jean Auel did something similar to this in “Clan of the Cave bear” but I was going to hit just one human invention, and do so in a short story. I could use modern names, and I wonder how that might affect the story. I could use American Native names, and I wonder if that would drag the readers too far into the future. I could use Russian names, and that would be too distracting, but you have to admit it has never been done before.

I’m open to suggestion here. How do you think it happened? Do you think there was one person in our past who tamed the ability to make fire, and from that point taught others? Or do you think it was something that was going to happen, because we human are an observant lot, and nature would have eventually taught different groups the same lessons?

It’s it grand how my mind just wanders all over the damn place?

Take Care,
Mike

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