Let’s Talk Regional

Hello, SeERs. Mae here today to talk about something I never tire of discussing—regional dialect.  I love books wherein an author paints their characters with distinctive speech patterns, colloquialisms, and accents. By the same token, a little goes a long way. I recall reading a novel set in Scotland where the constant use of brogue became such a distraction I couldn’t focus on the plot. It’s great to be authentic, but also important not to become so caught up in regional inflections and expressions that they bury the scene.

I’ve lived in south-central Pennsylvania my entire life. Surprisingly—unbeknownst to me—people from my region have an accent. Who knew? Apparently, the well-travelled can recognize a south-central Pennsylvania accent along with many of our favorite colloquialisms.

Casual setting in pub/coffee bar, people chatting in foreground

As an example . . .

We’re famous for tagging “a while” on expressions.

I’m going to ride my bike, awhile.
I’ll feed the cat, awhile.
I’m going to start the car, awhile.

Another word we like is “yet.”

Are you done, yet?
Is she ready to go, yet?

But least you think we’re all about adding words  to our phrases, we’re also famous for omitting them.

My shirt needs ironed.
The car needs washed.
The lawn needs mowed.

In our thriftiness, we have completely eliminated the need for “to be” (i.e., My shirt needs to be ironed. The car needs to be washed.)

Then there is the Dutch influence in our vocabulary:

You need to red up your room.
Translation: You need to clean your room.

He’s out ramming around.
Translation: He’s running around.

A few other gems:

If I’m “sweeping the floor,” I’m not using a broom—I’m vacuuming. And then there are the everyday items. We drink sodas (not pop), go to the shore (not beach), eat hoagies (not subs) and drive on roads surfaced with macadam (not asphalt).

Odds are, if you’re not from PA, you’ll also have monumental trouble pronouncing Lancaster correctly (the city known for its Amish population). The correct pronunciation is Lang-kist-er, not Lan-CAST-er.

Finally, my mother would have told you if something was going well and you didn’t want to draw attention to it for fear it might go bad, you shouldn’t “faschnut” it.

Here’s a takeaway: until I started working with critique partners, I never realized the rest of the world added “to be” in sentences like “the laundry needs folded.” That was a real eye-opener for me and something that still makes me grin.

I enjoy adding color to dialogue when I’m writing certain characters, but not all of them require it. What about you? Do you use colloquialisms in your work? Sound off and let me hear some of the expressions you’ve used. I know south-central PA can’t be the only region with distinctive terms and phrases.

Ready, set, go!

Bio box for author, Mae Clair

46 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Regional

    • Hi, Chapter 18! I wasn’t aware of Hinglish, but I know of an American who lived abroad and spent many years in both Ireland and Australia. She frequently flavored her English with Aussie and Irish expression for a unique way of talking. I hadn’t considered mixing languages when I wrote this post, but that’s an excellent point. And now I’m going to have to look up Hinglish! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The laundry needs folded….. oh my god this cracked me up! What a weird colloquialism – and I’m australian – the land of weird colloquialisms! Having said that, I haven’t (to my knowledge) used Aussie colloquialisms in my writing, mostly because my series is set in 1880 Wild West. THAT said, my series is chock full of 1880s America colloquialisms. It’s very difficult writing in another time, in another country, but that’s what good old google is for!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, we are great for excluding words in South Central, PA, LOL.
      I applaud you for tackling a setting in another country. I’ve written westerns (a ton of them back in the day), but there is NO WAY I’d ever attempt to set a story in another country. I want to grow up to be you 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonder the English language is. Count all the countries where it is spoken as first or second language and within them all the different areas. All with their own local words. When we’re writing I think it is best to sprinkle a few pronunciations and words, but not the whole dialogue. As you say, we all think of our own accents as neutral.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such a good point. I never even realized I had an accent, LOL.
      I do love the flavor of an accent or a few key expressions in dialogue for color, but too much is definitely a turn-off.

      It is fun, however, to hear all the different regional sayings from various parts of the country (and world). I’m often amazed at the difference between American vs. European. Even in the U.S. however, I sometimes have to scratch my head. I have a friend in the south, and during an email exchange I remember being puzzled by her use of “putt-putt.” Turns out she was talking about what I would call “miniature golf.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great discussion, Mae. I identify with a lot of my Texas cousins who say “fixin’ to”, and “I’m about to”. The same was said in Tennessee where I was born. Later, in Chicago, I picked up the Midwestern accent and phrasing, “I’m going OVER her house” instead of “I’m going TO her house”. Add to all of it an inner city Afro-centric phrasing used by some of the characters from my novel, The Neon Houses, and I can drive an editor crazy!🤣

    Liked by 2 people

    • “I’m going over her house” is a new one on me, but I love it! I never tire of hearing the different expressions that pop up in various regions. Your phrasings in The Neon Houses added just the right touch of flavor, helping to define your characters. You might have driven your editor crazy, but that attention to localisms was a pleasure to read.

      And now I know if I ever visit Texas, I’m going to be fixin’ to do something! 🙂


  4. Lol! I love your examples of regional dialect, Mae. Of course, Texas is full of ’em. 🙂 We are famous for cutting off parts of words and we are also fixin’ to do something quite often. 🙂 One of my favorite parts of writing is dialogue because I can hear the character’s voices and accents in my head. That’s the way I try to convey them onto paper. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I would love to get down to Texas someday and hear those accents in person, Jan. I’m utterly fascinated by differences in regional dialect. When a writer can take them from their head and transfer them onto paper, I’m enthralled. As long as it isn’t overdone, it speaks volumes about the character.
      Glad you enjoyed my examples and the post. I never tire of stuff like this, LOL!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I add them on purpose, but try to keep them within reasonable limits. I had to make a decision not to write an entire book in “pirate” language for the same reason as your Scottish dialect. I let characters like Mal and Chappy drift into their dialects to keep things honest. Then there are the root monsters who almost have their own language. I tried to walk readers in with a word here and there until they could understand more. As a Westerner, I notice a lot of my characters say things like, “Yup.” My marshals from Panama got a bit deeper into cowboy lingo. I’m in favor of using expressions, but in dialog only.

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  6. I have used a colloquialisms a few times, but I try to avoid them. The main reason is they will be lost on the reader not from the area. I live in the Pittsburgh region and we have a distinct language as well. Words such as jagoff, chipped ham, slippy, pumpkin, gumband, dahntahn, n’at, and yinz. People know right away where we are from.

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    • I know about chipped ham and pumpkin but the other ones are unfamiliar to me. I love that each region has their unique dialect. I avoid words other readers won’t recognize but I do love to flirt with dialogue and accents.
      And when it comes to the word “macadam” I had no idea the rest of the world was clueless about that. I’ve had multiple editors flag it and ask me what it means. Now, I normally stick with asphalt.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Well, I’m from the same area as Michele (obviously) and I don’t know what’s wrong with pumpkin.

        When I lived in Ohio, my kids took tae kwon do, and the parents sat outside in the vestibule, watching. I befriended a woman who was also from Western PA. We were having a discussion one day, and I began to notice the other parents staring at us. I asked what was wrong, and they admitted it sounded like a foreign language. (Melissa’s vernacular was pretty excessive.) At that point, having been a writer for so many years, I immediately knew what they meant and started laughing, but Melissa didn’t get it. So I explained all the words and phrases we were using that no one else recognized. She couldn’t believe how different we spoke from the rest of the country.

        It’s funny you mentioned omitting “to be” in phrases. We were never taught that in school. When I took my first fiction class in college, I wrote a bit of dialogue that omitted it (like my hair needs cut) and when the class was critiquing it, all the students were quick to jump on it and deride me for it. My professor said, “I thought it was a brilliant way to show the Pittsburgh setting without stating it outright.” And she gave me high marks for it. I never admitted my error.

        Liked by 4 people

      • Oh, cool! So you omit “to be” as well? There must be cross over between South Central PA and Pittsburg, or maybe it’s a Keystoner thing, LOL. I honestly never realized I was doing something wrong until two critique partners called me out about that commission in the late 90s. I’m glad you got one up on that class 🙂

        I loved hearing about you and the woman you were chatting with. I remember being in a business meeting (in Hershey) with my boss and a woman who represented one of our outsider vendors. After a while he asked where she was from and she said “just outside of Pittsburg.” He had spent years living in Pittsburg and recognized her accent and way of talking immediately. I always thought that was so cool 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. My critique partners have caught a few of my colloquialisms. I write things without thinking. However, I try to not use too much “Texas” lingo. We’re famous for saying “y’all” and “I am fixing to…” Translate, “I’m about to…” One year on vacation we stopped in Cheyenne Wyoming for lunch. Our waitress took our order, and a few minutes later she returned to the table to ask, “What part of Texas are you from?” She recognized our accents. Turns out she was born in Texas but moved to Wyoming as a teen. She told us she still used “y’all” and “fixing.” Guess some things never leave us.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I’m having a similar problem with getting into writing my next book. The character travels through four hundred years. Being that I am not a fan of history or historical books, I have no idea how differently people spoke in the 1600s – early 1900s. I want to be as authentic as I can, but I feel as if I won’t be able to match the grammar and dialect of that time, and it’s given me major writer’s block. I’m thinking of just writing it with today’s language and then worrying about changing the dialogue later (or never…lol!).

    Liked by 2 people

    • I bet if you just made their speech more formal sounding, you’d be fine. At least for the parts set in the past. For the present, they surely would have picked up on modern phrases and speech patterns. Also keep an eye out for obvious things the would have been different (i.e latches on doors instead of knobs). I’m not sure if that helps.

      I’ve written characters who lived in the 1700s and 1800s and a few short stories set in the 1600s. Once you fall into the pattern of speech for the time, I bet it becomes second nature. Fingers crossed you give writer’s block a goods swift kick out the door!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. The thing I come across the most is the difference between British English and American English … they’re like two different languages at times. So even if I don’t mean to use a colloquialism, to many of my American readers, it turns out that way, lol … and vice-versa! Otherwise, I sometimes use them but not often, and only ever in dialogue rather than narrative. Great post, Mae 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I read a fair amount of fiction by British authors and had to adjust to some of the difference in terms. I also remember once asking a British blogger what a “bin” was (she had mentioned it in her post). Doh! Now I laugh about it. I’m sure some American terms and expressions are equally confusing. I always find it interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I absolutely agree that a lot of it can be distracting, such as the book I referenced with the Scottish character. But I have read novels where that slice of authenticity (used sparingly) adds so much to the character. Sometimes, just the way a character speaks can tell you a lot about them.
      One of the British authors I follow excels at writing dialect. I love reading his stuff, but agree it has to be done well. Fortunately, he’s a master at it.

      Liked by 2 people

    • “t’aint likely” is a great expression. I like “don’t that beat all?” too.
      I have some relatives in the southern states and always find it interesting how expressions are different.
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Flossie!

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