The Top 10 “Slang” Narratives

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Dialect can be used as a class marker, or as something that identifies your hometown, your race, or your predilection for jargon. There are standard dialects, which are those institutionally-approved ways of speaking that make us understood, but are frankly a little boring. And then there are Newfies, the stalwart denizens of the oddly-shaped island near Québec who speak a language very much their own. The authors below use dialect either as a majority of the novel or as an abrupt break from the narration; many of them are from the opposite side of the Atlantic, but some of them are from the South, or fake it, like Cormac McCarthy.

1. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

“Do tell us all about. As we want to hear allabout. So tellus tellas allabouter. The why or whether she looked alottylike like ussies and whether he had his wimdrop like themses shut?”

John Bishop’s introduction in the Penguin edition purports that this comic novel is a Rorschach test, revealing its readers “monomanias, deferentialities, and peculiar little areas of expertise.” To say that this style is “experimental” is like saying Beşiktaş fans merely enjoy soccer — a severe understatement.

2. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

“Shall I t’ief them? He don’t need ’em no more.”

Kelman’s critically-acclaimed debut is about an eleven-year-old Ghanaian transplant who lives in London with his mother in what they refer to as “housing estates” but what we refer to as “projects.” The boy witnesses a murder and begins his own investigation, all the while absorbing the squalid new surroundings and bantering with the new face of English youth.

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

“Noa! That means naught! Hathecliff maks noa ‘count o’ t’ mother, nor ye norther; but he’ll heu’ his lad und I mun tak’ to him–soa now ye knaw!”

Brontë uses a Yorkshire dialect to denote the servant’s station in this sweeping classic, although Emily’s sister, Charlotte, unsuccessfully attempted to rewrite the passages after Emily’s death. Charlotte wrote,”It seems to me advisable to modify the orthography of the old servant Joseph’s speeches; for though as it stands it exactly renders the Yorkshire dialect to a Yorkshire ear, yet I am sure Southerns must find it unintelligible.”

4. Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

“The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders.”

This 1960s dystopian classic was a landmark novel in part for its use of desultory teenage slang. Alex and his gang drink “milk-plus,” skip school, and prey on passersby.

5. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

“Jewel’s taken and gone,” he says. “Can’t nobody else ketch hit. You’ll have to walk up, I reckon.”

With fifteen different narrators, this book is an ambitious attempt at capturing the speech of the average Mississippi dweller at the time, and is consistently ranked as one of the best English-language novels of the twentieth century.

6. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

“I got two in the pot yonder stewin up with some taters and stuff but if this keeps up I’m goin to sell em.”

This semi-autobiographical novel, set in Knoxville, Tennessee during the early 1950s, is a bizarre, funny, and incredibly sad tale of broken relationships, death, and illness.

7. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Sim Jones says, “It’s uh sin and uh shame running dat po’ man way from here lak dat. Colored folks oughten’t tuh be so hard on one ‘nother.”

Hurston got a lot of flack for using dialect by her contemporaries. Richard Wright called it a “minstrel show,” and Ralph Ellison said it was “calculated burlesque.” Nevertheless, this 1937 novel set in Florida endured, with help from Alice Walker’s 1975 essay in Ms. Magazine “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.”

8. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“It kept a-coming, and when it was abreast of me I see there warn’t but one man in it. Thinks I, maybe it’s Pap, though I warn’t expecting him.

This novel is another controversial classic, and is considered a Great American Novel despite (or because of?) its treatment of race. While the scholars and critics argue, schoolchildren are reading Twain’s dialects as they are being introduced to the fraught relationship between Huck and Jim.

9. How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman

“Males and females. Ye do your wee dances, almighty where’s the harm. Plus some folk, they’re never happy unless they’re giving ye a sharp fucking talking to. Especially women, or else upper class bastards.”

This rough and tumble novel follows Sammy, a working class Scottish ex-con who awakes from a bout of binge drinking and a tussle with the police only to realize that he’s blind, confused, and alone. There’s a lot of nothing happening in the few days we’re with Sammy, but it’s entertaining. Kelman won the Booker Prize for this novel, despite the fact that one of the judges publicly declared it was “crap.”

10. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

“It’s one ay these days when my ma hormones are shooting around ma body like a steelie in a pinball machine, and all these mental lights and sounds are flashing in ma heid.”

Welsh’s debut novel, set in 1980s Edinburg, Scotland, received international cult status with the release of Danny Boyle’s 1996 film adaptation.