L is for language

Sin#11: Say what now?
Ayup theear, ‘a’s teur bin?
Ariite thuz, y’alright?
Aareet thor, y’aareet?
Well I ne’ah! Hoh spiffing it is to see you, one’s old bean, hoe the deevil aaaare you, one’s old bean? Heavens above! How smashing!
Ok, maybe that last one’s pushing it but you see what I’m getting at…accents!
Apparently a lot of people have accents…who knew!?

Showing your characters accent through dialogue can be a tricky business. Which words do you write phonetically to show how they would sound? If you feel the need to write every word your ‘accented’ character speaks then why aren’t you doing it with ‘normal’ words or ‘normal’ accents?

Why not write nife instead of knife? Or newmoania instead of pneumonia?

An accent is typically used in a book as a device to show the attitude or class of a character, but lets face it an accent doesn’t just show up on the odd word every now and again. An accent is a part of your everyday speaking voice and as such every single word you utter will sound ‘foreign’ to someone from a different origin or social background.

If you try to write dialogue for a character with the correct pronunciation for every single word then you’re going to end up with an unintelligible mess that even readers with the same accent will struggle to read.

By placing the emphasis on certain words an accent can be established without having to break the dialogue down into some horrific code to be cracked by your readers. But then you run the risk of your characters sounding like Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins!

“Cor Burlimey, I’m a cockeney I am ,I am”

I personally think one of the best ways of dealing with accents is to establish where your character is from and let the reader’s imagination do the rest. You don’t describe every single detail of every single room a character walks in to, so don’t try and do the same with dialogue. Instead use vocabulary to reinforce an accent that you have suggested. Use words which that particular character would use, and slang they would typically throw into day to day conversations.

Putting a bad accent in your characters mouths is like building them up as a hunky hero only to later describe them as fat, bald and spotty. It can be a disappointment to your readers who have already built up an ‘image’ of what the character should look and sound like.

Until tomorrow…one is afraid one has to jolly well goh noh, cheerioh!


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    • CharmedLassie on April 14, 2011 at 16:27
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    To date, my characters have mainly been regionally distinguished by word choice (or skipping words). We Yorkshire folk sometimes have a habit of missing bits off. Could be laziness… Anyway, my next big project is going to be a gruff Yorkshireman. He's got more of an accent. I'm going to have to handle that with care. And perhaps ask your all-knowing self for some advice?


    • Jennifer Thomson on April 14, 2011 at 16:34
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    I hate it when writers have characters speaking in regional dialogue. It annoys the hell out of me and makes me want to chuck a book – no matter how good in the bin. It's too hard to follow and stops the dialogue flowing.
    Just discovered Mike Hammer books and the dialogue in them is fantastic. It just flows like the speaker is sitting next to you.

    • Áine Tierney on April 14, 2011 at 17:19
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    I completely agree with your points. I hate it when too many words are spelled phonetically in a piece of fiction. It prevents me from being drawn into the piece.

    • Patsy on April 14, 2011 at 18:26
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    It's a tricky thing to get right. I try to show it with speech patterns and choice of words rather than funny pronouciation.

    • MorningAJ on April 14, 2011 at 19:28
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    I get a crick in the neck.

    • ttofee on April 14, 2011 at 19:31
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    Its a tricky one – I can sometimes find it offputting if its overdone!

    • CekaTB on April 14, 2011 at 20:28
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    You're going to have a textbook here, sunshine, before we've reached Z. Can't wait for 'Q' !!!

    • Matthew Vanacore on April 14, 2011 at 23:36
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    Excellent piece of advice. I can't agree more. Accents must be handled very delicately, not just in terms of writing, but acting too. How many times have you been aghast by some guy pretending to sound like he's from Boston. As you say, "shuddering" is the apt descriptor.

    As you say, research the region (vocabulary and slang is key), and leave enough to the reader's imagination.

    Great blog!

    • Steven Chapman on April 15, 2011 at 11:05
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    Lucy, as a lethargic Yorkshire man myself I back up your idea that’s its laziness :p As for my all knowing self?? Say whaaa? I’ll be on stand by if you want to know what a mumbling Leeds bloke sounds like! Pip pip!

    I’ll have to see if I can find some MH, Jen, when I have time to read them…I suppose you could say I’ll be waiting for…no, it’s too cheesy to say….oh sod it HAMMER TIME! Sorry, it was too good to pass up!

    Aine, it really does take you out of the story doesn’t it? I end up rereading sections out loud just to see if I can figure out the accent – twenty minutes later I realise I’m gabbing away to myself and not actually reading the book!

    AJ, it’s definitely a pain in the neck! And the arse…

    Ttoffee, it doesn’t take much to distract me so trying to decode a book really can be off-putting.

    Ha cheers, Ceka! I already have an idea for Q. I’m more worried about X and Z…

    Thanks, Matthew. I do tend to shudder a lot around accents but I have to admit I’m not that good with US accents so I might let them slip a bit more 😛

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