Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Writing Accents

Every person on the planet speaks differently, even though we each share much in common with others who speak our particular language, share the same dialect and have the same accent. The way a person speaks is an essential part of their character; it is understandable when writing that we want to represent that individuality by reproducing these speech patterns. This, however, is quite a challenge. How do I make a character sound Irish without dropping in a ‘To be sure, to be sure’ now and then; or Scottish without the odd ‘Och ay the noo’?

One of the ways in which it is customary to make a character sound uneducated is to drop letters, usually Hs from the beginnings of words and Gs from the ends. ‘This is ’ow it might sound if I wuz talkin’ like that.’ Notice also the subtle alteration in the spelling of ‘was’. I’m sure most writers have used this technique occasionally. The problem is maintaining it for any length of time. How often do I drop a letter? Do I spell ‘going to’ ‘gonna’ all the time, or just occasionally? I remember reading Wuthering Heights in high school and struggling with the speech patterns of the character Joseph. Here’s just a very brief sample:

‘Aw wonder how yah can faishion to stand thear i’ idleness un war, when all on ’ems goan out! Bud yah’re a nowt, and it’s no use talking—yah’ll niver mend o’yer ill ways, but goa raight to t’ divil, like yer mother afore ye!’

This went on for page after page. Maintaining consistently a character’s accent or dialogue is not only very difficult to do, but also makes the text difficult to read.

Of course, part of the problem is that none of us actually speak like this (‘this’ being the words I just wrote). What I would probably have actually said, if I were speaking, was something more like this: ‘’Fcourse, parta the problem is thut nunavusackchilly speak like this.’ All of us actually speak differently from the way words are neatly and systematically written on the page. And all of us speak with an accent of some kind, although to our own ears it might not seem so. So when I choose to represent the speech of a character in a particular way, all I am really indicating is that the character does not speak like me—which is, of course, the way ‘normal’ people speak.

So how do we indicate that a person speaks with a particular accent? One way is actually to inform the reader. Here is Joseph’s speech again, with some interpolation and translation:

‘I wonder how you can fashion to stand there in idleness and worse, when all of them’s gone out!’ said Joseph, although it took me a while to work out exactly what he said. To my ear it sounded like this: ‘Aw wonder how yah can faishion to stand thear i’ idleness un war, when all on ’ems goan out!’ Slowly I became accustomed to the rhythm of his speech. ‘But you’re a nowt,’ he continued, ‘and it’s no use talking—you’ll never mend all your ill ways, but go right to the Devil, like your mother afore you!’

This maintains the archaic forms of words, but without the odd spelling and contractions. Perhaps if someone is speaking with an Irish accent, instead of spelling the words out phonetically—we don’t, after all do that with our own ‘normal’ speech patterns—we might just mention the sing-song lilt of their speech (or something like that).

If someone is speaking English as their second language, with a foreign accent, it’s probably a good idea to avoid caricatures like this, for an Italian accent, for instance:

Are-a you-a going out-a to dinner tonight-a?

Or like this for a German accent:

Vat do you vant to do tonight?

Perhaps a better way of dealing with this is to drop in the occasional foreign word, or have the speaker hesitate as they struggle to find the correct English word. Perhaps they might misuse a word occasionally—people for whom English is not their first language often do not us the correct preposition, or they misuse the definite and indefinite articles. It is important to try to avoid stereotypes and caricatures, however.

There is no perfect and simple solution to the problem of using accents in dialogue. It is something I have struggled with myself—and continue to struggle with. Once you set yourself on that path, however, you may have placed a millstone around your own neck. You may also make life difficult for your readers—and yes, Ms Brontë, I am thinking of you.

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