Writing accents

Here’s a post by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff at Book View Cafe: Out of the Mouths of Characters: Writing Dialects and Accents

I’m sort of flirting with the notion of putting accents into the mouths of some characters in my next space opera, which is far-flung so people certainly do have recognizable accents, very audible to the point-of-view characters — which is what matters. Obviously no one speaks English as it’s written; everyone has an accent. What matters more is whether your pov protagonist hears an accent.

But as you all probably know, accents are tricky beasts to manage no matter what, and in general less is considered to be more.

Bohnhoff says:

Dialect, [Stan Schmidt] told me, in essence is like ’um’ and ’er’ and other speech affectations. Yes, people really sound like that, but reading it can undermine your story because the reader will be forced to slow down and sometimes sound things out. That can cause them to lose the thread of your story.

Also this:

As a science fiction writer, of course, I’m sometimes dealing with characters whose first language isn’t even a human one. Stan Schmidt had some advice about that, too. Specifically, he talked about the use of apostrophes in names and ”alien” words. I sent him a story in which I had created a name with an apostrophe: M’sutu. His first question to me was, ”What does the apostrophe do? What does it sound like? If it doesn’t do something in the word or name then don’t use it. You’ll only confuse the reader. He’ll wonder how he’s supposed to pronounce it every time he sees that word. Only use odd spelling conventions like that if they can be shown to make a sound.”

Now, personally I do generally think less is more when it comes to accents. I had independently arrived at one tidbit of advice Schmidt offered, which was to establish the accent early and then after that just use occasional visual reminders while mostly just not showing the accent in how you spell the words. So a character might start off dropping terminal g’s but then only do it occasionally after that. This seems to work surprisingly well in practice, given it doesn’t sound like it should work at all when you just lay it out like that.

I do think word choice and cadence can be better than accents as such. Though that can be tricky as well.

Here is a second post, this one by a freelance editor, about accents in fiction, which offers, among other things, a useful tidbit from Huckleberry Finn. Honestly, I had forgotten how much of a phonetic accent Twain gave the character of Jim.

Rose Lerner also has a good post on this subject. Lerner makes this useful point, among others:

Accents have nothing to do with intelligence or temperament.

Yes, in Regency England, your accent probably said something about your level of formal education, since formal education emphasized “proper” elocution and exposed you to other people who spoke in a certain way. But lacking formal education—even, dare I say it, being illiterate—doesn’t mean a person’s personality or understanding of the world is any less deep or complex.

(A small side-rant: anyone see How to Train Your Dragon? Anyone want to explain to me why the bumbling, aggressive Viking adults all had comic-opera Scottish accents while their open-minded, identifiable-with children spoke like West Coast Americans?)

Yeah I noticed that about How to Train Your Dragon, though mostly I was focused on the utter ridiculousness of the, ahem, training. I did enjoy the black-panther-dragon, though. Nice animation there.

Okay, one place I think accents are a) used a lot, and b) pretty well done are historical mysteries. Maybe historical fiction in general. The class differences in British murder mysteries are shown with dialect and accents, and quite a few authors do this well. I’ve been reading Anne Perry mysteries recently and she’s an example of someone who imo pulls this off, but she’s hardly alone.

Also, as I recently pointed to a post on Dorothy Dunnett, well, there you go. Dunnett’s better than almost anybody at almost every writing technique, and wow does she have scope in her Game of Kings series to deal with accents and dialect. There’s where I’d go to see someone do a great job with this aspect of writing. In fact, I should probably just go ahead and re-read that series . . . or maybe the Niccolo series, which I’ve only read once so far . . .

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2 thoughts on “Writing accents”

  1. I bounce off the dialect of Huck, but have been known to wade through Scots heavy George MacDonald, such as Sir Gibbie. Don’t think I could, now. I’ve read too much bad ‘sweet old Scots lady’ dialect, enough for it to put my teeth on edge when it appears. (except in Dunnett.)

    Mostly, though, I really hate such things even without the problems of every English speaking region pronouncing things differently. So something the writer thinks will be ‘father’ the reader takes as ‘faither’ etc.
    Ever run into the old Bell Science video The Alphabet Conspiracy? The only place I ever heard the differences between merry, Mary and marry.

    Greer Gilman in Moonwise does dialect that’s worth wading through when I’m in the right frame of mind – it is work, but it suits the story. And I’ve read it isn’t made up, but I don’t recall which flavor it is.

    L Shelby does dialect without spelling things out phonetically but using idiom and diction very well.

  2. I agree about L Shelby. Her Serendipity’s Tide trilogy makes absolutely delightful use of idiom.

    I have never been able to hear the difference between merry, Mary, and marry. I pronounce all those exactly the same way.

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