Accent and Dialect – Wednesday Words

I know, it’s Thursday. I plead temporary madness due to the election debate here in the US. It’s made many of us crazy.

Still, I don’t want to skip a week, so here we are on Thursday with my Wednesday Words. I want to talk about how to handle accent and dialect in dialogue. There’s often a temptation to try to spell out what something sounds like phonetically: “Ah wurnt goan ta say nuttin bout dat, but ya dun got me awl riled up.” This is generally a bad idea! The reader gets bogged down trying to decipher what the person said. The writing on the page gets in the way, so that the reader is focused on spelling and sounding things out, rather than just hearing the conversation unfolding naturally.

A much better technique is to allow word choice, grammatical structure, and rhythm to convey the sound of someone’s words. Here’s an example from my current WIP. Kay is talking with Jana, the woman who runs the hotel where Kay works. It’s the end of a work day, the last day before the hotel closes down for the winter, and Kay tells Jana she’s all set to go. Jana, who knows Kay doesn’t have another job lined up, disagrees: “You are not so set. Next week I go to Florida, helping at my sister’s store in Boca, selling post cards and silly hats to people with sunburns. What do you do, eh?” Every word is properly spelled and the grammar is standard. However, it’s just a little off-kilter for a native speaker of English. From just this one snippet readers will know that Jana is from somewhere else, and many of them would be able to place her accent as something European or Eastern European.

To accomplish this, I recommend doing three things:

  • Read. Go back to books you like where people have accents, and dissect how the author accomplished it. What aspects of word choice and sentence structure creates the sense of people talking in a nonstandard way?
  • Listen. When hanging out in a waiting room or a coffee house, get out your writer’s notebook (you have a writer’s notebook, don’t you?) and jot down snippets of what you hear, especially from people who aren’t native speakers. Don’t transcribe phonetically; capture the word choice and sentence structure. Later, after you’ve forgotten what they sounded like, read back through your notes and see what brings the flavor of the accent to life.
  • Get feedback. Critique partners are terrific for this. When people get distracted by the accent, not hearing it as organic but seeing it as an author’s trick, they can let you know. You can make it a specific question for your readers. Ask, “Did you find yourself having to re-read passages to figure out what someone was saying? Did you feel like skimming through the dialogue to get the gist and move on? Whose lines did you most enjoy reading, and whose made you annoyed?” Listen to what your readers say. Remember, when readers say something didn’t work for them, you can’t argue with that. By definition, it didn’t work.

This is one small jot of diversity in our writing: including characters from elsewhere. Bringing their voices to life in a way that respects and celebrates this diversity is our job as writers.

3 thoughts on “Accent and Dialect – Wednesday Words

  1. You’re so right. I hate it when people write accents phonetically in dialogs. Your approach is so much better.
    There is another issue in some older books, where writers include some French phrases without translating them. I’m guessing in the olden times, every literate person was supposed to speak and read French. I never studied French, and such books always drove me crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been frustrated by French passages in some of these classic books as well. Apparently, back then if you were high-class enough to be reading novels, you obviously knew French as well. It was depressingly obvious that my three years of French classes hadn’t done me any good at all!


  2. Pingback: Loading Chekhov’s Gun | Word Wacker

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