Saturday, 18 May 2013

Accent? What Accent?

My English teacher would probably be the last person to disagree with you if you told him I'd professed a legitimate reason to dislike Wuthering Heights. That said, he'd probably agree with me if you said it was because I got incredibly irritated with a bipedal unpleasantness called Joseph.

Whether or not I would have disliked him as much if I had been able to understand a single word he said is a different matter.

Fun mini game for the day: translate this phrase into comprehensible English!

"Maister, coom hither! Miss Cathy's riven th' back off 'Th' Helmet o' Salvation,' un' Heathcliff's pawsed his fit into t' first part o' 'T' Brooad Way to Destruction!' It's fair flaysome that ye let 'em go on this gait. Ech! th' owd man wad ha' laced 'em properly—but he's goan!"

This passage, and others of its ilk, took me three attempts while I was trying to read the book in the summer - and this is one of the easier bits. Heck, I even found a page on a website that translates them so that the casual reader can keep up with him!

However, for all I can rag on about my distaste for this novel, Joseph is not the only - and probably not the worst - example of a character whose dialogue is written with an accent. It's a common enough tool, though we don't see it so much in mainstream literature nowadays because most characters nowadays speak in the same trans-atlantic metropolitan tone, just like most people do in real life, to varying degrees.

Writing accents is something that writers tend to polarise on in terms of opinion. Some think it's great; it makes the character's speech very recognisable and individual, as well as demonstrating their background and adding depth to their environment via colloquial, occupational or class-related slang. Others reckon it's a waste of time because it slows down the reading speed and disengages the reader by sending them on a ten minute mental detour attempting to work out what the heck the character is saying. 

From a personal perspective, I range more toward the former opinion - once I get my eye in on the dialect, and occasionally with the help of a slang guide (as found in the back of the novels of Tamora Pierce and Trudi Canavan) I can usually adapt very quickly and easily to the accent. Furthermore, I do think, especially in historical or historically-influence stories, an accent is a great point of authenticity - even I, oft-named as a vocal derivative of  Poshy MacPoshPants III, do not live solely in a world populated by those who speak in perfectly enunciated Queen's English.

That said, when it comes to how to properly integrate an accent . . . Wuthering Heights is not what I would call much of a success. Not in the least because Miss Bronte went more than slightly overboard in slaying every consonant that didn't run away fast enough.

However strong it is, an accent still has to be legible. A few emphatically dropped letters or turns of phrase will be more than sufficient to give the reader the idea. Simplicity does not mean that all accents will sound the same, either; depending which letters you drop, the sounds, even in someone's head, will be different. The type of words a character uses will work in conjunction with this - this includes slang as well as contractions and Shakespeare-esque word-smashing.

Example time!

"Oh dear! That platypus looks like it's going to eat the mayor!"

"Bloomin' eck! That platypus looks like it's gonna eat the mayor!"

"Och aye! Tha' plat-pus is lookin' fit t' eat the big-wig!"

"Forsooth! Yonder duck-billed monotreme sub-species appears to be weighing up the possibility of masticating that local council official!"

. . . It does work. Honest.

That said, there are a couple of other points to keep in mind as well. If your character is going to have an accent, make sure you know what sort of sound you're going for - just chopping off random letters isn't going to automatically produce a coherent noise. Reading the passages through to yourself a couple of times will sort that out. 

Furthermore, don't give your character an accent for no reason - it's the etymological equivalent of giving them purple eyes. Unless the narrative addresses why they have one, it's just going to make them, and you, look a bit silly. 

Not all your characters need to have accents either, although I would advise having your character interact at least briefly with one or two others who do, or have an outsider remark upon the accent. Otherwise, it just sits there like a white elephant at a school picnic - you don't know why it's there, but maybe if you don't mention it it'll eventually seem normal.

What about you, commenters? Do you write your characters' voices with accents intact, or do you prefer not to risk making a mess? Do you find it hard to read books where the characters' dialogue is written in dialect? Leave a comment, and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. I confess to writing characters with a cockney accent. But it was for a purpose! They came from my "fantasy version" of old Britian, and I used Dido Twite and Oliver Twist as places to gather my appropriate slang. (The book is buried. For now.) And, yes, I did write a kid with a lisp...That's just as difficult as an accent.

    You know, when I'm reading, I DON'T like accents in books. It's too confusing. If it's lightly slathered, I'll survive, but aaaah. I'm a speed-reader and if I can't speed-eat-it then I mostly likely give up. Fantastic post there! (And blogger is giving me your posts again! Yaya!!)

    1. Huzzah! Thank you Blogger!

      I can see where you're coming from. I'm not so much of a speed-reader, I like to linger over tasty contextual details like accents, so I don't mind them. Lisps are SO HARD, though, aren't they? Ugh. I had so much trouble with that, once up on a long-dead draft.

    2. Ack. Lisps. I could never remember which letters I was dropping so the kid basically spoke Martian. (If Martians have a lisp.)

  2. Huh... Years of Redwall, I suppose-- I could read that Joseph stuff fine. I wouldn't want the whole book narrated that way, as Huckleberry Finn seemed to be four years ago when I tried it.

    1. Eesh, I remember trying that book. Smite it, I say!

  3. I've only had a few characters with accents, and even then they were very minor. I read multiple posts online on some writing websites on how to write accents without confusing your readers. One of my characters had a Scottish/Irish type of accent and she talked like this: "Lass, yer in over yer head! Slow down a bit an' think about this." VERRRRRRY minor. VERY.

    1. Oh, and for some reason I can't for the LIFE of me figure out how to write a southern accent? It's always a mess!

    2. (That question mark was accidental). XD ;P

    3. Not a worry - I can't quite do accents myself, though I'm trying. WELSH ACCENT. Y U KEEP SMUSHING INTO THE COLLOQUIAL SLANG. THAT BELONGS TO ANOTHER CHARACTER, NOT YOU.

      Ugh. Everyone tries to steal everyone else's accents and it is very frustrating.

  4. I haven't written an accent, yet. I've read some pretty good ones, though. Like Dido Twite in the books by Joan Aiken. She's got a brilliant accent, and she's always understandable. On the flip side, in Siggy and Amber (Doug McLeod), Siggy's best friend's Dad had a ridioulous Scottish accent that was impossible to understand, but that was kind of the point. (The best friend was always translating, so it was quite funny.)

    Great post! :)

    1. Thank you! Those accents sound infinitely entertaining . . . well, if the characters' names are anything to go by.

  5. I love accents but you're right, it's really important that they're understandable. The one that comes to mind is Hagrid's - it's obvious that he talks differently than anyone else in the series but Rowling only needed to drop a few letters here and there to get the effect.

  6. Erm. I tried doing this for English Language so let's have a go.

    "Master, come here! Miss Cathy's pulled the back off 'The Helmet Of Salvation', and Heathcliff's punched his fist into the first part of'The Broad Way to Destruction'! It's awful that you've let them go on this way." ... I'd say Ech is untranslatable... "The old man would have sorted them out -- but he's gone!"

    How did I do?

    Oh, and you know this sentence? "Forsooth! Yonder duck-billed monotreme sub-species appears to be weighing up the possibility of masticating that local council official!" I read it in your voice. Completely and utterly in your voice.