When I was a newbie—I wrote a the first of a series of stories for Analog about a Scottish/Welsh xenoarchaeologist named Rhys Llewelyn. (Now in a BVC collection entitled SHAMAN.) Naturally, I gave him a bit of olde Scotland in his voice. Having no idea about too much of a good thing, I liberally spiked his dialogue with ”dinnae”s and ”noo”s and other speech patterns that I had heard in people who spoke with Scots accents. (I readily admit I’d cheerfully pay David Tenant to read a shopping list aloud to me.)
Stan Schmidt bought the story, but gave me a lesson on writing dialect. Dialect, he 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. He gave me a number of helpful hints, which I pass along whenever I see a new writer struggling with dialect.
One of his points had to do with the dialect, itself:
- Establish the accent or dialect. So, the first time Rhys speaks, he maybe says, in response to a question, ”I dinnae see that.” Or maybe my New Orleans belle says, ”Ahm from Nawleans, Sugah.” Early in the game.
- Sprinkle the rest of that character’s dialogue with rare, brief reminders that they have an accent. So, in subsequent dialogues, Rhys would say, ”I did not…” or ”I didn’t…” with only the occasional visual reminder of his accent and Lucette calls people ”Sugar”.
Those were Stan’s two key points, to which I add a few of my own. First, listen to people who speak in a dialect or are English Second Language speakers. Listen carefully to the particular form their language idiosyncrasies take.
Language is rhythmic and tonal. So, find your subject’s lingual rhythms and tones. Swedish, Norwegian and Italian accents have such pronounced rhythmic components that they’re often parodied. Ditto people who grew up speaking English, but live in areas of the world heavily settled by Scandinavian peoples. Minnesota, for example. Or Minne-sooo-ta, if you will.
You can often help a reader hear a particular accent by arranging the words so that they evoke a tell tale rhythm and /or cadence—a lilt. But you can only do that if you listen carefully to real people whose speech carries that lilt enough to understand what they’re doing that is unique.
For example, people whose first language is not English frequently speak English using the conventions of their own tongue. They may leave out parts of speech that their native language does not contain because they are not used to having to consider them. I have a number of Persian friends who confuse gender pronouns (him and her, he and she) because Persian does not have genders. Russian English speakers will drop articles because Russian doesn’t have that part of speech. So your Russian character, if plopped into the middle of an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle might say, ”Yesterday, I saw moose and squirrel.” Chinese ESL speakers will often have problems with both articles and tenses because Chinese dialects contain neither. Tense is implied through context and word meaning is often tonal. So, a Chinese ESL speaker in that same peculiar situation might say, ”Yesterday, I see moose and squirrel.”
Contractions can also be difficult for people whose native language doesn’t require them. Hence, a Chinese person might say, ”I no go there” instead of ”I won’t go there.”
My best advice is listen and do a little looking into the conventions of the language your character grew up speaking so that you understand why they speak the way they do.
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.”
That prodded me to do some research on human languages that used apostrophes. I remembered Miriam Makeba, of course, whom I’d heard as a child singing songs with audible tongue clicks in them. In written lyrics, those clicks are apostrophes. In some First Nations languages, the apostrophe is used to cue a complete stop in the flow of the word. So, in the Navajo word ”Yoo’?”, the apostrophe signals a cutting off of sound—a silent beat. The last character is a nasal, short ’i’ as a French speaker might pronounce it.
So, to sum up: Don’t be afraid to use dialects and accents, but don’t overdo it. Establish it, then move on. Use rhythm and cadence to indicate accent with infrequent reminders of a more obvious sort. If you decide your character will speak with an accent or dialect or a charming lack of fluency, try to understand what it is about their native tongue that causes a particular effect. That way, you’ll be more consistent, stand a better chance of your reader hearing the accent you mean for her to hear, and will not pull her out of the story.