Out of the Mouths of Characters: Writing Dialects and Accents

Shaman, by Maya Kaathryn BohnhoffWhen 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

2" diameter goatskin Native American drum with Kokopelli black ink drawing upon it.

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.

Share

Comments

Out of the Mouths of Characters: Writing Dialects and Accents — 2 Comments

  1. This reminds me of some interesting YouTube videos about languages and linguistics I saw some months ago, which I found through Tom Scott’s linguistics videos.
    One of them, “Why song translations mostly suck” talked about a concept I hadn’t heard of before, namely the difference between melismatic and syllabic languages – the latter is a one-note-per-syllable type of language (like German), while the first allows you to sing a whole series of notes on one stretched-out vowel (like Italian).
    This makes quite a lot of difference to the rythms of these languages when spoken as well as when sung, I’d say.

    There was another related video about the way different languages put stress on the important words in a sentences – some allow the important syllables or words to be lengthened, slowed down or speeded up, to get more attention; while other languages keep the same rat-tat-tat speed and stress the words with tone or loudness or the place in the sentence: stress-timed versus syllable-timed. I originally saw a much more interesting video explaining about this, with examples from Spanish (syllable-timed) versus English (stress-timed), but at the moment I can only find this rather boring one in a Spanish accent.

    And then there’s the habit of Germanic languages (among others) to stick words and modifiers together into long compound words – it’s hard to eradicate such a tendency completely from my vocabulary when I’m writing in English, I’ve noticed; nothing extreme, but the occasional neologism (if that’s the word I’m looking for) slips through.

    I’ve found those linguistic YouTube videos quite a fascinating rabbit-hole to dive into; and the points you make here about how to represent those sorts of differences in speech patterns in readable books has given me another layer to ponder – how has my experience of these accents and linguistic ideosyncrases, which is based almost entirely on books, been influenced by the way such choices are made in how to represent this?
    Interesting.

  2. One point about accents is that the more you deviate from standard written English to show how a character sounds to an outsider, the more you are obfuscating things.

    – what does the character think they say? How would the character write this down in, say, an e-mail?
    – how would people close to the character receive this? Do they hear ‘singin and dancin’ or ‘singing and dancing’? Unless dialect is very strong (in which case the listener might translate into what they think they understood, or have to ask for clarifications a lot, or simply nod and pretend they understood without actually understanding), we tend to translate it back into ‘what we should hear’ even if the pronunciation differs.
    – does the rendering of dialect make the character sound like an outsider, or stupid, or both? If the only person who ‘speaks in dialect’ is the black character, or the rural character, what are you really saying here?

    Use rhythm and cadence to indicate accent with infrequent reminders of a more obvious sort. As a reader, this is indeed what works best for me. If it’s an accent I’m familiar with, I will hear that, boyo, and otherwise I will take your words that it’s rough and guttural or soft and lilting, slow and deliberate or quick and ending each sentence on a rising beat.

    The only thing I hate to read more than dialects is made-up dialects. David Feintuch wrote half a book in broken newspeak, and I had trouble understanding it and no desire to ever read it again. It didn’t convey ‘this character lives even further in the future than this other character’, it conveyed ‘the author thinks they’re very clever, but they’re not’.