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Dialect/Slang/Accents - to use or not to use?
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 1:36 PM
Joined: 3/10/2011
Posts: 21

I have an Irish character in my story and so I've been thinking about accents and slang a lot.  How much is too much and takes you out of the story, and how much do you need to let the other characters (and the reader) know that this character is somehow not speaking in whatever your standard language is?

Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 1:55 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 244

I think with Scottish, the way I would apprach it is using simple words, such as nae for no, ones that might be easy to pronounce and close enough to American/English English, to demonstrate that accent/dialect. I don't think slang or dialect or accents are things to be avoided, but they should be used very carefully. I think of Hagrid in the Harry Potter books. It worked because he was the only one that she did that for. They had a Scottish roommate. Didn't realize he was Scottish until the movies, because she knew where to draw the line on accents.

My general way of dealing with accents is to explain the first tiem a character speaks that they have some sort of accent. It hints at what it might sound like, but then I leave it.If the readers hear a different accent, I'm fine with that.

Dialect can get dicey because if the reader is struggling to read the character's words, they'll either skip ahead, or stop reading. And neither is a scenario I want a reader to experience when enjoying my books.

Slang, I've always heard should be avoided. Especially in YA. Because it can date the book faster than current events.

Obviously, there are no absolute rules when it comes to using/not using any of these elements. You have to look at the story and what works for it and your characters. Is it going to enhance the book to use these? Or will it pull your readers from it.
Danielle Bowers
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 2:09 AM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 279

I tend to not write out a dialect but reference the fact that the person does have an accent. For example, if I were writing for a Scottish character like the one I have in Salem I would write it like this...

Liam was relieved when Sam appeared and exclaimed. "I didn't think you were coming." Worry made his accent more pronounced and Sam had a hard time understanding him. (This is off the cuff, please excuse any errors)

If I were writing out the accent it would look like this...

Liam was relieved when Sam appeared and exclaimed "I dinna think ye were coming."

Personally, I don't like writing out the accent. It interrupts the flow of the words and has the reader stumbling a little because the words aren't spelled right.

I adore using slang from the UK, they have the most unique way of saying things. Sodding, Bloody, Wanker, Git, Berk...I could go on all day.

Take my advise with a grain of salt, I only starting writing in the past year so I don't know a lot of the correct ways of doing things. This is just my opinion.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 6:48 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

whats a berk?
Danielle Bowers
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 7:49 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 279

I'm sure defining that would get me booted off of Book Country. Google it.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 8:17 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

Ahh, gotta love Cockney's love of the tortured rhyme, yes?

Danielle Bowers
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 8:28 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 279

Yes indeedy! That particular one actually makes it into US prime time public television.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 8:34 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 376

In general I would say leave accents as informed characteristics for the most part, although simple easy-to-interpret words can be swapped out. 'Ayeh' for 'Yes' in the case of a (TV version) of a Maine accent, for example. The Scottish examples above are good too (didn't = dinnae, no = nae). Readers can generally scan those and just be reminded that the character has an accent.

I only use those, however, when the accent is *pronounced*. It doesn't have to be incomprehensible, just marked enough that no one listening would ever miss the accent. Just use a few of those words reliably and the reader will automatically adjust the rest of the words.

Dialect is chancier, but as long as you don't include too much 'up to the second' slang, you're ok. Just be sure you're using it correctly, or if you use it incorrectly *know* you're using it incorrectly and do that deliberately.

I have, in one case, done a combination of dialect and accent for almost every word out of a character's mouth, but that character was, despite her importance to some aspects of the meta-plot, a bit character. The trouble was I was using a manufactured accent for her, so I had to phonetically spell *every* word she mispronounced. I compensated to some degree by being very strict with myself and only phonetically spelling words where she dropped, added, or changed letters, and keeping a spelling guide for her phonetics, so every use of a word or phoneme was changed the same way.

I got mixed responses. One reader thought it was awful, but mostly waved it off because it was such a small part. One thought it was great, another critiqued my use of mixed accents, but had no problems with the delivery method.

End advice? Use all of it with caution. Remember Rule One - keep the reader reading.
Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2011 9:35 PM
My current stories are set in a specific part of Kentucky. When I first started out, I thought about writing in dialect, but I gave up. There are so many accents and so on and so forth in that part of the state that it's hard to pick them all out and say "this is the one i'm using for this story". I've had to settle on "his thick mountain accent" and such instead.
Steve Yudewitz
Posted: Monday, May 2, 2011 1:18 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 24

My rule of thumb with dialects and accents is that I never try to write in them unless I am familiar with the nuances. For example, I've been to New Orleans, and know people from there, but recognize that I just don't have a good ear for recreating the way someone from the third ward or the lower ninth ward might speak .To me, there is no one New Orleans accent that I can pin down and use authentically.
However, as someone who went to school in the Midwest, I feel that I can write accent and dialect well enough so that readers can tell the difference between a character from The Southside of Chicago, a character from Decatur, and one from Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
On the rare occasions that I use dialect, I try to run it by people who is from the same region. They are great resources for telling you what you've got wrong and what works.

Robert C Roman
Posted: Friday, June 3, 2011 2:29 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 376

I actually hit this with one WIP - I had a character who only communicated via text messaging, and only used 1337 5p34k. For the first few instances, I gave the leet speak, then had the character he was talking to translate. After that I didn't use the leet speak at all, just noted she was translating.
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Saturday, June 4, 2011 12:54 AM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 59

I avoid phonetic accents (changing spelling in any way, unless it is an odd joke [like, a British character 'saying' colour instead of color]), but I don't have any problem with using slang or dialects, as long as there is a point to it and, if it is necessary, the audience can understand it. Again, there could be a purpose to it. But if there isn't, I keep it simple.
Posted: Sunday, July 8, 2012 6:16 PM
I've already answered this, but I want to come back to it. I often tell people that even if they live in Kentucky not to attempt to write "the eastern Kentucky" accent. For one thing, there's no such thing as "the eastern Kentucky" accent. We all sound different. When I lived in Harlan County, I got good enough that I could stand downtown and tell which holler on which end of the county someone was from. I grew up 60 miles to the west of that county - and my accent is completely different; even then, my accent is different from the people's who grew up "in town".

Accents are hard to nail down. And like has been stated throughout this thread, they're tedious to read. If I pick up a book and someone's dialogue has been fully written out in accent, or if the names are hard to pronounce, I'll put it down and move on to something else.

Edited to add:

Like, here's an example:

I had a speech professor in college who liked to tell the rest of our class that, "Mari swallows the middles of her words." How would you write that? One might put "l'il" for little, but that's not how it sounds when I say it. It sounds more like "liddel" or "lih-uhl". When I say "middle" it more often comes out more like "mill". (It took me forever in that first class to learn how to say, "intrasting" instead of "interesting" even though "intrasting" is simpler to say. LOL)

Also, where I grew up, we all say, "Loolvuhl" and not Louisville. Depends on where someone lives in this state how it's going to be pronounced. There's a town down near where I grew up called Barbourville. Nobody calls it that. Everybody calls it "Barvuhl".

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 2:42 PM
Just to see what it was like, I downloaded a copy of "The Blue Lagoon" from Kindle free downloads. Paddy talks in dialect. It gave me a headache. I deleted it.

Posted: Saturday, July 28, 2012 8:10 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

Depends on the story. Could you imagine Huckleberry Finn speaking with... no accent? What would happen if you took the accents out of The Color Purple? Or The Joy Luck Club? Or The Grapes of Wrath? The list goes on. 

Heinz spoke with a heavy German accent. "Attention! Whatever that thing is you're doing, you will stop it or you will be shot."

or.. "Actung! Vatever zat sing is you are doing, you vill stop it... or you vill be shot!"

Welcome to McDonald's. What can I get you today?
Country Bumpkin Jim-Bob leans out the window of his '86 Bronco. "Yes, madam. I believe I will order a number six, please, with large fries and a Coca-Cola. Also, I would like to purchase a Happy Meal for my Siamese twins."

Or... "Howdy! Gimme a nummer six with biggie fries 'n a soda pop. Coke. Throw in one a them damn Happy Meals, too, got me some Siamnese twins here raisin' hell... 'scuse me a sec. Ya ain't gettin' two. It don't matter what hole it goes down - it all lands in the same gut."

I prefer accents. They're fun and entertaining. And it makes dialog so easy when you need only to report exactly what the characters say. If you can't hear the accent or if you don't know how it sounds, or can't produce it by speaking with it in the real world... work at it. That's what writing is - hard work.
Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 1:00 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

I don't care for accents or dialect.  Few people get them right and they can be downright painful to read.  Even Mark Twain has tried my patience at times, and he's usually hailed as THE example in discussions like this one.

If any of you are familiar with fantasy author Karen Miller, she has a trilogy and then a few follow-up books wherein the main character is regularly saying things like "sink me bloody sideways."  On the one hand, Miller remains true to form -- the character does this for the entirety of every book in which he appears.  On the other hand, I tend to want to skip over every single thing the character says because I just can't take reading it.  Words should flow off the page.  I shouldn't have to stop and sound out every line.  There's a reason I don't read the comments on, despite the fact that I like to look at the cat pictures!

The problem with the isolated examples in this thread is that they are isolated examples.  For the McDonald's order, sure, one of them seems more in character.  But I just couldn't read a whole book -- or even a whole scene -- like that.  And I'd argue that the first alternative is too extreme in the "politeness" direction and doesn't reflect the way anyone actually talks, so a false dichotomy is set up with that example.

The incorporation of small variants, as discussed by others in the thread (nae and so forth), is much, much easier to bear.  I recently read Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin; this book is narrated by a working class maid.  She has a few speech patterns that distinguish her from her upper-class employer, but it's just a word here or there, maybe a verb conjugation or some other small thing.  It's effective at conveying the differences between the two characters without being hard to follow.  And of course, you might have a character who says "ain't" and another character who doesn't, or one who curses and another who doesn't, and personality, culture, origin, etc. can be conveyed with these little pieces, as well.

I tend to read fantasy most of the time, and there's absolutely no reason to include accents in fantasy.  English accents, German accents, Russian accents -- these things don't exist in fantasy worlds.  Presumably, the people aren't even speaking English and what's being offered by the author is a translation.  I have learned by talking to several Chinese graduate students in the US that they can tell that people from Georgia and the UK sound different from each other when speaking English, but that they (the Chinese students) didn't realize it had to do with the speakers' accents.  So there's a "does it translate?" aspect, as well, when dealing with foreign language speakers and accents.

Anyway, this post is now sort of long and meandering but my original point was that heavy use of accents or dialect is apt to turn a lot of readers off.

Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 11:01 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

If you're saying don't use accents, I'm going to say use them. Specifically, use accents that are easy to 'hear' and contribute to the reader's experience in a meaningful way.

Consider the differences between the following:

French: "Madam, if eet is not done vell, vat ze hell is eet vorth? Hon... hon... hon... oui, oui?"

(- or "Ma'am, if it is not done well, what the hell is it worth?" Yes?)

Scottish: "Oi! Geet yer arse aff the fence ya skanky numpty!"
(Excuse me. Get your backside off the fence you disagreeable person.)

or Irish "It be no problem af mine, I've got me lucky charms."
(It's not my problem. I have my lucky charms.)

or Chinese "Dr. Chang say you have no gall-blatta."
(Dr. Chang says you have no gallbladder.)

or Redneck "Dang ol thang, all - y'all, dang all thang."

or Queen's English, "Oh yah, jolly good, what, what?"

or Russian "Is no good vithout accent. Like borscht no good vithout sour cream. Like Boris no good vithout Natasha."
(It is no good without an accent; as borscht is no good without sour cream; or like Boris is no good without Natasha.)

or Yiddish "Oi vey. Can't tell a tzaddik from a schlemiel?"
(Oh my. Are you telling me you can't tell a Hasidic spiritual leader from an awkward, unlucky person?"

Regardless of this discussion's length or where it is supposedly meandering, I insist that accents done well add to a story's entertainment value. And is that not what we are here for? To entertain?

Sneakyburrito, you say German and Russian accents don't exist in fantasy worlds. What about Kuldurn accents? Why am I not allowed to give my fantasy race an accent? I hear an accent when they speak my main character's language. He hears it too! Must I reject all accents for the sake of an easy read? No. I reject that idea. I don't believe the only way to win readers over is by never challenging their ability to read. Call me a fool for doing so, and when I'm never published (which is likely) you can nod in silent approval. But I'm standing my ground on this.

Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Friday, August 10, 2012 2:25 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

hagenpiper, I think in the end, we may have to agree to disagree.  Accents may be fun for you, and I'm sure you very much enjoyed coming up with the list in the above post.  I just happen to have a visceral reaction to accents and dialect which is pretty much the exact opposite of yours.  Chalk it up to personality differences, I suppose.

I absolutely agree that challenging the reader is a good idea.  But I suppose this means different things to different people.  I prefer works that challenge me to think about ideas, ethics, social structures.  If a book contains scientific elements, I like to think about whether the ideas presented are feasible or not (I'm a biochemist).  If a book presents a clash of cultures, I like to try to understand where each side is coming from.  I guess I care the most about content and don't want stylistic choices like the use of dialect or accents to interfere with the delivery of said content.

I think of words as means to ends, and not ends in themselves.  Yes, word choice is important.  It's crucial.  (I'll admit to having little patience for literary fiction, where it often seems to me that three or four adjectives are used, when only one is needed.  Perhaps the same part of my brain that is reacting to excess description and figurative language is also reacting to accents and dialect.  I know my prose is terse.  It's a choice I've made, and is reflective of who I am.  I couldn't write any other way, with any sort of authenticity.)

But too much play with words is distracting, at least to me.  There's a danger of lots of style covering for little substance.  (I'm not implying in any way that you, specifically, have a problem with this, as I don't think I've read any of your work on here.)

I actually don't think of my characters having accents.  They have names and physical appearances reminiscent of certain actual human groups (for example, Haitian Creole, or Asian Indian -- which is an admittedly broad category).  And if a reader wanted to imply, based on that information, that there are accents involved, that would be all right with me.  But I make the conscious choice not to spell them out phonetically.

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, August 10, 2012 5:18 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Okay, I'm going to put my two cents in.

Using dialect was all the rage back in the 19th century. Every one did it, and Mark Twain got famous for it. Today using dialect turns off many readers, not to mention makes it hard to get published. (What, say you?) It's simply out of fashion because a majority of readers prefer not to struggle that hard to read a book. There's making your reader think, and then there is torture.

Sorry hagenpiper, but I have to side with Sneaky Burrito on this one. I took a class with one of the foremost Twain scholars in the US (which means that I've read plenty of his work), and your accent sample gave me a headache.

When used sparingly, accents and cultural phrases can be charming and funny. I suggest reading Christopher Moore's A DIRTY JOB as an example. He has a Chines and a Russian lady that live in the same building as the protagonist. The Russian woman finishes almost every dialogue piece with "... like bear." It's short enough that it doesn't grate on the reader when repeated. I've even caught myself saying it occasionally.

You don't have to go overboard with spelling phonetically to get an accent across. A little dialog tweaking will do. Just using words like soda/pop/coke, yeah/yes, you all/ya'll conveys regional language and class here in America. Do the same in your fantasy. Language is complex all on it's own when trying to convey to the reader their education, class, beliefs, and/or region. Dialect can complicate that.

GD Deckard
Posted: Saturday, August 11, 2012 8:19 AM
"The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, gang aft agley."

Y'don't need to speak Burn's tongue to get the meaning & that's what I strive for. I try to distingiuish between characters with dialogue that "seems" real world but never with words nobody knows unless the context makes their meaning obvious.
Posted: Monday, November 5, 2012 5:43 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 222

I think this is just one of those subjects that is so subjective that it is hard to say yes or not to it. I've seen it work where the slang was so thick you had to try to pronounce the words and hope you got it right -- but it worked because it was well done and it fit the character.

However, I've seen the exact reversal of that, where while it did fit the character, it took more out of the reading than it added.

For me, I'm very skeptical about reading a book that is heavy on the slang. Flavor text is one thing, but if the character does nothing but slang, I find it boring and contrite. Slang develops because of a cultural influence.

When we lack the influences that created the slang, it is distracting flavor and nothing more. If you manage to incorporate the culture at the same time you work with the slang, it can work.

Most, however, I find can't do that well.
Michael R Hagan
Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 6:27 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

This is gonna be subjective to the reader. What level of slang can they cope with without them having to make a conscious effort to read through the dialogue.
I think it's necessary, as without it, there must be a risk of all the charcters sounding the the author. The same is said of dumbing down some characters vocab, or in my case stretching to write for the more educated ones. I always use a little slang or accents for the MCs. If nothing else it helps me to get into their heads when they've to react to situations.

It's a while since the original question was posted, but being Irish myself, if you've anything specific you'd like to run past me, we may have found one area that I can actually give a worthwile opinion!

Oh yes, and don't forget to say which part of Ireland as there are many differing accents and regional terms.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 11:02 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

Stina Liecht has done a good job with a specific Irish accent in  her books Blood and Honey and Blue Skies from Pain.

It's a tricky thing, because readers differ in how much they'll accept.  In the case of Liecht's books, the way of speaking is definitely part of the characterization--and to my mind enriches the books considerably. 

Sam Kearns
Posted: Friday, November 30, 2012 5:14 AM
Joined: 11/28/2012
Posts: 2

I would argue that if you were to write a full length piece using slang and dialect, you'd need to be certain about a few things.
1) You know the language really REALLY well.
2) You're including the language to make it part of the novel's overall theme/style/ect, I.e it isn't just because the characters are from a certain place
3) You passionately want to do it. Because I can imagine that it would become quite difficult to keep up unless it's truly part of your vision for the work.
Either way, I couldn't do it XD 
Ed Ireland
Posted: Friday, November 30, 2012 10:33 AM
Joined: 11/10/2012
Posts: 11

In my book "Crime Scene" the main character is from Philadelphia. Being from the city and having been raised in a similar setting I was quite comfortable in writing the dialogue in the quarks of Philadelphian. I tried to keep them at a minimum because in some cases, if you're not from there then you'd have no idea what i was talking about.
I think the same applies to every use of accents and dialects. They're needed to show the character in their true light yet they can't be so true as to alienate the readers.

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