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Understanding Accents

By Guy Anthony De Marco
Copyright 2008 by Guy Anthony De Marco, All Rights Reserved

A friend of mine, born and raised in Scotland, once complained about how the Scots are portrayed in books. "It's not the characters, for the most part; it's the way authors try to write with a brogue. To me, it makes Scotland look like a bunch of uneducated people mumbling under their breath.

I never thought of it that way. I picked up some genre fiction that included heavy accents, and I had to agree.

In general, there are only two rules when portraying accents in literature. The first is the dialogue must be done in a consistent manner. If a character says canna for cannot, the word 'cannot' shouldn't appear in her dialogue. The only things that can change the way someone speaks is if there is some influence modifying the character, such as if the character is possessed or has multiple personalities, or, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, gets training or adapts to the environment over a long period. Changing the way one speaks takes a lot of effort and time. I'm originally from Brooklyn, New York, and it took a few years to rid myself of my heavy Brooklyn accent. I still sometimes trip up and say "New Yawk" or "Gimme a cuppa cawfee, please."

The second rule of accents, and one that tends to get bent, is the character must say things that the reader can translate. If it looks like the character accidently chewed up the words before spewing them, the reader may decide to pick up a different story to read. The line between decipherable and indecipherable can be thin, and changes depending on the reader. An author must balance the way a character speaks so the audience can extract the important elements necessary for the enjoyment of the story.

Some writers decide on a few words to give a particular character a recognizable speech characteristic. Others set up certain vowels or patterns to modify. Take, for example, Hagrid, from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, when he first tells the boy he's a wizard:

"A wizard, o' course," said Hagrid, sitting back down on the sofa, which groaned and sank even lower, "an' a thumpin' good'un, I'd say, once yeh've been trained up a bit."

In the example, Hagrid uses o' for of, an' for and, and yeh for you, and words ending with ing are modified to in'. Ms. Rowling uses these speech patterns consistently, throughout all seven books. The rest of the words Hagrid speaks are spelled normally, in Standard English.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author uses accents to distinguish the characters and their class.

"Poor critturs! What made 'em cruel?--and, if I give out, I shall get used to 't, and grow, little by little, just like 'em! No, no, Missis! I've lost everything,--wife and children, and home, and a kind Mas'r,--and he would have set me free, if he'd only lived a week longer; I've lost everything in this world, and it's clean gone, forever,--and now I can't lose Heaven, too; no, I can't get to be wicked, besides all!"

In this example, the author only uses a couple of dialogue modifiers, but the effect is powerful, especially when compared to the way the slave owners speak. The sentences are stilted, but the reader can easily extract what the character is trying to say.

Look closely at both excerpts. Notice that the authors choose the most obvious speaking differences. The rest of the dialogue appears 'normal.' These speech characteristics give the characters flavor and life, and set them apart from the rest of the cast. Note that the respective authors did not try to make every spoken word fit a particular speech pattern. Attempting to do so will result in inconsistencies and dialogue that is difficult to comprehend.

One additional item to watch for is how the reader will react to your dialogue. My Scottish friend refuses to read any novels that make an accent look like an accident at the printing shop. An author should be aware of the sensibilities of the audience, especially beyond North American borders.

As my friend said, "It's you Yanks who have the funny accents. We all talk normally in Edinburgh."


Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; W.W. Norton, 1st Edition, ISBN 978-0393963038

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by J. K. Rowling; Bloomsbury Children's, ISBN 978-0747571667