Learn how to write accents and dialects in your stories because it will help you write about crosscurrents between people and places. Regional dialects help to convey a sense of local character speech in stories.
Dialect and accent as literary terms – definitions
‘Dialect’ is the language used by people of a specific region, class or other social group. Dialect includes elements of language such as pronunciation, grammar and spelling. ‘Accent,’ by comparison, refers to pronunciation – the overall way speech sounds due to vowel and consonant production and syllabic stress.
Here are 6 tips for using accents and dialects in your writing better:
1: Make sure you use accent and dialect for the right reasons
When writing about a real group of people in a work of fiction, there are important things to remember. A stereotypical rendering of regional accent or dialect based on racial, cultural or ethnic ‘difference’ could cause offence. Accent and dialogue in fiction may perpetuate harmful stereotypes. The simple-talking so-called ‘native’ features strongly, for example, in fiction of past eras that either consciously supported or failed to question supremacist projects of conquest and domination.
When you use dialect, make sure you are using it for the right reasons. Ask yourself:
- Is it integral to the story (for example, is it used to reinforce the main character’s outsider status in a close-knit regional community)
- Are there stereotypical expressions associated with the accent or dialect you should take care to contextualize, use sparingly or avoid?
Make sure when you describe the speech of a character whose mother tongue isn’t your own that your efforts don’t come across as superior or mocking. Giving each character believable speech will make your characters more three-dimensional.
2: Make a list of regional colloquialisms/slang
In all languages slang differs by location. In UK English, for example, many people say something is ‘pants’ as a synonym for ‘rubbish’ (‘pants’ being an informal word for underwear). You can see a list of 100 British slang words and phrases here.
If you plan to set a story in a real-world place, make a list of local colloquialisms/slang. Find local news websites or YouTube channels and watch video, listening for the inflections of local speech. Learn how regional accents sound but also write down any unusual expressions that crop up often. Effective dialogue has the ring of natural speech.
Slang considered outdated in one country or city is often still popular in another. To make your characters’ dialect typical of a place and time, make sure any words you’ve included are current. Slang goes in and out of fashion.
3: Use eye dialect carefully
‘Eye dialect’ is the term for representing deviations from ‘standard’ pronunciation using alternate spellings (for example, writing ‘fella’ instead of fellow’). Often, a character’s non-standard speech can be represented using apostrophes to show omissions. For example, in writing Southern US dialect, writers might show the flatter ending of ‘-ing’ words using apostrophes, e.g. “fallin’.”
Writing about non-mother-tongue speakers can seem bigoted or prejudiced because a writer can try too hard to mimic the ‘otherness’ of a ‘foreign’ character’s speech. Dropping a ‘g’ here or there is different to changing every word to the point of ridicule.
Here are pointers for using eye dialect well in fiction:
- Make the minimum changes necessary to convey the effect of an accent (‘I’m tellin’ ya’ is preferable to ‘Ahm tellin’ ya’)
- Avoid over-relying on single, overused words to create the impression of an accent (e.g. Using ‘y’all’ for conveying southern accents) – variety is key
- Find additional ways to convey regionalism
4: Learn how to write accents other ways: Use word choice and placement
In an excellent piece on the history of dialect in fiction, Jennifer Sommer touches on the fact that using eye-dialect in fiction has become unpopular. Sommer suggests creating the effect of dialect using standard spelling because paying attention to word placement and the cadence of sentences is a less heavy-handed approach.
One way to convey the speech of a character using word placement is to use transliteration, as this is how many people actually speak:
What is transliteration?
Transliteration refers to the way people often transpose the grammatical structure of sentences in one language directly into another, even if the second language has its own, different rules of grammar.
For example, in French, plural nouns take plural adjectives (whereas in English, you would speak of ‘white cars’, not ‘whites cars’). When describing a character who is not fully fluent in the primary language of your story, find grammatical particulars of their first language. Use these to create sentences that use transliteration to convey imperfect translation.
Transplant grammatical structure like this to create a sense of a characer’s special situation between geographic places.
5: Learn and use the most common language errors
In many books of fiction, characters of later generations interact with first-generation immigrant parents or grandparents.
To capture the speech of characters who are in an unfamiliar place, speaking an unfamiliar language, learn the most common errors that people from your characters’ home country make. Take the example of Russian immigrants to English-speaking countries. In the Russian language, there are few auxillary verbs (verbs such as the verb ‘to be’ or ‘is’ are inferred from context). Thus errors such as ‘he good man’ (for ‘he is a good man’) or ‘you go work tomorrow?’ occur.
Use language errors consistently but sparingly to avoid creating national, ethnic or cultural caricature.
6: Create local speech variation with idioms and sayings
Idioms breathe life and colour into fiction. For example, in French the phrase ‘to have the cockroach’ (avoir le cafard) means ‘to be depressed’ (the term was first used by the poet Charles Baudelaire). To create a sense of local particularity, find popular region-specific phrases you can use.
Southern expressions such as ‘fixin’ to’ (for ‘about to do something’) are excellent examples of local idiomatic language. If a character from your novel is from a distinctive place, give them exclamations or expressions that convey this background.
The above also applies for creating dialect differences between fictional groups in an invented world. If you write fantasy or dystopian sci-fi fiction, invent regional idioms and sayings that draw on local myths or practices to give each place in your novel its own character and modes of speech.
Are you writing a story incorporating representation of accents or dialects? Share your viewpoint on writing accents in the comments below.
If you want to start sketching believable characters for your novel, use the Now Novel process to create a helpful story blueprint you can work from.
18 replies on “How to write accents and dialects: 6 tips”
What if your characters are space aliens? How do you develop a language based on what is spoken on Earth? I refuse to be JRR Tolkien and create a new one or several, SMH, LOL
I think in that case English will suffice!
In a case like this I would suggest using references of what others have done and see if you can apply similar principles.
To use the Mass Effect videogame series as an example – the language used by aliens is largely English, but the application is always altered to underline what is *alien* about the aliens.
You have the Elcor, who communicate emotions to one-another via pheromones. So they have 0 inflection on when they talk. This means that when they communicate with other species they have to accommodate this in how they speak. eg. “Enthusiastically: yes, I wish to accompany you.” They literally add the mood descriptor in front of each dialogue, in the dialogue.
You have the Hanar, who only ever refer to themselves in the third person, though that is a cultural quirk, not one required by their biology. eg. “This one would request an additional beverage.”
You could then also have more minor things to underline difference. Like the Asari (monogendered, sensual, blue-skinned, long-lived race) using the term “Azure” as a colloquialism for their nether regions, because, well, they’re blue. There are also small things like the greetings all Quarians use, which is one of the only different language you ever hear, but its only that one phrase. (Keelah’salai) And then the Volus who refer to other races by ‘clan’, so a human would be “Earth Clan” and are addressed as such. “Greetings, Earth Clan, what would you like to purchase?”
There are thousands of works of sci-fi out there, so I’m sure there are a lot more references that could be used to see how you can change English’s presentation to make the difference clear (Star Trek comes to mind). The hard road is of course to make the other race use a fictional language, which with aliens, might be even more difficult than Tolkien, since he just mashed together a bunch of ancient languages to get his, where an alien civilisation would ideally be as distanced as much as possible from a human connection. (See here: the weird noises aliens in Star Wars make…how would you even write that as a dialogue? Our alphabet doesn’t really cater for those sounds) In cases like this, I think simple descriptive writing would do the job; since we can’t understand it anyway, we’d get bored reading meaningless words.
TL;DR Figure out what makes your aliens different from humans, then leverage that in dialogue, be it biological, or sociological.
Excellent advice, Eisen. Thanks for contributing your perspective.
how can i write it with an accent? the kid is saying it, it, it … (stuttering). shhould i go so far to write, i’, i’, i’ ? he should’nt be able to pronounce ts but it doesn’t look quite right..
Hi Tara, great question, thank you for asking. When in doubt, my advice would be to write “i…i…i…,” he stuttered, struggling with his tees…’. The reason is a lowercase ‘i’ makes it clear the word fragment is not the first person pronoun as this would be capitalized.
It is common to write elided consonants as an apostrophe, e.g. when writing the Southern US accent feature of saying darlin’ instead of darling. However here I agree ‘i’ i’ i’ would scan awkwardly. Hope this is helpful!
I’m using word, in dialogue I wish to indicate that the speaker drops their h’ s as in:
I smiled and asked politely, ‘Is your wife with you today?’
‘Na, she was lying down when I left ‘ome and so I came on me own. ‘Ow’s ‘e goin’ this year?’
‘Well, it is important that I meet you because he is having a few issues at this early stage of the year. He…’
‘Yea, ‘e hates school. I get it, I always did too!’
I have been told to use curly quote marks and word reverses the direction of the apostrophe. Do you have any ideas? How can I overcome this?
Thank you for reading our blog and your great question.
That is correct, having a reversed apostrophe in place of the omitted letter is standard. In the example you’ve shared, the apostrophe should be facing away from the O and the e. I would also suggest instead of ‘e for ‘he’, perhaps ‘ow’s [name of character] doin’ (or the reader may struggle to see initially what the lone ‘e’ is referring to, especially since they have been speaking about a wife and not a male character). This would help for clarity.
Additionally, dropping every instance could become overkill. It may be more helpful to find specific slang someone with this accent would use and use that language more to show where they are from (for example, if it’s a Cockney person, they might use rhyming slang, such as ‘trouble and strife’ for ‘wife’, etc.). I hope this helps!
Hi, there! I got here by researching dialects in literature. For my dissertation, I want to research how dialects are portrayed and how these are translated into different languages, specially those dialectical marks that are shown when speaking a second language (e.g a French person speaking English). I need to gather at least 10 novels that show this phenomenon. I’d be really thankful if you could repply to this comment with some examples.
Thanks in advance!
Hi Miss Ft, that sounds an interesting thesis topic. Off the top of my head, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh would be two examples. Although if by dialectical marks you mean diacritics (e.g. the French ‘è’ in ‘une espèce’ – a species), these aren’t typically written when writing a character’s accent in English (more often, a phonetic approximation is used).
Searching for papers on ‘dialect in literature’ (e.g. this one on dialect in Irish literature via Jstor) should help to find more examples as well as discussion. Good luck!
So, I’m writing a book, and it’s in first person. There is a character who has a strong dialect in it. She doesn’t have the main point of view a lot, but when she does, what should I do? Since the narration will have her voice, should I give it her accent? Or do I drop it when she isn’t speaking and write her part normally? Please help!
Thank you for the interesting question! That is a challenge. It’s easy to overdo dialect. I would suggest using a little dialect if writing from her POV but try to keep it to a minimum so it doesn’t become like caricature of a particular group or place.
For example, if your narrator was from Southern USA, you could drop the G here and there (e.g. ‘darlin’) and also mix in references that a reader from the region would be likely be familiar with. I would say think beyond funny spellings to aspects of regional speech such as:
– Regional sayings, proverbs, idioms
– Any unusual phrasing people from the region use (for example, in parts of Ireland, it’s common to use ‘so’ as a substitute for ‘then’, as in ‘What are you waiting for, so’). I found this one out by editing an Irish author, never having encountered it before. Words like the Scottish ‘wee’ meaning ‘small’ are similar.
So doing a little research should help. If you’re inventing the place/dialect, then you have greater freedom, but remember – less is more when it comes to accents and dialect.
I hope this helps! Good luck.
[…] your narrator’s voice to his/her backstory. Your character’s diction, dialect, and inflections should reflect his or her background. […]
[…] origins, it was often used to show the speech of uneducated characters and I also came across this idea: “writing about non-mother-tongue speakers can seem bigoted or prejudiced because a writer can […]
Hello, my narrator is illiterate and Sicilian in 1690 and so I chose to render the whole thing phonetic and without punctuation…as the story develops she gets an education and I want to show that through the changes in her narrative. Do you think this is too ‘hard’ to read…would I be better only dropping a few aitches and leaving apostrophes to show where I dropped them? Thanks for your answer
Hi Georgia, thank you for sharing this interesting information about your current project. I would say that is quite an experimental choice and thus may divide readers. You wouldn’t be the first author to develop a character through language though (James Joyce of course comes to mind – in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he starts the narration using child-like vocabulary while his central character is a child, e.g. ‘moocows’). However I would advise simplicity being the guide here. Bernadine Evaristo wrote Girl, Woman, Other using minimal punctuation and there have been others, as per this article here.
Eschewing usual punctuation would put your book more in the ‘experimental’ category which could mean a hit to commercial appeal (though not necessarily). Where I would advise caution is with phonetic spellings, especially if there is a simpler non-phonetic or standard alternative.
If the phonetic spelling makes the word much harder to parse, keep to the standard English rather. It may be clearer to suggest her illiteracy by showing, for example, her trying to read simple words and not understanding them, and then using conventional spelling for her own thoughts (as she wouldn’t be thinking in written words anyway, if that makes sense).
If the story were styled as her own written account, that is where a progressive change in spellings and language use might convey a sense of acquiring education/literacy. However if she had rudimentary literacy, she might be able to spell low-level words fine and only struggle with more complex constructions, so perhaps looking at a source on reading levels and age norms would help give you an idea about which words your narrator would struggle with.
I hope this helps!
Hey, so I’m about to begin a project where I have kind of trapped myself into having a bunch of main characters with accents (ex. New York, Dutch, French, etc.) I’ve thought a lot about how I want to make them sound, but when I read this article, I started to realize that I may be overdoing it a bit. Is there a way to accurately portray a certain accent without making it sound offensive? Because I really want to make it sound as realistic as possible without it sounding like I’m making fun of the accent (which I’m not, at all!) Thanks!
Hi Florrie, that’s a good question, thank you for sharing it. One way to do this is to state in narration the character’s accent, then write speech normally (the reader remembering what has been stated about accents). Another option is to look up errors speakers of a specific language group tend to make in English, or learn about the grammar of a language, then reflect this grammar in the character’s English usage (if, for example, they were a French speaker whose English isn’t strong, they might transliterate French grammars, such as using plural adjectives with plural nouns). For example in French you’d say ‘cheveux blancs’ or ‘whites hairs’ for white hair, so giving the occasional transliterated grammar would create the sense of a foreign language speaker without caricature.
I had a Ukrainian Maths teacher in high school who almost never used articles such as ‘a’ and ‘the’ because they aren’t used in Slavic languages (cases indicate how words function). So she’d say things such as ‘What is answer?’ or ‘Here is problem:’. This can be a very effective way to create the sense of ‘foreign’ speech without reducing it to ‘Zut Alors!’ and so on. I hope this is helpful!