How to write accents and dialects: 6 tips

How to write accents and dialects- 6 tips

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.

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

Definition of eye dialect‘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

Worldbuilding tip - inventing idiomsIdioms 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.

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  • Mimi SassMouf Brooks

    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!

    • Eisen

      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.

      Some scenarios:

      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.

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