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Slang considered outdated in one country or city is often still popular in another.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.