Writing Dialogue In Accents and Dialect
“W’en old man Rabbit say ‘scoot,’ dey scooted, en w’en ole Miss Rabbit say ‘scat,’ dey scatted. Dey did dat. En dey kep’ der cloze clean, and day ain’t had no smut on der nose nudder.” Uncle Remus – A Story About Little Rabbits, Joel Chandler Harris.
We have a long literary tradition of writing dialogue in accents and dialect. Mark Twain comes to mind, as a master of the written idiom. Dialect instantly gives characters authenticity and offers insight into their attitudes, background, and education. An accent allows the reader to use their sense of hearing and gives text depth and flavor.
On the other hand, using dialects and accents is often a distraction. When accented words are spelled phonetically, they can frustrate and slow the reader down. If accents are inaccurate or inauthentic, they can stereotype or even insult. With all of these risks, writing dialects has largely gone out of fashion. So what is a writer to do instead?
The first step would be to describe patterns of speech in prose. For example, “her honeyed accent melted off of her tongue, slowly, sweetly, and with the same elongated syllables that her mama used.” Already, the character has an established geographical place and a hint of her history. From then on, the reader can hear and even visualize the honeyed accent.
Another tactic is to reflect dialect with commonly spoken words in commonly spelled ways. A writer could insert “gonna” for “going to.” The reader registers these words easily but the speech pattern can also convey information about the characters.
Finally, a writer can pay close attention to phrases and idioms that pertain to a character’s geographic location or time in history. Phrases, such as “she’s dumber than a bucket of hair, bless her heart,” places someone in the American South. “The craic is mighty,” puts someone in modern day Ireland. When carefully researched and used advantageously, simple colloquial phrases can carry as much weight as paragraphs of complicated written dialect.
While we don’t want to lose the art of conveying speech patterns through the written word, in today’s world, there are more subtle ways to illustrate character traits.
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15 Responses to “Writing Dialogue In Accents and Dialect”
A great exercise in “colloquial” speaking appears in Anthony Burgess’s novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Burgess has melded some homemade, and some Russian expressions and words into a fictional future language (set in the UK). He purposely didn’t include a dictionary of the new words to invite the reader to work out what was meant.
Actually dumber than a bucket of hair is a new one to me and I have lived in the American South my whole life. What isn’t new is the use of Bless her Heart. Southerners will use any turn of phrase we find amusing. The issue is in making sure you use Bless her heart properly. Having never been to Georgia, I cannot say for sure that Bless her Heart wouldn’t come after the insult. I certainly have heard enough south eastern Americans use it that way. But, if your talking about someone say from Arkansas or Missouri the Bless her Heart usually comes first.
Bless her heart is our way of asking forgiveness for being rude. In Arkansas we like to ask for it before we do it. 🙂 So what you would hear would be…
Bless her heart, but shes a few ricks shy of a load.
For those who don’t get the reference. A rick refers to an amount of wood that has been cut for firewood. If I remember correctly, you can usually get about two and a half ricks per load in the back of a full size pickup. Thus a few ricks shy of a load suggests someone isn’t all together there.
Mary Ann Hunter
Do you plan to have another short short story writing contest?
Sergey, “accent” is only about how you pronounce words; “dialect” is a whole way of using language (vocabulary and accent) that is specific to a particular region or other group of people.
Great article, Kate. I’d like to see it expanded to include age-specific accent. I recently wrote a poem in first-person speaking as a boy of about 8 – 10 years and have sometimes wondered if I over-did the dialect a bit.
Thanks for this excellent post that points out that fracturing words is not the way to capture the rhythm of dialect or place. While the practice is not as common as it was in Twain’s time, I still see it now and then and it does jerk me out of a story. What is done commonly today is dropping the “g” from the end of a word to try to convey a southern accent. I once had an editor tell me not to do that; to find a way to capture the accent via rhythm and carefully chosen colloquialisms. It worked.
Well, well, well…
Where do dialects finish and slang/argo starts? And are “dialects” and “accents” so much equal in meaning?
Uncle Harris speaks dialect, okay, but is gonna/wanna/gotta, etc., real dialects now? I’m not so sure about this. I can hear it every day from the people of different origin and nationality.
And there’s no much problem to convey, say, the French accent in written, or the Russian one. But how would you convert Russian Siberean dialect or the Moscow street slang into the U.S. one without making native Russian sound like highlander or new-yorker? That’s a problem!
Did I say Irving? Ach, naw. I mean Irvine, awrite?
It just goes to show that you always need to confirm your assumptions – the ‘obvious’ colloquial phrases that tie someone to a specific location may not be as obvious to the reader as to the writer.
Over-use of colloquialism can push the character into the realm of stereotype and cliche.
(And for writing-in-an-accent, if you ask me, you can’t go past Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting, Filth, etc.)
Reading something that’s written in an accent or dialect drives me mad. Usually through proper word choice and strong characterization an author can get a reader to conjure up an appropriate voice for the character.
Sold Out Activist
Before your described first step comes writing what you mean to say, then dialecting later. Worrying about dialects during early drafts is like painting the wood of your house before you built it.
People who read your early drafts might comment on the lack of dialecting, but they shouldn’t have any problem understanding the story. And that’s vastly more important than turns of phrase.
First Draft: “I didn’t do it.”
Final Draft: “I dun didn’t.”
I grew up in the South and I have never heard the expression “dumber than a bucket of hair.” If I came across it in a novel, it would jerk me out of the dream.
One that I have heard is “ain’t got sense to pound sand down a rat hole.”
“dumber than a box of rocks” – American mountain west area
“dumber than dirt” – American sw desert and great basin area, etc, etc. Never heard the expression “bucket of hair” and wouldn’t have known it was Southern, but it’s easy to get the point and recognize that’s from another part of the country.
Interesting, though I’m not sure how or why “in today’s world, there are more subtle ways to illustrate character traits”.
Vivid as they can be, there is a problem with using very specific idioms: they only work if the audience is familiar with them. For example, I have never heard the phrase “dumber than a bucket of hair”, so it was less helpful to me in placing the character than more generic speech traits would have been.
Excellent post! I’m writing a fiction novel, and one of the characters is Frenchman from the 16th century who’s brought back to life in the 21st century. I’m conducting research because I want to make sure I have the proper accent for him.