Writing with an Accent

“…leastways, so dey’s ‘spec. De fambly foun’ it out, ’bout half an hour ago–maybe a little mo’–en’ I tell you dey warn’t no time los’. Sich another hurryin’ up guns en hosses you never see!”

photo credit: sheknows.com
photo credit: sheknows.com

Say what?!


That’s a little citation from page 127 of my fancy hardbound edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, but this passage illustrates one of the reasons I had a hard time teaching the book to my high school freshmen: Mark Twain spelled out the dialect/accent very specifically. So specifically that some of the kids might as well have been reading Greek.

The problem with writing with an accent is that it becomes another language, and the reader is forced to spend mental energy deciphering the phonemes instead of figuring out the story.

We can’t do this to our readers! Especially our tweens!

It slows down the whole process, and it doesn’t really help in the characterization or give the story that much more of an ethnic flair. The tradeoff isn’t worth it in lost readership of people who just give up and grab an easier book.

But my character is Scottish/German/French!

Yeah, I get it. We don’t have to spell it out. Literally.

Now, I am not pretending to improve upon Mark Twain, but let’s use that citation above as an example. We already know the character is a slave from the deep South. That alone tells us there’s an accent, and the reader can use imagination to fill in many of the details. What if, instead of spelling everything out, we made it a little easier…

“…leastways, so they ‘spect. The family found it out, ’bout half an hour ago, maybe a little more–an’ I tell you, there weren’t no time lost! Such another hurryin’ up guns an’ horses you never see!”

It still has a flavor of accent, but it’s easy enough to interpret that the average tween reader won’t stumble. It allows a blurry feeling in the diction without making the reader cross-eyed.

Another common culprit for over-spelling accents and dialects is the realm of the Celtic. Anything Irish or Scottish becomes completely unintelligible when spelled out. It’s bad enough to hear it spoken live!
Instead of…

photo credit: alternatehistory.com
photo credit: alternatehistory.com

“Men are bu’ bairns a’ th’ best, an’ need close watchin’ e’er.
Andra’s nae be’er than th’ res’, as of’n I discuvver.”

…just keep it simple.

“Men are but bairns at the best, and need close watchin’ ever.
Andra’s nae better than the rest, as often I discover.”

We love to listen to accents. We love to have characters from interesting places. We love to see a character’s personality through his dialog. But we need to remember that our younger readers will never get that far if they are tripping over apostrophes and bizarre spellings. Have mercy. If someone can’t read it aloud cold without squinting, it’s too much. Take it down a notch and let the comprehension in. If we drop enough clues early on as to what overall accent we’re using, the reader will be able to adapt the pronunciation instinctively without turning it into a linguistic notation nightmare. Then our young readers can dive into the world we’ve created on the pages and live there like a native.

What’s the craziest spelled-out accent you’ve ever seen? How long did it take you to figure out what the author was saying?

14 thoughts on “Writing with an Accent

  1. I had this problem when I first invented Mermin, the endearing, yet lisping wizard in the Andy Smithson series. All his ‘R’s become ‘W’s in pronounciation, like the guy in Princess Bride. It’s hard designing rules for when to make the ‘R’ sound like a ‘W’ when there are ‘R’s within words as well at the beginning and end. Thanks to my editor, we struck a balance so the reader gets the just while not going 2 mph. You asked for examples, well, pre-editing, I’d say Mermin might have taken the prize 🙂

    So I can tell you from ‘weal’ expewience what it’s like to write with an accent…LOL!

    Great post, Lia 🙂

  2. Great suggestions for a very hard skill. I have slave accents in all my Civil War books, and it’s a fine balance. And that Scottish thing? I love George McDonald’s stories, but I have to read full translations. It is the absolute hardest to read!

    1. One of the reasons I’m using your book, THE CANDLE STAR, to teach my tweens about the Civil War era, is because it *is* readable! You got the flavor just right!

  3. Love how Diana Gabaldon uses Scottish accents in her Outlander series. I’ve used accents and old English in some of my books. Slowing the pace is something authors should watch for and your readers will call you on it. Thanks for a great post, Lia! Och! Jolly good show!

  4. Great post! I faced this challenge in my tween book, Arrow of the Mist. My main character did not have an accent, which made things a little easier, but several minor characters had an old Celtic accent. I spelled things out like you suggested, and it worked well. After the audiobook was produced, it was really fun listening to those accents come through 😀

  5. Super post! Even as an adult I hate to read heavy accents or dialects. It slows the pace and frustrates me as a reader and I am less likely to enjoy the book or understand the nuances. I think Tweens would surely feel the same, not wanting to struggle sounding out the words then trying to decipher them. I totally agree with you–give us the flavor of an accent without making it too difficult. Great suggestions.

  6. I love reading full accents in all their inscrutable glory, but your point is well taken in writing for tweens – not many would put up with it. The closest I’ve come to writing accents is Outback Aussies, and most of that is differences in vocabulary and turns of phrase. Any more than that and I would find it intimidating, to say the least, because I’d want it just right.

    1. Right, and you bring up a great point. Sometimes just choosing the right words can give the flavor–saying “lift” instead of “elevator” or “bloke” instead of “guy”.

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