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Editor’s note: this column on accents first appeared on the Xchyler Publishing blog.

Accents & Dialects


In my last post, we talked about how choosing the words your characters say helps to develop not only their history, but that of the world around them. In reviewing it, one perfect example of this popped into my head: TV’s Firefly, and its spin-off movie, Serenity. In this series, the screenwriters created an interesting historical backstory simply with the characters’ vocabulary. They interspersed the English with Chinese explicatives and other easily decoded words to hint at a world where the Chinese culture had become dominant.

Today, we’ll discuss how to give your characters regional or cultural “accents” to help develop your writing voice. This can be a perilous proposition, and is done badly far more often than done well. The author must learn to strike a delicate balance between communicating with the reader, allowing the reader to forget the author exists, and giving their characters the desired patois.

The trick: moderation. In spelling, choose one or two particular characteristics of the dialect you want to reproduce, and use it consistently. DO NOT go all out and try and write phonetically. It just doesn’t work. For the reader, the focus then becomes about the letters on the page, rather than the character’s voice in their head.

Here’s an excellent example of how not to do it. (Fortunately for Ms. Talbot, Josie makes only one appearance in the story that goes on to redeem itself.)

Mechanized MasterpiecesFrom “Tropic of Cancer” by Neve Talbot, in Mechanized Masterpieces: a Steampunk Anthology (2013)

Returning to the house from the lagoon, as I strode around the veranda, the sound of voices coming through the open windows of Bertha’s bedchamber arrested my steps.

“I tell you, Josie, the man has the touch. He sets me ablaze.”

“Dat leedle toad, madame? Oh, no. How cood he?”

Bertha laughed. “Not all men can be breeding studs, Josie.”

“Eben so . . . I would nebbah—”

“You do not understand, my girl. The man is an engineer. He makes a science of pleasure. I have never before had such a lover.”

“And Meestah Rochestah?”

“Mr. Rochester is a silly little boy, afraid of his own shadow.”

“Den, why do ye let dat ape touch ye?”

“Because Rottstieger is not here, wantwit. And Rochester—his physique surpasses Julian’s—all of Julian. He is not without promise.”

“Den, ye muds let me hab Julian. You hab no fuddah use ub him.”

“There you are wrong. Should I find the perfect man, with Herr Professor’s technique, Julian’s good looks, and Rochester’s stamina . . . well. Then, you could have my black. But until then, I require all three, especially since Rottstieger has been away for so long.”

“But Rochestah—he will find ye out.”

“Josie, one simply disappears into the cane fields, and Julian has such an appetite by noonday.”

“Rochestah—he promise us a house een down—a proper English house. Ye must mek heem do eet.”

“Patience, my girl. He cannot keep us here forever. After I have trained him up, then you shall have him for a plaything. And then, he shall be so wracked with his silly English guilt, I shall have him wrapped around my finger. He shall have you every night and do whatever I say all day long.”

The maid tittered. “Oh, madam. I could nebbah like heem. He be far too oogly.”

“Close your eyes, you simple thing. The face is not the business end of a man . . . or an ape for that matter.” A chuckle, deep and sensuous. “. . . and betimes one simply must have the beast.”

So, what’s the right way to convey cultural diversity in language—your character’s voice? Here are a few tips:

  • Spelling: choose one or two common phonetic alterations in your spelling. For instance, Ms. Talbot could have chosen to substitute ‘a’ for ‘er’ at the end of sentences, so ‘never’ would have been ‘neva’. However, be consistent, and be sparing.
  • Foreign words: slide in one or two foreign words in contexts the reader will understand, such as endearments or explicatives as in Firefly. Again, use moderation. Often authors will tell themselves that since they’re repeating the English translation in the very next sentence, they have addressed the difficulty while giving the story an “authentic” feel. Yes, it improves the reader’s comprehension/understanding, but it also jerks them out of the narrative as they look to the author to enlighten them. In good writing, the author vanishes; they become the unseen puppetmaster allowing the reader to suspend their disbelief. Don’t spoil that by making the strings obvious, or, worse still, demand the reader follow your directives, expecting them to make the puppets dance. They won’t. That’s not the show they came to see.
  • Idioms. Does your foreigner mangle common phrases? Is it raining dogs and cats? Agatha Christie’s Poirot, for all his brilliance, is great at this.
  • Speech patterns. Different languages follow different rules, but often times the speaker doesn’t quite perfect the translation. For instance, some languages might not use ‘be’ verbs. Others might not use pronouns but always use proper nouns, even in when speaking of themselves. Some languages invert the subject and predicate of a sentence. Easily name an example of this you can. You hear Yoda’s voice in your head. Admit it. Allow these differences to seep into the English and you give the speaker a foreign flair.
  • Vocabulary. Never mind foreign languages. Regional dialects can be just as distinctive. Does your character eat potatoes or spuds or taters? Cookies or biscuits? Do they drink soda or pop or Coke? Fizzy drink, anyone? Do deliveries come in a lorry or truck or van? Would they say, “I slept in this morning because I caught a cold,” or “I had a lie in as I took a chill?” For that matter, do they vomit, throw up, or get sick?
  • Punctuation. Is your character terse? Do they talk in short, clipped sentences, or do they run on and on at lightning speed and never seem to pause to draw breath so you just want to wave your hands and scream STOP! Are they always quick with an answer . . . or, do they pause to think? D-d-d-do they st-st-stutter? Or . . . or . . . or do they stammer now . . . now and again? Do they flit about from one thought to another—this is one of my worse habits—too many dashes. Even silence can speak volumes about a character. All these examples are crammed into one paragraph, and, as you can see, use the tactic too much and it starts to look gimmicky. Moderation.

The Accidental Apprentice by Anika ArringtonMy last example is an excellent one. Author Anika Arrington achieves the near impossible by writing in the vernacular, in first person, in present tense, all while allowing the reader to forget she’s even there. Without stooping to write a crusty old salt’s dialect phonetically, she allows the reader to hear his voice in their head, in all its sea dog glory.

The following excerpt is from the short story, “Sense and Cyborgs,” also found in Mechanized Masterpieces: A Steampunk Anthology (2013). As you read it, note how she follows the above rules. (I’m making this long as she’s such a pleasure to read).

From “SENSE AND CYBORGS” by Anika Arrington

No one makes cyborgs like they does in Singapore. That’s why we set sail there when the Cap’n lost his leg. We were sailin’ round the Horn, see, takin’ ships as they come for Her Majesty’s Navy. Privateerin’ ain’t exactly the most honest way for a sailor to make his wage, but least it’s legal.

Well, one great Portuguese tub proved too spirited. One minute we had them on the run, pullin’ the best of their cargo from the hold, the next, our first mate is screamin’ to heaven on high. In all fairness, the cap’n is her husband, but the shrill nature of the female voice ain’t exactly intimidatin’.

“Harris! Harris! Help me!” she’s wailin’ and there’s all manner of fear in her face and blood on her hands. We gets him to his cabin, and she turns to me like I got to know which way’s north now.

“He’ll be all right, Dashwood,” I tells her. “Just do what ye can for him, and I’ll get the crew goin’. Where’re we bound?”

“The Orient,” she says, without no waitin’.

“There’s only one man that can do what we need.”

The only question be’n would the Cap’n make it, and it’s dicey there for a bit. Caught a storm not twelve hours after he regained consciousness, at which point he passed right back out, if you please. The first mate’s still screamin’, but in the way that meant we ain’t moving fast enough for her tastes.

They say it’s bad luck havin’ a woman aboard, but when Mrs. Margaret Dashwood-Campbell gets in high dudgeon, it’s like sailin’ under the command of that Greek Athena, Goddess of War and Wisdom, a thing out o’ legend.

“Mr. Harris, get that sail into position, or your wrinkled brow will spend the journey to Singapore on the Maiden’s head!”

“Aye, Dashwood!” is all you can say, and hop to it.

We all knew she were worried for the cap’n, so we soldiered on, but two days of tossing on the high seas was nearly all we could take. Lucky for us, the storm blew itself out without leaving us becalmed.

Tweren’t easy makin’ fast sail at half rations for so long. Even havin’ the monsoons wid us, there’s more than a few unkind things said ‘bout the cap’n and his first mate.

“Ain’t right sailin’ under a woman,” says Beakman one day at mess. “It’s her bein’ on board got the cap’n hurt. Now only God knows where we’re sailin’ to. I don’t like it. I won’t stand it much longer.”

“Beakman, you are as daft as Harris is old,” says Martin—who ain’t more than three summer’s my junior. “It was Dashwood saved the captain’s life, and we’re sailin’ to Singapore. Everyone knows that.”

“So she says, how do we know she ain’t sailin’ us all to our doom?” Beakman pipes back.

“’Cuz more than one man on this boat can navigate, you great lump,” I puts in. “Just cause you gots kelp and not much else ‘tween yer ears don’t mean the rest of us can’t read a star or two. Now quit yer yammerin’ ‘fore Dashwood finds outs, and decides to clean her knives on yer face.”

In the end, we touched the docks in west Singapore, sweet as you please, ‘bout an hour before sundown, and not sixteen days after the cap’n was injured.

Singapore is a swarm of bodies bumpin’ and jostlin’—a great mix o’ peoples wid all different faces. First Mate Dashwood sets us a haulin’ them heavy crates of goods down, and in the midst of the bustle she calls Martin, Beakman, Boarhead, and meself aside. I enters the cabin, and there’s the captain all laid out in a wooden box. His face beat up and the color of the sail. His leg is missin’, just a great wad of bandages. Next to him is a long package wrapped up so’s we can’t tell what’s in it, but mark me if it ain’t just the size to be the leg that ain’t there.

“He’s dead?!” I asks.

“Of course I’m not dead, you water-logged moron!” he sits up, and shouts at me before he winces and drops back down.

“You think we can just move him through the streets, and no one will say a word?” Dashwood says looking me in the eye. “You think Captain “Dagger” Campbell would be allowed to hobble about looking for someone to bolt him up?”

I feel the shame of my stupidity burnin’ me neck.

“’Course not, ma’am.”

“Do I look like a ma’am to you, Harris?!” she hollers. She grabs the nearest object, being a sexton with all the fine etching, and heaves it right for my face. She’s a dapper hand with the thrownin’ knives she is, but the sexton’s a mite big, see?

I catch the sexton, and cut me hand in the process. Ain’t nothin’ worse than a cut in a man’s hand. Makes all work harder, goes to infection faster than anything I know. Well, I suppose the cap’n’s leg is awful bad, but my cut hand feels like a stiff price for callin’ the first mate “ma’am”.

“Sorry Dashwood, just trying to be ‘spectful.”

“Well, you can ‘spect me by putting the lid on and shouldering my husband off this tub.” She gestures at all of us, and we goes to work.

When a man is bein’ lifted in the glory after a skirmish or durin’ some good drinkin’, he’ll stay perched up on the shoulders of two men and hardly weigh two stone. But when he’s near death like the cap’n, laid out in the wooden box, it took all four of us to bear him aloft. And no light thing it were, neither. The dock swayed ‘neath our feet as we left the gangway. Beakman’s knees buckled, and the captain nearly hit the drink.

“Move it along, you louts!” Dashwood hollers, and we know there’s a man out of a job or worse if the cap’n goes tumblin’.

We follows Dashwood away from the crush of the pier, the hawkers of the markets, and the patrols. More than once we had to hold up while some group or other went past, the stillness addin’ to the cap’n’s weight. And I notices that we go straight past the surgeon’s street. I see a few walkin’ past us there with a bit of work done on an arm or a leg. You see a man with a bandage or a rag holdin’ some bit of hisself together, and you knows he’s goin’ straight for the street of the butcher surgeons. That’s where they can patch any hurt.

A man crosses our path, so’s we come up short, and you can hear the heavy fall of one foot that’s made of something weightier than flesh and bone. Each physic puts his mark on his work. Some you can see, like the lad with the tree of cogs etched in platin’ on his arm, but others don’t like folk knowin’ where their work been done.

That’s Dashwood. No one knows why or when or what for, but when her gloves and her sleeves part a bit you can see there’s something shinin’ where the flesh ought to be. But she don’t turn for the street of the medics.

We wanders back alleys and weaves ‘tween houses barely standin’. It’s darker here, no lamps, and we stumbles more than walks as we carries the cap’n onwards. The smell of opium slithers about here and there. We huffs and gasps as we does our best to keep the cap’n from banging about in his injured state. Finally, Dashwood stops at a door. It’s all bamboo and thatch, and there’s an elephant with a dirty great cog rising off its back painted in gold. She knocks twice, and the door opens ever so slightly.

Legends & Lore: An Anthology of Mythic Proportion“Please tell the admiral that Dashwood begs a favor, and expects a return on her investment.” The words is crisp and sharp with the tension only a long history of deeds and words with a person brings.

Name an example of the best writing of dialects you have come across? What is the worst? I’ll get you started. Worst: Sir Walter Scott doing Scottish accents. Best: Charles Dickens. Or, worst, Charles Dickens doing Cockney accents;, best Sir Walter Scott. Both gentlemen came on too strong early on, then refined their craft as their careers progressed.

Editor-in-chief Penny Freeman lives, writes, edits, and markets from her home in southeast Texas. She currently supervises several editorial projects, including our most recent invitation-only anthology contest, Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology. Her latest release, Legends and Lore: An Anthology of Mythic Proportions, was released October 2014.

Penny Freeman lives, writes, edits, and markets from her home in southeast Texas. She currently supervises several editorial projects, including our most recent invitation-only anthology contest, Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology. Her latest release, Legends and Lore: An Anthology of Mythic Proportions, was released October 2014.

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