So, I’ve seen this problem when people want to write characters from a culture other than their own:
- They know that those characters speak a different dialect than they do
- And they want to convey this
- But they don’t realize the dialect actually has a rich grammar and other idioms and conventions
- So they end up just using a lot of stereotypes, or mis-using well-known attributes of the dialect
- For instance, white authors who want to write characters who speak AAVE often misuse “be” as an indicator (by replacing “is” with “be” at random times rather than learning how “be” actually functions grammatically and writing it correctly.)
It’s important not to do that. If you want to write dialogue in a particular dialect, it’s important to actually learn that dialect so that you can write it correctly.
and remember, if you’re unsure of how to write a dialect - do research! There are lots of guides to “how to put on an accent” and it’s fairly easy to transfer that into your writing. Or, find someone who speaks that dialect, and ask them for help.
if you have learned the “markers” of the accent but aren’t sure of your ability to transcribe them faithfully all the time, instead of showing the differences in pronunciation orthographically, describe it once or twice when introducing the character.
(quote starts here)
“Can I take your order?” asked the waitress. She didn’t pronounce her Rs and her vowels had a bright sound to them. (Australian, British)
“Don’t do that kind of shit,” he said. Or, something like that. There was a be in there somewhere that I didn’t understand. Was that one of those new fads young Americans did? (AAVE - from a older British narrator visiting the states, perhaps)
My teacher spoke in a peculiar way, putting stress on the wrong syllables, with Ds and Ts for THs. (Québécois)
“The other day, I was trying to tell this one tourist how to get somewhere, so I said, "Oh, you know, you go down Main Street, and then take a left on Jordan, and walk about five minutes,” and he asked me, “Sorry, what boat?” and I realized that we do sort-of say “a-boat,” or “a-boot,” you know?” (Canadian)
(quote ends here)
And of course there are arguments for and against writing accents at all; some people think it’s “othering” to mark some peoples’ speech and not others, while others find it dishonest to pretend everyone speaks the standard (written) language. Do what you as an author are comfortable with, do your research, and try your damnedest to be accurate, polite, and take criticism to heart.
What do y’all think of this?
tbh i would never ever figure out what accent those descriptors were trying to convey and would probably at that point stop reading.
that doesn’t mean you have to phonetically type an accent. i don’t see why there’s anything wrong with just saying “she had an austrialian accent”.
additionally, you can write in a dialect without phonetically typing the accent it’s spoken in. In fact, writing a regional dialect is actually a great marker for the accent in and of itself. You probably don’t want to write your canadian character saying “Oh sohrry I missed your call, I was oot and aboot” because that would be silly. But if you use the syntax and idioms of canadian speech, you can still convey their canadian-ness, and the accent is implied.
As a Southerner who cringes when a Southern accent is very obviously written, even by fellow Southerners, I advise on exercising a great deal of caution when writing anything phonetically (just don’t do it), or even doing more than just the absolute bare minimum of switching of syntax or use of idioms. And by bare minimum, I mean, only use things that make sense in their context and do not even try to go further than that, especially if you are improvising. Southern character uses “buggy” instead of “cart” as they and their friend go to get groceries? Fine. Saying “Howdy” or “y’all” excessively? Noooooo. Southerners who don’t live in the South are very conscious of the way our vocabulary alters perceptions of us; it took me a few years before I started using “y’all” as a form of group address again, especially in a classroom setting, and even now I hear the occasional titter. (Shit, even in the South, one of my student teachers got a full round of laughter from the class for saying pee-can instead of pe-kahn; in South Georgia this is common, being a more rural area with pecan farmers, in N. Georgia we tend to use the more neutral version.)
For a Southerner, the worst you’re going to do is annoy me, maybe hurt my feelings, or come off as classist if you deliberately make the character poor and uneducated. With other accents, AAVE being the first to come to mind, but also any sort of South Asian accent if you’re not from there, writing them phonetically or overusing syntax or idioms runs the risk of making a racist caricature. And then you’re just a dick.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having your POV character speculate briefly on where the other character is from, if you don’t want to take the direct approach suggested above. “She had a drawl to her voice, stretching vowels out for much longer than most of the Americans Stephen had met, but he had no clue where she was from. She didn’t sound like a Texan oil baron, but she didn’t sound like Scarlett O’Hara, either.” And later on he asks her and boom, she’s from Alabama. Or East Tennessee, and she’s actually got a really old-timey Appalachian accent. Or Mars, and she learned by watching True Blood. I don’t know.