Writing Accents and Why You’re Doing it Wrong

Today a Google Plus question someone asked earlier about how to write accents and dialects in narrations got me thinking.

Generally, I dislike having to read dialects that are created in writing. It makes it difficult to read and slows the reader (me) down. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes to mind as does nearly any fiction that includes dialog including Southern U.S. speakers, Russians, Germans, Middle Easterners, Irish, and Spanish.

Many suggest when writing accent (the pronunciation of words), use it sparingly and use it accurately. I say use it rarely and avoid it where possible. The written accent should be as sparingly used as the exclamation point! I’ll explain why in a minute, but let’s first talk about dialect.

Writing dialect (the word choice and grammar of a speaker) is obviously different. I suggest using this in place of writing dialect. If accent and dialect isn’t the same, how can you replace writing accent for writing dialect? And, why shouldn’t you use accent writing? First, the latter.

Why you shouldn’t use accent when writing dialog

In the past, journalists have written accents into quotations of speakers they don’t respect and don’t want others to respect. I give two examples. One is a fairly well-known instance when a reporter dropped the “g” in a speech President Obama made. Many argued racism was not in play. However, reporters rarely write into quotations the Southern drawl or the New England missing “r”. That leaves one to wonder what was really going on when the reporter wrote Obama’s comments with an accent.

The second, and less controversial (now), was when journalists reported on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, popularized by the Disney musical The Newsies. When journalists quoted any of the striking boys, they were quoted using their thick Brooklyn accents. Why? When other, more powerful, and obviously also Brooklyn natives, were not quoted using their thick Brooklyn accents.

The reason is a bit more stark and a little less edgy considering more than a century has passed since this incident. The reason reporters used the boys’ think accent had nothing to do with accurate reporting. Instead it had to do with making the boys appear stupid and unworthy of serious consideration.

So, I hope I’ve managed to show why you shouldn’t force accent into your writing unless you truly want your character to sound and appear stupid and uneducated. Now, let’s get to the second part: why dialect is a sufficient substitute in your fiction writing.

Accent, as I mentioned, is the way we pronounce words. Dialect is the word choice and grammar we produce as a result of either our native language or our regional location. I’ve shown that using accents in written word has historically been used to make the speaker seem uneducated and unworthy of consideration. But we are still stuck with the fact that, as a storyteller and writer, we want to be able to show an accent without telling the reader the accent. Dialect is your answer.

As before, I give an example: Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Morrison rarely uses accents when she provides dialog that includes uneducated black slaves of the 1860s and/or the white Southerners they interacted with. Instead, Morrison uses dialect. We, as readers, already know the setting (Kentucky in the 1860s) and we also know the race and background of the main character Sethe (a black “former” slave). So, anyone reading anywhere in the U.S. will know with relative accuracy what their accents are. But, the reader is not forced to chug through butchering accents in written language. Instead, the reader is subjected to word choice and word order.

Word choice and word order do two incredible things. One, as you read, you can start to hear the accents come to life in your head. What has Morrison done then? She’s made the reader do the work by doing less work. Secondarily, Morrison has allowed the quotation itself do the talking rather than forcing punctuation and missing letters and added letters do the talking. It’s like the exclamation point in dialog. If you need exclamation points in your dialog, you’re probably doing it wrong.

One thought on “Writing Accents and Why You’re Doing it Wrong

  1. I need to read Morrison. I have to say that I really do like the way Diana Gabaldon handled the difficult Scottish accents – although there is a ton of Gaelic that I (an most people) cannot properly pronounce regardless of the prompting.

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