Using characters from different regions and countries is a great way of introducing diversity and adding interest into a story. However, portraying accents and dialects in fiction should be handled sensitively.
The difference between accents and dialects
An accent is the way that we pronounce our words, and is usually associated with a particular region or country.
A dialect is a form of language characterised by vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation particular to a region.
Are accents important?
Most of us are probably unaware of our accents, or think we don’t have one. I have always thought that I didn’t. But to someone from another area, I know that I do talk differently. I often use the dictation function on my iPhone to save time in writing emails and messages. The phone thinks I have an accent, judging by what it transcribes! It is amusing to see its interpretation, but I do wonder if that is how other people hear me. And it is quite possible that this is the case. If I record the same passage again but speaking more slowly and more pronounced, the phone transcribes the correct words.
Writing accents phonetically is not a good idea. We all hear accents in different ways, so how one person writes their interpretation of the accent will be different to someone else. Trying to reproduce an accent phonetically is offensive and discriminatory. It could also be seen as poking fun at the accent being depicted. And remember that we all hear accents in different ways.
The point here is that we all have an accent, so for one accent to be singled out as different and to be drawn to the reader’s attention may not be appropriate. Accent and country of origin may be an important part of the story, but there are ways of introducing accents sensitively and without stereotyping or mocking.
As a reader, it is hard work and not much fun trying to wade through a poor interpretation of someone else’s accent when you really just want to focus on the story and know what happens next, rather than trying to decipher what a character is saying. The story should be what the reader is concentrating on and not how a character pronounces their words.
No matter what the accent is of the person speaking a particular language, the words will be spelled the same way, so the nationality of the speaker is irrelevant.
If the accent or dialect is not essential to the story, then consider if it is necessary to mention it. Why is it important to mention that one person speaks with a Spanish accent but not to mention the other accents? But that Spanish character could bring so many interesting facets to the story other than their accent.
How can I show accents in fiction?
Characters are diverse and interesting people with fascinating stories, which could be especially true if they are from another country. Think of all that potential for adding to the plotline… If you consider that letting the reader know that someone has a certain accent is important to the story, then there are various ways that this can be shown rather than told through cringeworthy phonetic spelling.
All places have their own local dialect and sayings. I was brought up in a small town on the border of the East and West Midlands in England. A frequently heard expression there is me duck, which is used as a term of endearment and also in general everyday chitchat. I haven’t heard that expression used in the north-west of England, where I now live, but I have heard many other expressions used locally, such as nesh, which I’d never heard before living here. If you’re wondering, nesh means weak or feeble.
Local dialects are an interesting way to show where characters might originate from. Adding in the occasional expression will add interest but trying to emulate it throughout the dialogue will not work. If you want to use local dialects, it’s a good idea to do some research on what terms are used in the area, but bear in mind that even within the same city or county there could be differences between one area and another.
Character observations are a subtle way of mentioning accent. Someone could think how beautiful an accent is or even tell the person through dialogue. A character might notice an accent and wonder to themselves where the person is from, or perhaps recognise it as they have a friend who speaks with the same accent. In the example below, fourteen-year-old Ellie is apprehensive at meeting her maths tutor, Noelle, for the first time.
Ellie stood up at the chime of the doorbell and peered down the hallway as her mum opened the door. She was quite old, forty maybe, something like that, and she had an accent, Irish or Scottish.
Then She Was Gone, Lisa Jewell, (Chapter 5. Kindle)
Dropping in an occasional word
Slipping in an occasional word to indicate where a character is from is another way to demonstrate someone’s accent. An Italian character could drop in the occasional si or grazie. A voilàorbonhere and there would not be out of place for a French-speaking character. And, of course, many people are multi-lingual
Paul was tactful.
‘Bleu? He’s your…Your partner?’
Audette snorted. ‘Quel imbecile! Some partner.’
The Second Worst Restaurant in France, Alexander McCall Smith (Chapter 9, Kindle)
The 44 Scotland Street series, also from Alexander McCall Smith, is set in Scotland, and the accents of the characters are alluded to with an occasional Scottish expression dropped into dialogue. Below is an extract from a conversation between Big Lou and Matthew.
Matthew took a sip of his coffee. ‘Schadenfreude,’ he said. ‘Which means—’
Big Lou cut him short. Oh, I ken all about your actual Schadenfreude, Matthew. Don’t think I don’t know all about that.’
Matthew sighed. ‘I know all about that, Lou. I suppose I’m pretty lucky…’
Big Lou nodded. ‘Aye, you are. And do you find that other people envy you? Do you notice it?’
The Peppermint Tea Chronicles, Alexander McCall Smith (Chapter 7, Kindle)
As discussed earlier, it’s inappropriate to write a word from any language phonetically. Best practice is to spell it correctly and use the relevant accent marks and special characters where required; for example, voilà. Accented characters are available in Microsoft Word by accessing: Insert>Symbols>More Symbols
Many people do drop consonants in their everyday speech, for example goin’, dancin’, doin’. But if a character does speak in this way, use dropped consonants sparingly. It can be offensive and stereotypical to depict speech in this way, and occasional use is enough to help the reader. It is also tiring to read a book where dropped consonants crop up several times in dialogue.
Dropped consonants can also come at the start of a word, for example
’ang on. The apostrophe at the start of the word should be facing to the left. If you use Word and type the apostrophe in before the rest of the word, it will default to facing right as Word will think it’s a quotation mark. Try typing another letter before the apostrophe and then delete the unwanted letter. The apostrophe should stay facing to the left. Alternatively, an apostrophe can be inserted from Insert>Symbols>More Symbols on the Word ribbon.
Information about a character’s nationality could be revealed through narrative or dialogue. For example, someone from a country with a warm climate could compare the coldness of the British winter.
In the extract below, Sean’s nationality is revealed through casual conversation with his son.
Daniel pulled a face. ‘I can’t really do French. Can you, Dad?’
‘Sure and us Irish have always had a lot in common with our French brothers and sisters.’
The Holiday, T. M. Logan (Chapter 3, Kindle)
Using italics to denote non-English words
Seeing non-English words emphasised in italics is something that we are generally used to seeing in books and other publications. Italics draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the word is different from the surrounding text. This issue is considered in episode 82 of The Editing Podcast, which discusses understanding microaggressions in editing. Crystal Shelley helpfully points out that many words from other languages are now everyday expressions in English, but they are not italicised. Examples include cappuccino, cafe, spiel and macho.
Another issue discussed in the podcast is that many readers are multi-lingual and use other languages interchangeably, so drawing attention to non-English words could be interpreted as otherness.
The practice of italicising non-English words is diminishing, and independent writers should not feel that they have to follow publishing style guides that state this rule.
- Consider whether it is essential to refer to a character’s accent. If it is not key to the story, then maybe it isn’t important.
- Avoid spelling words phonetically to show the accent of a character. This can be offensive and is likely to be difficult for the reader to follow.
- Consider using other ways to show a character’s accent. Local dialects, occasional use of non-English words or expressions, observations, dropped consonants or backstory are all great choices.
- It’s not necessary to emphasise non-English words in italics, and doing so could be seen as a microaggression.
The Editing Podcast – episode 82
The Holiday, T. M. Logan, Zaffre, 2019
The Peppermint Tea Chronicles, Alexander McCall, Abacus, 2019
The Second Worst Restaurant in France, Alexander McCall Smith, Polygon, 2019
Then She Was Gone, Lisa Jewell, Cornerstone Digital, 2017