“I never had my house pushed over,” she said. “I never had my fambly stuck out on the road. I never had to sell – ever’thing ”
~Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck was not only a gifted storyteller but excelled in his use of regional dialect and accents to paint vivid pictures of the characters that would populate his novels.
The Grapes of Wrath offers a perfect example of weaving a heart-wrenching tale made more convincing through the use of colorful idioms and dialects in its narratives and dialogue.
Whether using a Southern accent in The Grapes of Wrath or a British accent in Sense and Sensibility, integrating the authentic flavor of the story’s setting through the clever use of accents and dialects can help bring a story to life.
This is fairly easy to accomplish on the silver screen—Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady comes to mind—but when it comes to writing accents and dialects in a written work, it can be significantly more challenging.
However, mastering the skill of writing accents in dialogue can be achieved with a little targeted guidance.
Why Do Dialects and Accents Matter in Written Dialogue?
Good writing transports the reader to another land, offering them a glimpse into a locale or an era that they would otherwise have no familiarity with.
This escape to an imaginary place is aided by skillful descriptive language that helps to create a mental picture of time and place. The adept use of indigenous accents and dialects in character dialogue can further amplify the effect.
Character formation is essential when writing a novel. Bringing a character to life through the use of local idioms and dialects endears them to the reader because they feel real. There is no more powerful engine to move a reader emotionally than when they feel connected or attached to a character.
Learning how to write an accent effectively can become an important asset for an author. Writing with accents, or using slang and dialects in dialogue, enhances that emotional connection by adding layers to a character.
General Guidelines to Writing Accents that Don’t Sound Cliché or Offensive
It is one thing to understand how the use of accents or dialects in dialogue can be an effective writing technique, but quite another to pull it off effectively without offending the reader with stereotypes—or just getting it all wrong.
For this reason, it is wise to approach this effort carefully, taking extra precautions to prevent it from backfiring. The best bet is to do your research as you craft the characters, gaining insights about the region and the unique colloquialisms or dialects used there, and then learn how to write accents correctly.
Once you have completed your manuscript and are in the editing phase, consider your use of accents, or lack thereof, in your character’s speech.
Have you accurately described their accent in your writing? Did you convey your character’s voice in their native style without committing a grievous blunder?
For certain, writing accents can either help or hinder your storytelling, as can the use of dialects in writing.
The best bet is to use the accent writing sparingly as a tool to better define your character without it coming off as offensive or obnoxious. Remember, less is more.
Consider these tips for writing accents and dialects:
How to Write a French Accent
While tempting to write a French accent phonetically, such as deleting the letter “h” from words to emulate how the French may pronounce an English word (“horrible” becomes ‘orrible), it is better to evoke the language instead.
Use a common French phrase, such as adding “no?” to the end of a sentence instead of spelling out the actual accent.
Also, pay attention to the French region, as that helps to determine the accuracy of the accent in dialogue.
How to Write a Scottish Accent
Incorporating a Scottish brogue into dialogue can be tricky, as it can bog the reader down.
For example, attempting to have a character say something like these lines, “No one takes you sheriously when you’ve got no teeths,” or “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye” can quickly become laborious.
Instead, try sparingly inserting common Scottish terms, such as using “nae” for not, “noo” for now, or “braw” for nice.
How to Write an Irish Accent
Similar to the quandary of the Scottish accent, an Irish brogue can be difficult to convey in writing without losing the interest of the reader.
Attempting to write the words as they sound phonetically could disrupt the flow of the story and tire readers.
In dialogue use terms that are specifically Irish, such as “ma” or “mam” for mother or “young lad” or “young fella” for a boy.
Also, be aware that Gaelic is a totally unique (non-English) language, versus English with an Irish accent.
How to Write a Southern Accent
Southern accents, such as those you’d read in works by Mark Twain or Harper Lee, can add layers to a character. However, it can also be considered insulting to some.
Keep the age of the character in mind, as a millennial character from the South will likely speak less folksy as the older generations.
Limit the use of common phrases like “y’all” or overusing the verbs that drop the letter “g” at the end—goin’, fishin’, or dancin’, for example.
How to Write a Russian Accent
When crafting a character of Russian, or any Eastern European, descent it helps to understand that they skip the use of articles and auxiliary verbs.
These words are considered overused in the Russian culture, so when speaking English, they routinely eliminate them.
Therefore, a phrase such as “I am going to the theater” becomes “I go to theater.”
How to Write a German Accent
Writing dialogue with a German accent is tricky, as it can acquire a comical bent.
For instance, using the typical German accent, the phrase “I think I know what you want” becomes “I sink I know vut you vaunt.”
Better to describe the character as having German roots and include some of those descriptors in the narrative, rather than attempting to convert the words to portray a German accent.
How to Write a British Accent
With umpteen versions of British dialects in practice, it is difficult to get it right. Even more, British citizens will swiftly recognize mixed dialects.
Instead of attempting to use a British accent or specific dialect for dialoguing, why not study up on some British slang and pepper a few of those into the Standard English?
Also, terms that are used in the U.K., such as loo for restroom, biscuit for cookie, and lift for elevator, can be sparingly used for added flavor.
Note the different spellings for words like center (centre), color (colour), or defense (defence) that can be integrated into dialogue as well.
How to Write a New York Accent
Get to know the different boroughs in New York, pick one for your character, and then stick to that unique accent and dialect.
Depending on the borough, a smattering of “youse” or “spaz,” or slang terms such as “hooptie” (a jalopy), “kicks” (sneakers), or “thirstbucket” (acting desperate).
And remember, when referring to NYC as “The City,” New Yorkers are talking about Manhattan and only Manhattan.
Also, never forget that in New York, a pie has nothing to do with apples—it’s pizza.
How to Write an Italian Accent
People are often surprised to learn that several languages are spoken in the various regions of Italy and that citizens default to Italian only when chatting across regional boundaries.
For the writer shaping an Italian-born character, selecting a region and then learning about their particular language, slang terms, and dialectical nuances will enhance credibility.
Some dialogue may use a “no?” at the end of a sentence, as this is common among Italians.
Also, learn when to use “ciao” or “arrivederci” when your character says goodbye.
Ye Need Sum Help Editing Yur Accents, Eh?
Tackling a character’s foreign accent or adding some regional flavor to a character’s personality is a commendable endeavor, if not always an easy one to successfully execute.
Learning how to write accents is not for the faint of heart!
Whether trying to master a character’s Portuguese accent or attempting to write drunk dialogue, why not get some expert editing guidance from Gatekeeper Press?
Our professional editors are here to ensure that your characters ring true to the reader, while also enhancing your story’s overall authenticity.