Saturday, June 9, 2012

Writing in a dialect, accent or register

In a previous post  I discussed the difference between dialect and accent, and examined the concept of register – the kind of specialised language we use only in certain situations. Yesterday, I was reminded that I hadn’t followed up on my promise to look into these matters from the point of view of the writer. What reminded me was an author friend’s thinking out loud about whether she should incorporate accent or dialect into a Scottish-based story she was writing.
It is indeed a curly problem. Full-on dialect or an entire new language would be too hard to follow, because most readers are not willing to learn a whole new vocabulary. Some readers are willing – just look at the number of SF fans who have learnt to speak Klingon or Elvish. Our own Joanna Fay has even been known to write verse in Elvish now and then! But these enthusiasts constitute an exception, not a rule. Most readers cannot be bothered learning too many new words, especially since reading science fiction and fantasy invariably means learning strange new given names, family names and place names. We might also have to fix entire world-maps into our heads! Expecting us to learn an entirely new vocabulary is probably going a step too far.
How, then, can a writer represent an accent in writing? Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve decided to have a main character who comes from London. George Bernard Shaw did this very nicely in his play Pygmalion, which later became the musical My Fair Lady. He introduces his heroine, Eliza, this way:
‘Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f'them? [Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.]’
Note Shaw’s directive at the end. Having established the accent, he modifies his representation of Eliza’s speech considerably thereafter, and tells us he is about to do it. But Shaw was a playwright. A novelist can’t step into the text and explain that she’s given up on the accent, so she has to find another way of approaching the problem.
The best way, perhaps, is to pick out a few characteristics of the dialect and show only those in the way you transcribe the character’s speech. To make your point, you can be a bit heavy-handed when you first introduce the character and then tone it down over the course of a few scenes until only hints of the accent remain. But don’t copy Shaw’s efforts by trying to represent the accent by long screeds of text with apostrophes to denote dropped letters. He was giving us a lesson in what not to do!
So can you ever use a seriously full-on accent? Most readers, I think, are OK with an accent that involves just one or two characters, and if those characters are of the ‘cameo’ kind – people who just drop into the story once or twice to fulfil some purpose of the plot – so much the better. But an accent can pall if it is general throughout the book. It is tiresome to read long screeds of text with apostrophes to denote dropped aitches at the start of particular words and dropped g’s from the end of –ing words, for instance, as you would have to do with a Cockney accent like Eliza Doolittle’s. Strange spelling to represent regional pronunciation is also a sticky problem, and without using IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) it’s not reliable. Besides, most people don’t know IPA.
Perhaps the safest way to approach the writing of an accent is by representing not the sounds so much as the patterns and figures of speech that characterise both accent and dialect. For example, using Yorkshire again, we might have a character use expressions such as ‘our lass’ when referring to a daughter or sister, or ‘our kid’ for a son or brother. Idioms such as ‘Put wood in ’ole’ for ‘Shut the door’ and ‘Mash the tea’ for ‘pour boiling water on tea leaves’ would also quickly set the scene as Yorkshire. (West Australian author Anna Jacobs does this kind of thing particularly well in her historical novels, which are set in Lancashire.)
You can, however, get away with introducing a handful of dialectal words whose meaning is always obvious from the context. Greetings are an obvious choice. The standard Yorkshire greetings ‘Eh yup’ (an old Norse greeting – Yorkshire was overrun by Vikings in the ninth century, as any Bernard Cornwell fan will tell you!) ‘Aw reet then’ (All right then) and 'Nah theen' (Now then) will immediately tell your readers where they are, as will the old Cockney ‘Wotcha, cock!’or the Australia 'G'day'. Even people outside the UK will quickly cotton on to the fact that these are greetings. If you’re working with an invented society, it’s easy enough to create a few greetings for your characters to use.
Register likewise needs to be introduced gradually and in a piecemeal manner, dropping in a word here, a phrase there, making sure that the reader has ample opportunity to digest each new word or expression before bringing in more. Let’s say we have a magical system that involves a process called sprunking, that involves taking several different spells then condensing and combining them so that the wizard has only to work one spell for all to take effect. Here’s a bit of imaginary dialogue between a wizard and his apprentice:
‘Shaynee, did you remember to sprunk in the speeded-up turnip-cooking spell when you set up the cauldron for the stew?’
‘Yes, sir, I sprunked it in with the fire spell.’
‘You did what? Demons below, child, haven’t I told you a dozen times or more that you can only sprunk similar things together? A fire spell is a fire spell; a cooking spell is a cooking spell, and you can’t mix the two. First you must deal with the ingredients. You must sprunk in the bit about fast cooking when you call up the turnips.’
That will give the reader a bit of an idea what’s involved in sprunking. To reinforce the idea, the author might show Shaynee working another spell a few scenes later; a spell that involves sprunking, say, a wood-drying spell while making fire.
So, when introducing dialect or register, start with just one or two words, mention each one a couple of times, then introduce one or two more related ‘jargon’ words the third time the first two are mentioned. Repeat from the top until all the required new vocab has been introduced. If you throw too many new words at your reader in the first few scenes, some of them will give up before the end of chapter one and possibly refuse to look at anything of yours again, ever!
Slowly, slowly, catchee reader.


  1. Nice one, Satima. Yes, the rule being 'don't overdo it'. Of course, being an enthusiast, I did have whole languages for my story-world (at a younger and *very* enthusiastic age), of which very few remnants have crept into the current novels.
    Probably just as well! ;)

  2. Inventing languages is an interesting exercise for its own sake. Maybe you could put a page on your web site, Jo, giving us a bit about the language and how you created it? Who knows, you might wind up with a new interest group among fans!