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Thread: Writing "accents"..

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Writing "accents"..

    How does a writer convey a character's nationality in text? For example, should an Irish character be written with a bit of a brogue? Also, how would one write an Australian accent? Or, is it simply enough to show, during the introduction of the characters, that they're from a certain country and leave it at that?

    I have a character I'm trying to flesh out and I want her to be Australian. But, as I've only heard actors on television speaking the accent (Mick Dundee and Steve Irwin, for example), how do I 'write' that in a story? I've done a bit of research and found websites that offer language patterns and common words and such. But, how much is too much without the character dailog sounding as if it's been cut and pasted from such a site?

    Thanks for any replies.

    -CMS
    *******

  2. #2
    Queen of Typos inanna's Avatar
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    Welcome! I'm no expert, but I am also dealing with this issue. One of my characters is a Brit and the other a non-native speaker of English. I'll just give you a couple of tips off the top of my head, based on what I've run across. Be careful of too much phonetic spelling--at the most just a dash here and there to establish it with the reader, otherwise it gets difficult to decipher.

    I think vocabulary is important and can provide a lot of color, and syntax, the language patterns you mentioned as well. I have my ESL character messing up her idioms a lot.

    I'm sure others will be along with some good advice.

  3. #3
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    I would avoid phoetic spelling altogether, and opt for mentioning that a character speaks with, say, Austrian accent. Word choices can indicate a Brit or an Australian sufficiently (as long as you don't overdo the 'Crikey!' bit.) Overall, I think less is better than more in such situations -- you don't want your characters to come across as stereotypical caricatures. There's nothing wrong with a foreigner who speaks decent English.

  4. #4
    Mexican on the loose! DamaNegra's Avatar
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    You can always point out an accent. Say, one of your characters is a chinese living in the USA. If that guy has a strong chinese accent, while in dialogue, you could point out that Mao's (or whatever his name is) accent is so thick the person he was talking to could barely understand him.

    Or something like that, I have never dealed with that, to be honest.

  5. #5
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    Accent

    A bit of a brogue is not a bad thing at all, but remember that accent is like cayenne pepper--a little bit goes a long way.

    And to really get nationality and region across, you need to use different word choice, and different syntax. in other words, to be convincing, you often need both accent and dialect.

    Native English speakers, such as American, Irish, and English, may all speak the same basic language, but they have different words for thing, they have different phrases and common expressions, and they have different rhythm and cadence.

    With non-native English speakers, an occasional bit of accent is not a bad thing, but the way they use the language is even better. Are they more formal? Do they sometimes not know the right word?

    The best way is to listen, and then try to replicate, not guess. One way of "listening" with native English speakers is to read fiction from the country in question. The way those writers do it is almost certainly the best way for you to do it.

  6. #6
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    Here are a couple of examples of 'Irish brogue' that I've seen written (first two) and that I, personally, have written (last two)....although neither in a published work. The stories were written just for fun and in both cases, the Irish character was speaking to an American character.

    -------------------------------

    Not mine:

    “Ye ken…I ‘pected ta be seein’ stars,” she commented, staring out at the inky blackness. “Isna tha’ ‘e way 'ey show it in ‘e movies?”

    "I be wonderin' 'ow many o’ 'e others 'ere have families who'll be missin' ‘em."


    Mine:

    "Ya can no' have one, Kit," she scolded. "Ya leave crumbs all over the floor."

    "He does no' want ta see anyone from tha north," she replied. "I'm sure he didna mean you and the wee one, though. But, I can no' be sure. He was in a strange mood when he returned. As if he'd lost everythin' that meant anythin' ta him, save us."

    ---------------------

    My daughter says the way I do it (the second two examples) is also "too much" and, given what I've read, so far in replies, I'm beginning to think she might be right.

    So, I suppose I'd like opinions about the above.

    -CMS
    *******

  7. #7
    Neverending WIP Mistook's Avatar
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    I have a character who speaks with a scouse accent. I try not to go overboard, but I do eliminate the "H" at the beginning of most words.

    The thin man walked up to the juke box and perused the selections for a moment before looking back to slade. “What’s that behind you’re ear, mate?”
    “Huh? Is something in my hair?” Slade brushed at the sides of his head.

    “Let me ‘elp you with that, mate.” The old man reached behind Slade’s ear, pulled out a quarter, and showed him the coin. “I guess you ‘ave an ‘ead for money, then.”


  8. #8
    Fig of authority
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    CMS, I agree with your daughter. Those examples are hard to read.

    We had a thread about this subject not long ago. A search for "accent" didn't locate it, but it must be in here somewhere.

  9. #9
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    I find that reading 'accents' slows me down while I try to figure out what's being said.

    I like the idea of using word choices and syntax differences to convey an accent -- and I think there are enough differences there to be able to do so effectively.

    I'm Australian and my husband's American, so I've had plenty of opportunities to notice the differences between the two dialects. Particularly when he says something 'Australian' in his American accent - too wierd!

    My advice would be to find an Australian (or whatever dialect you're interested in), and talk to them, paying particular attention to word choices and syntax. If you don't have access to a genuine one, then someone who speaks your dialect who's spent time in the country. They probably noticed things about the language that were 'different', like a Californian friend of mine who was amazed at how pervasive the word 'reckon' was among her Australian friends.

    Don't forget, though, that there isn't just one "Australian" dialect, that age, geography and socio-economic factors influence the way in which we speak. It's similar for other countries.

    Oh, and as far as Australians go, Steve Irwin and 'Mick Dundee' aren't the best examples ...

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by CMS

    Mine:

    "Ya can no' have one, Kit," she scolded. "Ya leave crumbs all over the floor."

    "He does no' want ta see anyone from tha north," she replied. "I'm sure he didna mean you and the wee one, though. But, I can no' be sure. He was in a strange mood when he returned. As if he'd lost everythin' that meant anythin' ta him, save us."

    ---------------------

    My daughter says the way I do it (the second two examples) is also "too much" and, given what I've read, so far in replies, I'm beginning to think she might be right.

    -CMS
    *******
    honestly, i think you're better off without the respelled words. personally, seeing "ta" instead of "to" trips me up, and seems unnecessary. i mean, plenty of americans pronounce the word such. same for "ya" and "you". honestly, just occasional dropped letters and the word "wee" were enough for me.

  11. #11
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    Angel: *nods* That's what I'm finding out from the replies here and on another forum; just using an occasional word or phrase and, maybe, a dropped letter, rarely.

    Katee: I had a feeling those two people were a bit over the top, as far as accents go.
    But, I honestly don't watch much television so they're the only ones I could think of to use as examples.

    So, being Australian yourself, would you suggest I just do as has been suggested for Irish? Meaning, just use a few words or phrases that are unmistakeably Australian and leave it at that? (with her nationality being pointed out in the narrative, too, of course)

    -CMS
    *******

  12. #12
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    Hello CSM,

    I’ll cast my vote for using only the lightest suggestion of an accent. Just personally, I find the “Ye ken…I ‘pected ta be seein’ stars,” kind of writing a strain to read unless I’m already familiar with how that accent sounds. You might pick out a few words that are particularly distinct and spell only those phonetically (like someone saying pie-ano instead of piano). If you’ve got a non-native speaker with a very unusual accent that most people have never heard, maybe then have a bit more phonetic spelling in the beginning.

    I’m more for using grammatical or word usage differences or errors particular to the character’s accent or language. For example, a Brit using "at the weekend" v. an American using "on the weekend" or a Russian character might misuse or omit articles or might have some gerund v. infinitive confusion. Of course, with non-native speakers it depends on how well that individual character speaks English.

    Also, with foreign languages people tend to lose abilities when tired, tipsy, nervous, or excited and make more grammatical errors than usual. It seems to be true of people with regional accents who’ve trained themselves to speak with a more standard accent (thinking of a Minnesotan friend whose 2 p.m. accent and 2 a.m. accent were quite different from each other. )

    And then there are the social consequences of having an accent. In the States, your Aussie might start to get annoyed with people who feel compelled to say “G’day, mate” when they hear him speak.

    I've only heard actors on television speaking the accent
    Try listening here:
    www.abc.net.au/radio


    Last edited by Zisel; 10-26-2005 at 04:09 AM.

  13. #13
    figuring it all out M.A.Gardener's Avatar
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    I agree - a little goes a long way! If I were reading the above examples, I would probably skip most of it. The only example I can think of that did an incredible job is Zora Neale Hurston. When I read "Their Eyes Were Watching God," I got so used to the style that it became second nature to read.
    m.a.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by CMS
    Katee: I had a feeling those two people were a bit over the top, as far as accents go.
    But, I honestly don't watch much television so they're the only ones I could think of to use as examples.

    So, being Australian yourself, would you suggest I just do as has been suggested for Irish? Meaning, just use a few words or phrases that are unmistakeably Australian and leave it at that? (with her nationality being pointed out in the narrative, too, of course)

    -CMS
    *******
    Over the top is a good way of putting it for those guys ... but they are good examples.

    As for using a few Australian words or phrases... absolutely! You could also have your character make references to things that are Australian - eg Uluru or Sydney Harbour - just in case you want an alternative to mentioning her nationality.

    With the words and phrases though, you'll want to make sure you're using the ones you've chosen correctly. For instance, G'day is a well known Aussie word. But it's used more by men than women, more by those in the country than those in the city, and it's informal -- but then you also run into problem that what's formal/informal differs per culture too. I've noticed that Americans are more formal than Australians are, but they're also more polite (possibly two sides of the same coin).

    I think your best bet would be to have a beta-reader familiar with that dialect/culture have a look over what you've written looking for authenticity. If you don't have access to an Australian, I'd be happy to help/answer questions/etc (just PM me).

  15. #15
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Playing with phonetics in fiction is like tinkering around in a nuclear reactor. You better know what your doing or it'll melt off your face.

    Dickens, Elmore Leonard, Tom Wolfe, Zadie Smith, among others, do this very well. But they are masters. I would be cautious. You can tell just as much-most of the time-about a character by the vocabulary and sentence structure he or she uses to communicate as you can by dropping letters and using unorthodox spelling, without risking invalidating your character's believability.
    Yes, I know that's an atrocious sentence, but I am lazy at the moment.
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  16. #16
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    Katee: You may live to regret that offer. lol

    But, I'll definitely write your name down as a reference and, when I actually start my story and have something for you to peruse, I'll see about sending it your way.

    Btw, this is one of the sites http://www.aussie-info.com/identity/language/ I was referring to. Do Australians use all of these words and/or phrases in normal, everyday conversation? <-- I mean if they're speaking to -non-Australians.

    -CMS
    *******

  17. #17
    practical experience, FTW jackie106's Avatar
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    I really hate reading thick accents. If I already know that the character is Texan/Greek/Australian/whatever, I don't need the author to transcribe the speech exactly as it would be spoken. Just throw in a few key phrases. A Brit might call someone a wanker, but he'd be a pendejo to a Mexican.

    Jackie

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by CMS
    Katee: You may live to regret that offer. lol

    But, I'll definitely write your name down as a reference and, when I actually start my story and have something for you to peruse, I'll see about sending it your way.
    I love talking about language (I majored in linguistics at Uni --> now there's an Australian word for you!) so it would take a lot for me to regret talking about it ...

    Quote Originally Posted by CMS

    Btw, this is one of the sites http://www.aussie-info.com/identity/language/ [img]chrome://targetalert/content/skin/new.png[/img] [img]chrome://targetalert/content/skin/new.png[/img] I was referring to. Do Australians use all of these words and/or phrases in normal, everyday conversation? <-- I mean if they're speaking to -non-Australians.

    -CMS
    *******
    As far as the language site goes, the list was pretty good - I've used/heard most of those words at one time or another. (Some lists of Aussie slang have words/phrases I've never heard of!!)

    The only problem I can see with the list is that it's a collection of Australia-specific words plus slang words. So unless you know the context, they're a little odd. Take lamington (hmmm, now I'm hungry). It's a normal word. Others, like arvo, are slang and typically casual. Others I'd never, ever say in a million years (like hoo-roo) even though there used to be a well known TV identity that said it on his show. Or maybe because of him. And at least one - youse - is considered inappropriate in almost all contexts though if you read the list ("plural of you") you might think it was the Australian version of y'all and so ok to use everywhere y'all is used.

    I figure you've got two options. One would be to write the book as per, and add the slang in your second draft - kind of like adding seasoning to a dish just before you serve it. Or add what you think is right in the first draft, and get it checked by a beta reader.

    In any case, good luck!

  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fishmonkey
    I would avoid phoetic spelling altogether, and opt for mentioning that a character speaks with, say, Austrian accent. Word choices can indicate a Brit or an Australian sufficiently (as long as you don't overdo the 'Crikey!' bit.) Overall, I think less is better than more in such situations -- you don't want your characters to come across as stereotypical caricatures. There's nothing wrong with a foreigner who speaks decent English.
    Overdo Crikey?

    Don't use it! No-one in Britain says "Crikey!".

  20. #20
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    These days I think you can count the number of people in Australia that say Crikey on one hand ... and they're all related to Steve Irwin.
    Last edited by katee; 10-26-2005 at 02:53 PM. Reason: complete brain explosion on preposition use

  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flapdoodle
    Overdo Crikey?

    Don't use it! No-one in Britain says "Crikey!".
    I know. I was referring to the original post, where the poster talks about an Australian character, and Steve Irwin.

  22. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by Flapdoodle
    Overdo Crikey?

    Don't use it! No-one in Britain says "Crikey!".
    Yes they do! That lovable cockney chimneysweep Dick van Dyke, for a start.

    There's nothing funnier than seeing people who've never visited a country trying to mimic the accent based on what they've seen on tv.

    Mistook - why not change your Liverpudlian character to someone from, say, boston?
    and now hang with the staff at the café for creative people:

  23. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Coombes
    There's nothing funnier than seeing people who've never visited a country trying to mimic the accent based on what they've seen on tv.
    Unless its the 100th person that day who's said to you "the dingo's got my baby" and the only way you recognise what they're saying is that you heard Meryl Streep massacre your accent first.

  24. #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by Josh
    Playing with phonetics in fiction is like tinkering around in a nuclear reactor. You better know what your doing or it'll melt off your face.

    Dickens, Elmore Leonard, Tom Wolfe, Zadie Smith, among others, do this very well. But they are masters. I would be cautious. You can tell just as much-most of the time-about a character by the vocabulary and sentence structure he or she uses to communicate as you can by dropping letters and using unorthodox spelling, without risking invalidating your character's believability.
    Yes, I know that's an atrocious sentence, but I am lazy at the moment.
    Actually, even Dickens gave me toruble when he wrote his dialogue too heavy. i tried reading Great Expectations once, but i swear, every other character in hte book was an apostrophe. i just couldn't read it.

  25. #25
    On a Classical groove! MrWrite's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flapdoodle View Post
    Overdo Crikey?

    Don't use it! No-one in Britain says "Crikey!".
    Crikey! I've never used the word in my life...until now
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