A Different Word for Everything

accent

I am reading THE LAST WITNESS, a new crime/police procedural novel by Denzil Meyrick. It’s been a bit of tough sledding for me. The story itself is terrific; it concerns a crime lord who has seemingly returned from the dead after being murdered several years ago and who is making up for lost time by getting revenge upon old enemies and traitors in very innovative and brutal ways. It’s an element of the dialogue that is doing me in, even though it is clever, inventive and in many instances hilarious.

The problem I am having is related, in a way, to Meyrick’s characters. They are all Scots, and talk like them. This is not exactly a coincidence, since Meyrick is himself a Scot. It’s tough to decipher. I wouldn’t change a thing, by the way. A couple of times, after figuring out what the wee lads in the book are saying, I’ve tried saying the sentence or three in American English and it just isn’t as good. When Myrick wrote The Last Witness I am reasonably certain that he wrote it for the British and not the American audience. And there we are. I’m still having fun with the book; it’s just taking a bit longer.

This brings up a question, however. How do you handle accents and dialects in the dialogue of your work in progress? Do you write it as if every character speaks “General American,” which is generally what American broadcasters use? Or, if your book is set in the south (to name but one example), do you write it using a southern accent, of which there are six different dialects and several sub-dialects? My own rule of thumb — generally — has been to write the dialogue using General American, but to describe a particular accent or dialect that informs the character’s accent after the character’s first sentence or two. For example: When she spoke, her accent conjured up images of magnolia trees, of the soft sound of paddles propelling a skiff across murky swamp water. And I did say generally, didn’t I? Sometimes, as in The Last Witness, pairing up a dialect to the dialogue makes things interesting, as I did in a story of mine titled “Disappearing. Soon”:

 

“We couldn’t figure out why  the pilot of the airboat had a baseball bat at the ready, until he swung it suddenly at a tree branch, hitting a low-hanging cottonmouth which went flying across the narrow channel. “Yee-ah!,” the pilot yelled. “I ain’ gonna get bit taday, me!”

 

So how do you handle this issue in your own writing, if it comes up at all? And how do you feel about it when you encounter dialect in your reading? Does it add to the story for you? Or would you rather the narrative just be straightforward?

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43 thoughts on “A Different Word for Everything

  1. I write pirate adventures and it’s a fine line, making sure it’s understandable (job one) while giving a hint of the 18th century Cornish nautical accent that we’ve come to associate with buccaneers (due to actor Robert Newton.) I rely on my wife’s ear. Whenever it’s a choice between being colorful and being understood, the latter wins every time.

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  2. John, your comment about being colorful vs. being understood is perfect. And so early in the morning. Thank you for that! Also…I’m glad you caught the Steve Martin reference. There is an entire generation that only knows him for his (admittedly fine) work as a bluegrass musician, believe it or not.

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  3. It’s a great question, Joe. One should not over-lard it as was the norm a hundred years ago. Yet we shouldn’t give up providing a sense of dialect when needed. My rule of thumb (rule of tongue?) is to use dialect in the first spoken line by a character, to get that sound in the reader. First impressions are important, and create a reference point. After that, use dialect sparingly as a “reminder,” and concentrate on syntax (word order). A recurring signature word, like your Yee-ah (love it) also works.

    It’s a judgment call each time, with the main concern being readability. It’s okay to have the reader slow down a bit to “hear” the character, but not so much that the narrative flow grinds to a halt.

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    • Well, that sums up nearly everything I was going to say, more succinctly. The one thing that I would add is that word choice and rhythm are critical. Coca Cola might be soda, soda pop, or pop depending on the region and the person asking for it might be firing it at you in staccato, sidling up to the request in a long, slow drawl, or making it a dare.

      There’s a big difference between:
      “I’ll take a pop, mate. Ta.” and “I reckon,” he said looking at the parched boy, “a soda pop might be what this young buck needs.”

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      • Thank you, Paul. You brought up an additional issue, that being that we call the same things different names in parts of the country. That big six lane road where the speed limit is a suggestion rather than a limit is called an expressway, in Akron, a freeway in Columbus, and a highway elsewhere. If I’m going to the supermarket in New Orleans I’m “makin’ groceries.” And so it goes. A “submarine” sandwich is a “hero” in some places (not to be confused with a Greek “gyro” which is pronounced similarly to “hero.”) And so it goes.

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    • Thanks Jim! I think your comment about it being a judgement call each time holds true. Does the use of the dialect grease the rails? Or does it throw mud on them? Good point.

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  4. Talk about perfect timing ~ I was just a-ponderin’ this quandary m’self yestahdee.

    🙂

    I’ve tried to keep an ear for accents, partly to kown how to write ’em…

    What I’ve done when writing with one in mind is sort of a hybrid of what you describe. If the accent is important to the story I’ll describe it after a line of dialogue with something phonetic- like:

    He smiled and said, “I believe I’ll just sit out here on the porch.” His thick southern accect contracted believe to “b’lieve” and he said “set” for “sit”. Despite this, he was well dressed and carried himself like an officer.

    I think that level of description allows the reader to know the sound, but doesn’t put my ” cleverness ” on display and me between the story and the reader (and I’ve quit a couple of books where this was the case).

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  5. Oh, yeah~ two rules I pocked up on accent below the Mason-Dixon:

    1. You don’t pronounce your R’s and G’s
    When you’re speakin’ south’n-ese (Jimmy Buffett)

    2. You don’t pronounce the L between a vowel and another consonant- i.e. light bulb = “light bub” / help = “hep” ( from a comedian I can’t recall talking’ ’bout callin’ Air France in Atlanta: “Bon jour, Air Frahnce~ Kim Ah hep ya?”)

    🙂

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    • Thanks for those rules, Jim, which were on proud display in another book I read recently. Also enjoyed your examples. I think it’s best to keep it simple, simply from an ease of craft standpoint: if you have a character speaking in dialect at their introduction, I think you have to stay consistent to keep the character delineated for the reader. One needs to ask one’s self…”Do I really want to start this?”

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  6. That last line should-a been:
    “Ken ah hep ya?” (My spell-check has been corrupted wit such nonsense)

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  7. This is a tough decision but more often than not I go for less is more. Regardless of what dialect or region of the country this will come up–for example, realistically, how many people pronounce the g’s at the end of a word? But I wrestle that an entire novel full of what’s happenin’ would get annoying.

    Zane Grey generally used dialect well but not so much that it slowed the read down. For the right character, it’d be words like “heah” for “here” or expressions like “as fast as I can fork a hoss.” (fork a horse). Personally, the vivid imagery of that statement has always been one of my favorites.

    But I battle with this every time I write something. How much is too much? I have to work really hard at it. If you put in too much, the reader gets tired of slogging through it. If not enough, all the characters sound alike. I just have to keep experimenting.

    It extends from dialect to languages. I have a book that has a lot of Apaches in it. While there might be a few who’d like to stop for a minute to google what that word in the language means, or there may be a few well versed in their language, but mostly I have to write general Americanese, with the real language sprinkled in at strategic points.

    For myself, I’m not sure I would have the patience nowadays to read a book that was heavy and slow with a lot of dialect.

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    • Thanks for bringing up an interesting point, G., re: languages. The writing team of Michael Stanley uses a number of words and terms indigenous to Botswana in their excellent Detective Kubu series. Some you can get from context but Stanley also thoughtfully includes a glossary in the back of each book to help the reader over the rough parts. Not a bad idea, at all.

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  8. I use General American, but I do drop g’s and r’s for Boston accents, for instance. As long as it remains enjoyable and doesn’t pull the reader out of the story I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using accents here and there, though I really enjoyed the way you described the southern accent. 🙂

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Sue. You are easy to please. And one very important thing you can say about General American: it works. I know of one British writer who has a series set in the good ol’ USA but he occasionally drops an Irish colloquialism into the dialogue of his principal character. It sticks out like a Singer sewing machine at an Amish quilting bee! Thanks again for stopping by.

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  9. I tend to follow Elmore Leonard’s advice and ‘use regional dialogue, patois, sparingly.’ Subtlety counts and I like to trust my readers ears.

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    • Very true, Paul. I don’t religiously stick to any one of Leonard’s rules but they are a good guide to at least look at, if not always to hew towards. Thanks!

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  10. Good morning, Joe.

    Great question. Great discussion.

    I enjoy new and interesting dialect…as long as I can eventually sort out what is being said.

    I have Amish characters in my books. And when I have listened to them speak English, I hear a more formal speech than general American English. So, rather than use bits and pieces of Pennsylvania Dutch, I have removed contractions.

    An example of a book I couldn’t decipher: I’ve tried several times to read TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, Le Carre, and could not make it through.

    Thanks for the post.

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    • Good afternoon, Steve! I’ve noticed that dialogue style in your work, and it lends an additional authenticity to it (to those who don’t know, Steve and I reside in central Ohio, which includes an Amish community). I totally get you as well on TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. I didn’t fully understand the book until I saw the movie! Thanks for once again stopping by.

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  11. I lean toward the less-is-more camp, and I like your strategy of actually describing the dialect itself using “American English.” Which – also applied with a less-is-more sensibility – when paired with just a nuance of “voice,” creates an interesting identity without compromising clarity. This is among the many issues of craft that seasoned pros can make look so easy, thus seducing the less-experienced toward a fateful overload. Good stuff today, Joe, thanks!

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    • Thank you once again for your kind words, Larry, which I really appreciate, especially considering the high level of your own work. I especially enjoy your comment concerning the seduction of the innocent, if you will. We only see the end result of a skilled craftsman’s product, but rarely see the notes and revisions, edits, and drafts that precede the finished product. Thanks for the reminder!

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  12. I like Tony Hillerman’s way of sprinkling in a few Navajo terms in his books, as well as Jack Higgins’ handling of Irish characters in his spy novels. Both are masters of dialog.

    Me, I generally stick with normal Missouri American and let all you other folks sort out your weird dialects and Accents.

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    • LOL, Dave! When you mention Missouri American, it reminds me that an accent similar to the one heard in Missouri is also present in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area, but seemingly nowhere else. Also, working class whites in New Orleans sound like they just stepped off of the New York bus. It’s strange how those things travel. Thanks as always for stopping by.

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  13. I thought the use of regional accent was used very well in Wuthering Heights.
    Another good example is the way the street children spoke in Dracula. But I’m still not sure I know what they were saying about the booful wumin.

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    • I think you got it down, Tina! “Booful wumin,” indeed. That circles right back to The Last Witness, which if full of phrases like that. Thanks for those examples.

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  14. My novels are set in Florida and St. Louis, both multi-cultural areas, Joe, and the issue of accents comes up often — from American accents such as Brooklyn to foreign accents ranging from Cuban to Ukrainian. I usually give a line or two that demonstrates the accent, and then refer to the accent in a positive way: “charming but wonky English.”

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    • From what I understand, Elaine, Florida has an accent all its own. I like your “charming but wonky English” phrase; covers a lot of ground. Thanks for sharing.

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  15. This is one of my pet peeves in novels, the over-use of literal dialect. I find it really distracting (to the point of pulling me out of the fictional universe) when I have to stop and figure out what someone is saying. It’s the same with using foreign languages. You can use French, for example, but you must provide a context so I can understand what is being conveyed. No different than when a character has a thick Southern accent or brogue (which can be Irish OR Scottish).

    I read a book a while back with a character who spoke with a bad stammer. It was part of his profile and good for the plot. But the writer insisted on using actual stammering in every line of dialogue…ie: “I c-c-can’t g-get go-go-going.” Yikes.

    As Jim and others said, all you need to do is suggest the dialect or speech condition then less is more. The reader will get it.

    Regional idioms are a different cat, though, I think. It’s interesting to know that folks drink “pop” at the “show” in Michigan, where in Florida they drink “soda” at the “movies.” That sort of usage, when applied carefully, can lend your story a nice verisimilitude. And if you DO get an idiom wrong, boy oh boy, the readers will let you know it!

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    • And it’s so easy to make a mistake with regional idioms. In Maryland, there’s even a difference between Eastern and Western shore. I grew up on the Eastern Shore and thought it was the funniest thing when speaking with someone from the Western Shore who said “idear” instead of “idea”.

      I cannot remember with accuracy, but I think even “soda” and “pop” usage was different on each shore (Eastern shore used ‘soda’).

      And I don’t know if it was universal or just the odd case, but I met a woman from the western shore who said “you’s guys” instead of you guys.

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      • B.K., was that “you’s guys” or “youse guys?” I’m told there is a difference. One of the things I love about the United States is examples like these. Similar examples of what you describe abound in my own home state of Ohio. Akron, in northeast Ohio, experienced an influx of West Virginians after World War II who obtained employment in the rubber companies, driving straight up Route 77. One hundred miles south of Akron, there’s Columbus. It’s a straight shot from Kentucky up Route 23 to south Columbus. There’s a different word for everything. Then, there’s Cincinnati, which is what you get when the South meets Germany. All three cities have their own dialect. It’s fun. Thanks for your examples.

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        • regarding ‘you’s guys’ and ‘youse guys’ I’m not sure. But interesting in either case.

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    • Kris, re: the stammer, I think I might have read that same book, and I had a lot of difficulty as well. I also recently read an otherwise excellent novel where the author occasionally had his characters lapse into dialogues of several sentences in Spanish without any explanation of what they were talking about. With a bit of extrapolation of what came before and after one could kind of figure it out but it wasn’t necessary and interrupted the flow of the narrative. Then, of course, there is The Name of the Rose. Almost half of the dialogue seemed to be quotes in medieval Latin. I took a couple of years of Latin in high school; the gentle hand of Sister Clarice notwithstanding, it didn’t help. Thanks for your on point examples.

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    • Funny you should mention the ‘pop’ ‘soda’ thing. I recently read a book where the term pop was used (I’m a soda person all the way), and it stopped me for a minute. I took the time to look it up, and it was correct in the book’s setting. THEN, I went and checked to be sure I’d used the right term in the WIP. Crisis averted.

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      • Terry, what I take away from your comment is what every writer should do: look it up. I read a book a couple of years ago wherein the author, whose book was set in Louisiana, made references to the “county” sheriff and Orleans “County.” Nope. Louisiana has parishes. It really took away from the story’s authenticity. Thanks for taking the time to get it right.

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        • And one mistake like that can cause your readers to lose trust in everything you’ve written. The hard part is knowing what you don’t know when you think you know it so you can look it up. It never occurred to me that not all cars came with manual transmission options. Thanks to a savvy crit partner for pointing that one out to me.

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          • Terry, thanks for circling back and sharing another great point, concerning the limits of individual knowledge. The Bible notes in various translations and versions that a wise person knows what they don’t know. Just so. I try to start from Ground Zero and proceed from there. Thanks again.

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  16. Mr. Bell r’ared back and passed me a wonderful thing: he told us about how he writes out many things a character would say, to achieve character speech patterns.

    But before he passed along the idea, I was working on my story, now accepted by a publisher. In the story is a little Chinese girl, an orphan, who is adopted by a former Ms. World Leader and her husband. Che-lan is also weak constitutionally, and she often doesn’t feel well.

    She comes to America, speaking no English, but it is obvious she is smart and funny. Her family is well-off enough to hire translators for her and them, but her family also recognizes that they must learn to communicate with one another without professional interpreters getting in the way. How else are they going to say such things to one another as “I love you,” or “Would you please pass the pepper?” or “The dietician says you should eat a more balanced diet,” or “It’s called a ‘touchdown,’ honey.”

    And, the only Chinese-speaking family around are the owners of the local Chinese restaurants. All of their employees are white Americans. The restaurant family latches lovingly on to Che-lan, but, alas, they speak Mandarin when they speak in their native language at all. Che-lan speaks Sichuan (Szechuan) Mandarin, a language that has similar vocabularies but a completely different style and way of speaking.

    So I went to the internet and old TV programs to find as many examples as I could, of native Chinese speakers (of any Chinese dialect) speaking English. I listened carefully to their English phrasing, their gestures, their facial expressions. I watched their helplessness when they didn’t know how to express something in English. Then I translated all of that into Che-lan’s speech pattern.

    In one extended scene, I have her tell the story of how she met her new mother and father, and the family that owns the restaurants. I tell about how much love the Chinese family showed her. And then I have her explain to the daughters of the family, in a meeting, why she set up trust funds for them. (How she got the money to do that was a fun thing to create in itself.) I felt it was important to get Che-lan’s speech rhythm and accent and expression as close to authentic as I could.

    And then, later in the same story, I created a female character who lived in the backwoods of Tennessee until she was a young teenager, who then eventually joined the U.S. Marines. I went through the same process of listening and guessing.

    I’m sure I lost hair and weight during the learning and writing process. There are probably waitresses and dry cleaning shop clerks who will never wait on or talk to me again. But that’s what it took me to learn about how my characters speak in contemporary America.

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  17. Jim thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your story. My favorite part of it was what I would call your extraordinary, hands-on, real world research. Everyone working on a novel should print your paragraphs out and tape them up above their workstation as an example of how the job of writing gets done. Thanks again.

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  18. I have quite a few Southern characters in my stories. It’s an easier read (and more realistic) to toss in an occasional word of dialect to flavor the dialogue.

    Whereas something like this: “Reckon I’m gonner mosey down to the crick and cetch a mess o’ bream” just bogs down the narrative.

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    • Mike, point taken. Thanks! A local colloquialism (“cher,” “makin’ groceries,” “Where y’at”) sprinkled here and there gets the point across just fine. Pages of dialogue can be overkill. Best example I can think of is Look Homeward, Angel, a book which I love, ironically enough, but which takes me a month to get through every time I read it.

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  19. Sorry to be long-winded, but one more note on Southernisms. I’m a Yankee by birth, and in the north I’m John, or Mr. Baur, depending on the circumstances (when I’m not, “Hey! You!”) . But down here in Louisiana, I find that at the doctor’s office, in the bank, almost anywhere the other person would address me by name, I have become “Mr. John.” I’ve been here three years now and it still brings me up short.

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    • John, you’re not long-winded. I’ve encountered similar treatment down there — being called “Mr. Joe” or “Sir” — and from just about everyone who is younger than I am (which is, uh, just about everybody). And it’s prevalent elsewhere in the deep South as well. Last year I met the members of a currently red-hot band from Birmingham, AL backstage while my daughter was taking still photos of them and they about sirred me to death. They wouldn’t sit down as long as I was standing, either. I’m not sure what it’s called now but it used to be called “manners.” Thanks for the reminder that such are not entirely gone.

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