Saturday, February 25, 2017

Writing Accents with Milo Thatch

Accents are essential for worldbuilding, can make a very defining trait for characters, and are just part of making your book more realistic. I have been fascinated with accents since I was a child and I've been imitating them for years to the amusement of even some of the native speakers. But accents are also tricky to write. You don't want to butcher an accent and disrespect the speaker or sound inauthentic, or sometimes you want to write an accent and you just have no idea how to start. Let's first define what exactly is an accent. It's such a broad term. I've brought in my friend Cassidy Clayton who is majoring in linguistics at University of Rochester to define that for us:

Milo: How's my accent?
Kida: Boorish, provincial--and you speak through your nose. 

Any accent besides yours is often easily detectable. The presence of accents, however, boils down to differences in phonology (the study of languages’ sounds, or phonemes) and how each individual or group produces the sounds of their language/languages, or differences in the rules between languages. 

One common accent type is the ‘foreign’ accent. This accent occurs when a speaker learns another language, and can’t quite fully adapt their own phonological (or other) rules to match those of their second language (there’s a number of reasons that this happens, most having to do with other fun linguistic facts, but that’s a topic for another post ^~^). Not all languages contain the same sounds—for example, German lacks the ‘w’ of ‘with’ and the ‘th’ of ‘this’. So, someone (say, your character) with a ‘German’ accent often replaces these phonemes with the sound v and z; ‘with’ -> ‘vith’ and ‘this’ -> ‘zis’ (although, to be honest, German is fairly overused and stereotyped—there are literally thousands of other languages to pick from, each with their own fun twists.)

Another thing to consider is the reality of accents within a language. In the USA, for example, there’s a vast difference between the way someone speaks in, say, Arkansas, versus the way someone speaks in New York City. Even though the two speakers both use English, they each acquired different ways of producing the sounds of their native language, due to regional patterns (i.e. southern dialects tend to have broader, more lengthened vowels than northern dialects). Keep this in mind when you’re worldbuilding—different groups of people develop different ways of speaking, even if they’re speaking the same language. The reality, of course, is that everyone has an accent to someone else. 

Researching the Accent

For my books, I've done a lot of studying for the many different accents I incorporate including, Icelandic, Southern United States, Boston, Scottish, British (including Windsor and Cockney), and Kiwi (New Zealand). I've gone about this in three ways:

1.) Talk to Someone Who Have That Accent - I had the brief privilege of working in a British corner shop. There I heard accents from people all around the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia. I've also traveled to France and Canada. I got to to study these accents first hand and I even spoke to the speakers about their terminology and so forth. As Cassidy said in her blurb, look for how they pronounce certain words like how Canadians pronounce "about" or how Scottish people will roll their Rs. The more you study accents, the more you develop an ear for them. This is the best way to learn an accent, but sometimes one can't always find someone from the source, which brings us to our next tip ...

In Alberta, Canada with Cassia
2.) Listen to Actors or YouTubers Who Have That Accent - I had to find someone who spoke in an Icelandic accent for Red Hood, but I don't know anyone from Iceland. Thus, I searched on YouTube for people from Iceland and I found videos of different speakers from Iceland. Another thing I like to do is listen to actor interviews. I say interviews as opposed to movies or shows because actors will often change their accents for a role. If you check on IMDB, you can find where an actor is born and then look up interviews, so you can hear their accents. These are a few actors that I know that are from different countries (If you have some more you'd like me to add to the list, let me know):

Great Britain: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, & Craig Parker
Ireland: Andrew Scott & James Nesbitt
Scotland: Billy Boyd, David Tennant, & Graham McTavish
Wales: Rhys Ifans
Australia: Liam Hemsworth, Chris Hemsworth
New Zealand: Manu Bennett & Peter Jackson
Sweden: Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd
Denmark: Mads Mikkelsen
Mexico: Diego Luna
Spain: Antonio Banderas
China: Donnie Yen & Jackie Chan 
Austria: Christopher Waltz
Croatia: Rade Serbedzija

Me with Craig Parker
3.) Look Up the Slang Terms - When I was researching for my Scottish character, Claes, I looked up a lot of Scottish slang terms. This adds a lot of authenticity to his point of view and makes him sound more unique as a character. I found entire lists of terms that I've been able to incorporate with discretion.

Writing the Accent

Now that you know how to research an accent, let's look at how to portray that accent in your story. These are four methods I've seen across dozens of books. 

1.) Just Say They Have An Accent - I personally find this method lazy and not immersive at all. In writing, we're encouraged to show, not tell. I think this is the primary reason why I think this method is not very effective. In the Hive by John W. Otte (a book I really enjoy), the author mentions a character has a "harsh accent" (P. 292). That's such a relative term. German and Klingon could be considered harsh or someone could consider Russian harsh. It's too vague of a term in my opinion.

Then there's the more specific telling there's an accent like in Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. He mentions that Abraham is French Canadian, but other than him telling you that, you have no idea that he's French Canadian. His language is very similar to American. Then he also mentions Cody plays around with a Scottish and Southern accent, but other than a few slang words inserted (more about that in the next category), you really have no idea he has an accent. While I was reading the book, I constantly forgot they had accents.

3.) Insert Words from Their Language/Slang Into Their Dialogue - This mostly works for accents in the same language. Having Southerner say "ya'll", having a Brit call cookies "biscuits," having a Canadian call sneakers "runners," and so forth is a great way to define an accent, because different countries have different words for things and different slang. And this is very realistic. I've seen this as very effective in many stories I've read such as Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

On the other side of the scale, some authors insert words from a different language into dialogue such as oui for French or si for Spanish people. This can work, but make sure you don't overdo it, because it can come off as cheesy. It also highly depends on how strong your characters' accent is, but even that it's shaky. I have an aunt from Ecuador and though she has a very strong Ecuadorian accent, she never inserts words from her language and that's the same with my adopted cousin from Haiti. 

Also if anything they're going to substitute words for less commonly known words like words they would stumble over, not easy to understand words like yes, no, hello, goodbye. I've had people say a word in their language and then ask me what the word was in English as they try to describe it.

4.) Change the Grammar - This has to be my favorite method of portraying an accent. It's the most fluid and it's so effective. Most languages have different grammatical structures in English, therefore, we get a mishmash of grammar, creating an accent. For example, Eastern European and Russian accents tend to omit articles (the, a, etc.). Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo has many characters with Russian (or Ravkan in the book) accents. Here's a quote:
"You can stop craning neck like hopeful goose."
Just a slight change by omitting the "a," but the result is a Russian accent. Six of Crows also has a Shu accent, which is based on Chinese. Unfortunately, I didn't get an exact quote but here is one from an editing client who has a very strong Asian accent:
"Over a couple of month period, we read many books about plant as well as have examined and ate many different parts of plant."
Simply change the grammar and the reader can "hear" the accent. This is also effective for grammar with English like Southern accents:
"Ain't you gonna eat that?"
 Or Cockney accents:
"They was gonna that."
This takes a lot of listening and study to accomplish effectively, but it has wonderful results. 

5.) Change the Spelling of Some of the Words - This is probably the most immersive of all of the methods, but it runs a few risks. Number one is you can change the spelling so much your readers can't understand it. Number two is your publisher may not like it. I've had one publisher tell me to not spell words differently while another one didn't mind, so it's all dependent on who the publisher is. 

In Orphan's Song by Gillian Bronte Adams, she uses "ye" in Amos's Scottish accent. Then on the other side of the scale is Bryan Jaques in Redwall with his Mole Speak which is derived from a Somerset, England accent.

Rogg doffed his hat gallantly, bowing his velvety head. “Gudd day to ee, zurr an’ miz, noice t’meet ee oi’m sure!”
Dotti leapt lightly ashore and curtsied nicely “Bo urr, gudd day to ee, zurr Rogg. Stan’ on moi tunnel, but you’m an ‘ansome gurt beast, hurr aye!”
Rogg threw up his big digging claws in surprise. “Burr! You’m spake ee molespeak vurry gudd, miz. Whurr did ee lurn et?”
Dotti answered in the quaint mole dialect. “Moi ole mum’s molechum, Blossum Bunn, she’m taughten et to oi when oi wurr a h’infant, bo urr aye.” (A tale from Redwall: Lord Brocktree, 64)
Here's an example with a Cockney accent:

"'Ere be takin' this wif ya."

By using apostrophes in the place of letters that aren't pronounced and changing the spelling you can create a very accurate and strong sound for the accent. 

Conclusion - Accents are fun, but tricky. But don't let that get you down. Accents can be something that makes your book memorable.

So Your Character is from Another County Posts (These include brief info on slang and language from different countries):

England or Scotland
The Netherlands
New Zealand
The Philippines


Why do some people have an accent? by Betty Birner (LSA)
Accents (sociolinguistics) Wikipedia
Vowels and Consonants by Peter Ladefoged
A Course in Phonetics by Peter Ladefoged

Have you ever written an accent in your book? If so what kind? Have you ever used any of these methods to write an accent? Do you have further questions about accents? Cassidy will be available to answer questions as well.

You May Also Like:

Character Chatting: How to Do It and How it Benefits Your Writing
Five Tips on Writing A Good Main Character
How Drawing Can Help You Write
How to Write A Good Character Interview
7 Ways to Help You Get Back Into Reading

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