I love listening to people speak. I love the differences in their voices . . . some are clear, some are husky or gravelly. Having a husband whose voice is very deep, I tend to notice when a man's voice is more in a tenor range, and it bothers me a bit, probably because I'm used to a lot more color and richness on an everyday basis. But accents . . . I enjoy listening to people who didn't grow up near where I did, because their accents are different than mine.
Everyone has an accent. Whether it's a "foreign" accent or not is all in the perspective of the person speaking and the person listening. Of course I can't hear my own in the same way a friend from England would, and vice versa. I grew up near Pittsburgh, and I don't know how I escaped it, but I do not speak Pittsburghese, and thank God for that. I love my Pittsburgh friends, but that accent gives the listener a distinct impression of IQ level at times, and it's not a flattering one. I imagine every part of the world has its own area that sounds "lesser" to others, whether those people deserve that label or not. Why else do scriptwriters call for a twangy Southern US accent when there's a dumb guy to cast, or a Cockney accent when auditioning for a working-class Londoner?
Writers face a special challenge when trying to convey speech accents in a novel. Not only do they have to incorporate regional speech patterns, but they have to do it:
- authentically—if the local flavor doesn't sound right, anyone from that area who reads the book will be put off, perhaps even insulted
- accurately—if the correct region isn't used, readers will know it and won't hesitate to pan it in a review
- without overkill
Authenticity and accuracy sort of go hand in hand. Whereas a British person who is writing about an American character may be under the impression that all Americans say "y'all" (and sometimes "all y'all") when referring to more than one person, those from Pittsburgh (my easiest frame of reference for this post) tend to say "yinz." And if you've written a character from New Jersey or parts of New York, they may say "youse" instead. Not everyone speaks like that, certainly but you should at least get it right if you use it.
Accuracy means that you won't have your Australian character calling a woman "mate." According to The Contented Traveller, men only use "mate" for other men. Italians have a phrase, "to give bread for focaccia," which means you've responded to an offense with an even bigger offense . . . perhaps the American version that comes closest would be "to add insult to injury." And before the Harry Potter series and the advent of the more casual British literature, how many American readers knew that "trainers" were sneakers and a "jumper" was a sweater?
Overkill is a factor that should be given great consideration. How much is too much slang or regional-ese? Dialogue can be enhanced and made more authentic by the use of these things, but there comes a point when it can become a distraction to the reader. I don't want to read about the guy from Western Pennsylvania asking, Yinz gone dahntahn to wutch the Stillers n'at? which translates to "Are you (all) going downtown to watch the Steelers?" The n'at ("and that") is one of those things people add and I don't know why. But it's tiresome to read line after line of dialogue that's essentially a foreign language while still written in your own.
One of the ways to show some regional color without becoming laborious is to highlight a phrase or two without making it a constant thing. Arlene Prunkl from PenUltimateWord has a terrific article on dialogue and foreign accents that I read a while back, and she mentions this: nobody speaks the way words are spelled, and if we wouldn't think of writing all our characters' dialogue phonetically, why do we assume we should do it for the characters who speak with an accent we don't consider "standard"?
There are ways to show it without forcing it. A character can lapse into southern drawl when she's tired or angry, or a person can say a phrase like the above-mentioned downtown Steelers game (written typically) and another character (or the narrator) can note something like this:
Though she'd lived all over the world for more than two decades, there was something about being in her hometown for a few months that brought her own accent to the forefront and made her words come out sounding more like dahntahn to wutch the Stillers, and he smiled as he watched her in the midst of her family, each of them talking over the others in their excitement.
Do you write characters with particular accents or regional "giveaways"? How do you manage it without overdoing it? Or have you suddenly realized you are overdoing it and want to thank me with chocolate? (In that case, you're welcome, and contact me privately for my mailing address.)
I'd love to hear how you pull it off without bogging down the writing.