Uh When To Da Ster, Or, Why Accents Don’t Belong In Your Manuscript

27 Jan

By Sammy Bina


While reading submissions lately, I noticed a growing trend in giving characters regional accents. I thought it was a rather arbitrary thing to include in most cases, but I’m an unfailing optimist – I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the accent was an important part of the plot. I crossed my fingers and pushed onward.

Sadly, I gave up pretty quickly. In almost every case (roughly 99.9%), the use of accents was so detrimental to the story that I couldn’t finish the partial. I was so distracted by the inclusion of a (poorly done) Southern twang, or (inaccurate) British slang, that I didn’t even want to know what the overall story arc was. Sometimes there are problems larger than plot that a reader can’t overlook.

To demonstrate why accents in books can be such a huge problem, I thought I’d demonstrate with some quality 90’s British television and a more recent Australian movie trailer. Check out the videos below, and then we’ll reconvene to go over today’s lesson! (Don’t worry, there are no spoilers involved!)

Okay! Back to today’s scheduled programming.

Question: Did you catch everything everyone said? If you’re not from Ireland or Australia, chances are you might’ve missed something. I remember the first time I saw Ballykissangel; I had to rewatch the opening scene twice in order to fully understand everything being said. Why? Because my ear isn’t trained to automatically pick up another accent. Same goes for Beautiful. Though the trailer doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, there are still moments where I catch myself second guessing what someone said. Even after I’ve seen the movie! Sometimes, when watching a movie where people have accents, it takes a while to adjust.

But why?

I took a Shakespeare class my freshman year of college, and my professor told me it takes the brain between 5 and 10 minutes to fully process another accent. I wasn’t sure I believed him until I really started traveling. When I lived in Ireland, it took a while before I was able to understand my professors, and each time you encountered someone from a different county, you’d have to start all over again. Dialects in Europe vary from region to region (ie: different counties in Ireland all have variants of what Americans consider a stereotypical Irish accent); the United States has regional accents as well. While living in Virginia/D.C. this past summer, I had to adjust to a variety of southern accents, each person’s differing slightly from the one before it. To be honest, there are still a few people I can’t understand, and I’ve known them for quite a while. These days I’m definitely a believer in the 5 to 10 minute rule (and then some)!

I like to think the 5 to 10 minute rule applies to writing as well. If your main character is from the deep South, it would be strange to see all of the dialogue written out phonetically. Take a look at your favorite book. More than likely, it’s just written in straight English. You’d see “I went to the store,” instead of “Uh when to da ster.” And while that’s an exaggeration, the principle holds. I’ve seen manuscripts where all the dialogue was written out phonetically, and it was like deciphering a code or trying to read a foreign language. Books today don’t really make use of regional accents. It’s a cool idea, but is rarely executed well. (For a good example, check out our book of the month, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS. St. Clair is English, but his dialogue is very straightforward and manages to expertly include some British witticisms.)

Similarly, the use of slang can also be a problem. Having lived abroad (and watched an exorbitant amount of 90’s British television), I’m pretty familiar with British slang, so it kills me inside when I see writers butchering it. Same goes for our strange Midwestern colloquialisms. Google is great for a lot of things, but it isn’t always accurate. So unless you have someone to fact check with, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. You can do what I did and start watching the BBC, or connect with people online to check your usage. We tend to advocate Twitter to you all on a regular basis, as it’s easy to get a quick response to your questions. YouTube also has a number of videos that can school you in regional accents and slang. Be sure to take advantage of these resources if you yourself aren’t sure how to use a word.

The important thing to remember when setting your story in a place that might have a very distinctive accent is just that: the setting. If your story takes place in Louisiana, take the time for world building. By giving the reader the feeling of Bourbon Street, for example, you won’t need an accent to emphasize your point. It’s totally acceptable to simply state your main character has a drawl, or cut off the occasional word (ie: nothin’). But stay away from phonetic spellings and overt use of regional accents. Just like it might take you ten minutes to adjust to listening to someone speak, it can take a reader even longer to make that transition, and in the meantime, you may have lost them entirely. Play it safe, and play it straight – that way no one will be able to doubt your storytelling abilities.


Sammy Bina is enjoying her last semester of college as a creative writing major. She is currently revising her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and is an intern for the Elaine P. English Literary Agency. You can find her on twitter, or follow her blog.

25 Responses to “Uh When To Da Ster, Or, Why Accents Don’t Belong In Your Manuscript”

  1. priscillashay January 27, 2011 at 1:03 AM #

    There’s also the fact that if the character has lived in the area their whole life, the others won’t notice the accent and there wouldn’t be a need for the phonetics. (I don’t know if I wrote that as clearly as it is in my head.)

    And you title was kind of like MadGabs – had to say it out loud before I got it.

    • Sammy Bina January 27, 2011 at 1:17 AM #

      Exactly! I totally forgot to mention that, but you’re so right. I don’t consider my fellow Wisconsinites to have an accent, yet others who live in, say, California, think we do. Excellent point.

      And that was the point, actually! I think it’s an excellent example why phonetics are so dangerous 😉

  2. Mac_V January 27, 2011 at 2:12 AM #

    One of my favorite series of books is the Jacky Faber series by L.A. Meyer. I love the series, but I’m not sure if I ever want to read book one again. Because of the accent. Mary Faber starts out as an orphan in London as part of a street gang of beggars and her accent is written in and utterly difficult to read. I loved the story and, as the book progressed and she learned to be a little more proper, Mary “Jacky” Faber lost her accent and started to speak normal English-like. There are still parts in all the books when she’ll revert back to the old accent (like when she meets up with her old gang) and it is still so difficult to read. If the entire series had been with her original accent, I would have given up!

    Also, it took me two minutes to figure out what the CRAP you said at the beginning of the post title. Point. In. Case.

    Meredith 🙂

    • Sammy Bina January 27, 2011 at 2:41 PM #

      Isn’t that a pain? I definitely have a book or two that I really enjoyed, save for the abundance of accents. It’s just distracting! I understand WHY people do it, but as I mentioned above, it’s rarely executed well. I’ve never heard of the Jacky Faber series, but I’m tempted to check it out now. The story sounds interesting, so maybe, already knowing the accent will bug me, I can try to ignore it 😉

      • Mac_V January 27, 2011 at 8:51 PM #

        You definitely can! She is the most awesome girl to read about. It’s historical fiction and she becomes this awesome Pirate and all sorts of other things, lots of fun boys and some hilarious moments up the wazoo. It’s definitely worth taking a look at! The first book is called Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. I hope you do give them a go! 😀

  3. Rowenna January 27, 2011 at 9:27 AM #

    Great points! I like to see word choice and sentence construction and things like that inform how dialogue is written–like that southerner might say “I’m heading to the Piggly Wiggly for a spell” rather than “I am planning an excursion to the supermarket.”

    I think tiny things can work out ok–as an example, I’m reading book four of Harry Potter right now (YES, I am VERY late on this!!) and Hagrid’s little bits of dialect don’t bother me–they read easily and mostly consist of truncated word endings and such. But the French accents from the Beauxbatons characers are driving me bonkers because there’s so MUCH of it. And, well…in my opinion having majored in French, Ms. Rowling didn’t quite nail what the accent really sounds like, so it’s sort of annoying, more than revealing and helpful, in the end (at least to me).

    • Sammy Bina January 27, 2011 at 2:44 PM #

      Exactly. I think a writer can convey dialect just by word choice alone, rather that using phonetics or excessive butchering of words. It’s like the bubbler/water fountain/drinking fountain or soda/pop issue. Just by choosing one of those words marks where a person is from, and is much more tolerable.

      And I know what you mean about people not nailing an accent. In my case it’s been more the butchering of Irish or British slang, rather than the accent itself, but the idea is the same. I feel your pain, girl!

  4. Brooke January 27, 2011 at 12:31 PM #

    For a take on southern dialect, read any of the slave narratives. I’m from the south and have a difficult time reading them.

    Southern dialect is so unusual. We have a mash up of Native American and Cajun French sprinkled throughout our speech, and Spanish is almost a second language for some people. I’m fortunate to live in an area with many different nationalities… my accent is *finally* starting to lessen. Every time I visit home, it comes back full swing.

    • Sammy Bina January 27, 2011 at 2:49 PM #

      No thank you, haha. I’m surprised I never had to read them in high school, but I’m definitely staying away now 😉

      And I totally know what you mean. I have this affinity for picking up accents and adopting them myself. Whenever I go to D.C. for more than a few days, I come back saying ‘y’all’ all the time. There are still some Irish phrases I use, and nobody really knows I’m from Wisconsin when they meet me since I’ve kind of adopted speech patterns for certain words from other places. I’m just a mess, haha.

      • Brooke January 27, 2011 at 2:55 PM #

        I had an entire class in college where I had to read slave narratives… all. semester. It was torture. The stories might not have been so bad if the dialogue didn’t go on for *pages*. Honestly, after a while, I skipped the dialogue and tried figuring out what happened through exposition. >.<

        In fact, I encourage you to stay away from them. They'll eat your brain.

        • Ashley January 27, 2011 at 4:47 PM #

          Haha, that’s exactly how I felt while reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. And get this, the first time I read it, I was 11, :). Not a good time at all.

  5. Rima January 27, 2011 at 1:35 PM #

    I think there are ways to incorporate the way a character speaks into a story without having to create a whole new language that readers need decoder rings to understand. For instance, if your character is from the deep South, use language they would use, and only select a word or two to write phonetically / in the manner they would pronounce it. That way, you are able to convey the accent without totally destroying the flow of the story.

    • Sammy Bina January 27, 2011 at 2:51 PM #

      Exactly! I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that are set in Texas or Louisiana, and a word or two will be in italics — if the story’s in Louisiana, most of the time the word is Cajun, for example. It lends authenticity without going overboard. THAT’S how to do it!

  6. Savannah J. Foley January 27, 2011 at 2:42 PM #

    Brilliant. I love how you have all this world traveling experience to back up what you say. Expert testimony ftw!

    • Sammy Bina January 27, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

      Haha, right? Though I sound like such a world traveler when I’m really not. SOMEday I will be 😉

      It also helps that I’d rather watch BBC than anything else, heh.

  7. Savannah J. Foley January 27, 2011 at 2:44 PM #

    I’m definitely more of a fan of typing out the real English word, even if the dialect isn’t grammatically correct. For example, ‘I ain’t got your damn money.’ Phoenetically it might be ‘Ah ain got yo dam moneh’ but I can substitute that in my head when I see the real words.

    • Sammy Bina January 27, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

      THIS. THIS is what I was talking about. People, take note!

  8. Krystle January 27, 2011 at 3:35 PM #

    Well, the majority of the people here speak pidgin. Straight up. Or “Hawaiian Creole English” would be the correct term. You’d be ripped apart if you don’t write it down the way we speak it. There’s the “what? You too good for us? Have to be all high makamaka? (err… dunno what this is in English. Stuck up, snob perhaps?)

    So, yeah. If you set a book in a Hawai’i that’s trying to be authentic and you’re not living out in haole (white) areas, you have to make their dialogue like this.

  9. B January 27, 2011 at 5:46 PM #

    Eh…I disagree with this post. I think it’s a cop out to the laziness on the part of the reader. Slave Narratives mentioned earlier are important pieces of text and history that everyone should at some point sit down and read some of. Or even Their Eyes Were Watching God. At 11 it is definitely difficult, but that difficulty stems from its subject matter more so than language. Language is aural, what is written is just a representation of that, and to sit and represent language that sounds different in a “proper” form (unless it is being translated from a completely different lanugage) is to do it a disservice. Why coddle a reader who isn’t willing to take the few extra seconds or minutes to get into the language? It’s one thing if it’s done in a way that feels completely inauthentic, but from your post it sounds like the big reason to not do it is for the reader’s sake, which is stupid. I support any writer who uses language to challenge and alienate a reader so that the reader may challenge themselves to see things in a new light.

    Not to mention, and this is probably why Hawaiians feel disrespected when a writer doesn’t use the local speech, that by using a more “readable” speech the writer is furthering the view that there is a “proper” and “improper” form of speech, that the local speech is too hard to understand because it is undignified or sounds uneducated, regardless of whether or not the writer intends this or actually feels this way.

    • need_tea January 27, 2011 at 7:03 PM #

      YES! I very much agree with your reply. ^^;;.

    • Ashley January 27, 2011 at 8:05 PM #

      When I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, it wasn’t the subject matter that bothered me. At 11, I knew by then the horrors of the segregated South and of slavery.

      The Southern dialect Zora Neale Hurston wrote for the characters was difficult to get through at times but I still read it anyway I’m proud to say. My family is from the South, so some of the words and slang were already familiar to me, the rest I figured out for myself.

    • kate January 27, 2011 at 8:32 PM #

      i think there is a time and place for writing in dialect. the slave narratives, for example, are not fictionalized accounts, but rather, a transcription of history from the mouths of those who experienced it. if the language is part of the culture, part of capturing the soul of the art or the rhythm of the speech–i think that’s important. i don’t think people are clammering for shakespeare or austen or faulkner or hurston or dickens to be rewritten it to more standardized, modern, american english (or i certainly hope not). however, i think that if the way a piece is written detracts from the story instead of speaking to the heart of it, if the reader is removed from identifying and truly understanding the characters because they’re trying to understand the surface of what is being said instead of the meaning and motivation, then i think the writer has failed.

      therefore, i think there is a difference between alienation and defamiliarization. i think defamiliarization (ostranenie) as opposed to alienation/distancing (verfremdung) can effectively make a reader or audience examine things anew through the use of novel or unfamiliar language, but language that still strikes a chord–for example, by having a character speak in dialect, but in a parse-able, inviting way; whereas alienation–for example, when the dialect is so frequently used, or so foreign as to be challenging to read–distances the reader or audience sufficiently that the they are no longer invested in the story, which (i think) defeats the purpose. alienated readers are less likely to care enough to challenge themselves to see things in a new light. brecht was totally gung-ho about the alienation effect, and having created it, and had probably a considerably more vested interest in seeing it properly carried out than nearly anyone else. however, he, too, struggled with it, because his characters were compelling enough that people weren’t alienated; and when they were alienated, he found that he wasn’t reaching his audience.

      therefore, i agree with the those above who advocate for care when writing in dialect. to use it too much cheapens; to use it not at all, when it is needed, is likewise to be avoided.

      • B January 27, 2011 at 9:11 PM #

        I totally agree with you. It just upsets me when I see readers who won’t even approach a work because it’s not written in “standard” English. It speaks to so many problems with our collective views of language, and to the general laziness that abounds when it comes to reading.

        As far as my use of alienation, I don’t think every writer should seek to do this, hell I’d say most shouldn’t because it is very hard to pull off well, but I think more people should do it, and more people should read this kind of writing. One poet of the top of my head I can think of is Kamau Brathwaite. His writing definitely defamiliarizes language, but it is also incredibly alienating. The use of Bajan dialect, the way he splits words, the fonts, hell even making up words, it is incredibly hard to read and not feel alienated from, but I think reading stuff like that once in a while is good.

      • B January 27, 2011 at 9:14 PM #

        And of course, when I say I support any writer who challenges and alienates a reader, I don’t mean to say that all writers should get up and start writing in foreign dialects for the sake of doing it, but I don’t think a writer who wishes to do so should be discouraged (as long as they aren’t lazy about it and actually take the time to really listen and understand the language they seek to portray).

  10. Abbe Tykwinski January 27, 2011 at 7:29 PM #

    I agree that accents should be used sparingly. There are all kinds of words in what they call “Standard American English” that are pronounced strangely compared to their spelling. An’ thinka how many contractions y’actually use in your speech compared with how many you write.

    When an accent or dialect is written well, or is especially appropriate to the story, then it should be used. Obviously we shouldn’t rewrite the slave narratives to be in modern English, but we also don’t need to spell out everyone’s Brooklyn, New Orleans, Mexican, British accents. The character should be developed strongly enough that a few choice phrases will attune the reader to the intended accent.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: