Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Writing 101: Accents, Y'all!

“I have traveled more than any one else, and I have noticed that even the angels speak English with an accent.”
~ Mark Twain


And Twain would know. He is often considered a master of writing dialect. Take this example from Huckleberry Finn:
Jim: "We's safe, Huck, we's safe! Jump up and crack yo' heels. Dat's de good ole Cairo at las', I jis knows it."
Huck: "I'll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn't be, you know."
But Twain wrote in a different day and age. Today, most authors stay clear of writing Eye Accents, or creating an accent with phonetic spelling. For one thing, it can be derogatory to the group you are trying to portray. And for another, it can be hard on the reader. If your reader has to stop the story so they can sound out the dialogue in order to know what your characters are saying, you've probably just lost the reader.
The exception to this is the phonetic spelling of words that have become a part of our language. Using “gonna” instead of “going to” or “gotta” instead of “got to” are considered common fare.
So how do you get across an accent without offending and confusing your reader? The first step is knowing the difference between an accent and a dialect.
An accent is the way a word is said. For example, my mother always adds an 'r' to the word wash so it sounds like warsh. Same word, but said differently. A dialect is the choice of words a person uses.
Accent is hard, for the reasons listed above, so it's my opinion you leave it alone. If you want readers to know that your character has a southern accent, then just describe the way your character speaks. For example: “Her voice dripped southern charm the way dew drips off a magnolia tree in May.” Or a New Yorker might speak with “quick, clipped words, reflecting the frantic big city pace”.
If you use the right descriptions an slide them into your story periodically to remind your reader, you should be fine.
Personally, I prefer the use of dialect to give someone a bit of regional flare. Did you know you can tell where someone grew up by how they ask for a carbonated beverage? Growing up in the north, we always asked for a pop. When I moved to the south I discovered that no one knew what pop was so I better start asking for a soda. My friends from the deep south (think gulf coast Mississippi) will ask if you want a coke. The follow up question will then be “I got Sprite, Root Beer, and Dr. Pepper. Which do you want?”
If you live in the south you'll yell out “Hey, y'all” to get a groups attention. But if you've ever watched "Goonies" you know in the north we shout “Hey, you guys” even if we are talking to a group of girls. And don't forget your Boston friends who yell “Hey, yous guys”.
So next time your tempted to write an “Ahw, Gawd” or “Foget abowt et” consider your other options. After all, it's a big language out there.
Here are today's helpful links:


As always, please feel free to leave suggestions on future topic and any other advice you have on this week's topic. Happy writing!

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