Writer Tools: Accents in the Written Form

Accents: How and Where and Why?

Also: What’d they just say?

He growled, “Whar be th’ rules ‘n regulatin’ bawtey ‘at dah-sighds ‘oo wrahts like wut?”

“I’m, sorry. Eh, excuse me even, but what did you just say? You see, your accent is very thick.”

His voice rumbled, “Where be the rules and regulating body that decides who writes like what?” The words tumbled out and melted together, every sound soft and smooth like softened butter. He had an accent like a pirate mixed with a bucket of gravel.

“Oh yes! I see, er, hear what you mean now. Much better.”

So, when writing dialogue there seem to be a couple of schools of thought. There are those that want the words written visually as they sound, and there are those that would rather have things written for clarity. Both schools of thought seem eager to yell at the other that there’s is the One True Way.

Preferences aside, there can be reasons to partake in both of the practices. If you’re writing for a wider readership then it’s best to leave out the weird spellings. The stranger you write a word, the more effort it will take to read. Reading is a process of identifying words as symbols, not individual letters. Mixing up the order of a word will interrupt that natural process. However, sometimes you’re writing for a specific audience or have a very particular speech mannerism that is key to the story or character. That would be the primary case for adding complexity.

Overall you should consider the message you’re trying to convey. Is it really important to emphasize that character’s vocal patterns? If not, it’s probably best to keep away from non-standard spelling. One possible mix I’ve seen is the following:

“Hello my beauty, what ails you?” His words were a high-pitched lilt touched with a lisp. The words came out sounding much more like, “‘Ello mah byooteh, hut aisleth ya’?”

Much like a physical description, an occasional description of the vocal patterns may be enough to set the character. Providing an example of how you imagine the words to sound may help as well.

That said, a larger consensus seems to be that general audiences would prefer clear, well-written sentences over a phonetically spelled verbal mannerism. Write for yourself first, but keep your readers in mind. Understanding your audience preferences is a key part to any decision for creative work.

-J.A.

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