Accent on the Page

Well, I’d been considering wandering on about the question of piracy and

Accented Novels

e-books and all, but then I thought that was too much like whining.  I was troubled by the comment about the perception that “no pocket to put money in” was an excuse to pirate, but further responses made it clear that this was hardly a universal view – or even the view of the person who made the statement.

However, if anyone is interested in hearing how writers can still use works that are out-of-print or otherwise not available, let me know.  I just don’t want to talk “shop” rather than the creative side if people aren’t interested.

Instead, I’d like to solicit opinions on the question of accents.  Recently, I was reading a book where one of the non-human races was stated to have a distinct accent.  However, the author never did anything to make that accent come across.  Moreover, it was not described in any concrete fashion, so I couldn’t imagine what was intended.

That got me thinking about the entire question – maybe even problem – of accents, dialects, and the like in SF/F.  How far should a writer go when putting these on the page?  At what point does the reader simply scream “Enough!  I get the idea!!!”

I started fishing about in my imagination for examples of when accents had been done well.  Oh! For convenience, let’s include dialects, colloquialisms, slang, and general cadence in the term “accent” since I think “accent” is often more than how sounds are articulated.

Tolkien did a good job in his Middle Earth novels.  Sam and Frodo are both hobbits, but their choice of vocabulary is different, making it clear they are of different social classes.  Elves and dwarves speak differently than humans.  A light sprinkling of their own languages helps show minds that process concepts differently.  Even the three trolls in The Hobbit speak in a distinct manner.

Much as I like this, though, I do find myself going a little nuts when there is too much of it.  I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s novels, but he nearly lost me in Wee Free Men with the Nac Mac Feegles dialect-ridden sentences.  I was interested to note that later books in the same sequence included a glossary.  Perhaps I wasn’t alone?

When I was writing Legends Walking (soon to be re-released as an e-book!!!), I was in a quandary.  Large segments of the book were set in Nigeria.  My research had shown me that not only were multiple languages spoken in that one country, but the languages themselves were expressive of an entirely different way of thinking about concepts such as family relationships and even personal names.  Moreover there was no one accepted manner of transliteration.  I came up with what I hoped was an acceptable compromise (and even discussed some of the choices I had made in my Author’s Note) but I was aware I had barely touched the complexity of those cultures.

Then there’s the question of what to do with a named accent.  In British novels, a type of accent will frequently be mentioned “Cambridge” or “Yorkshire” or “Cockney.”  Sometimes the author puts the accent on the page as well.  Other times, they do not.  I remember reading about the Beatles having “Liverpool” (or sometimes “Liverpudlian”) accents but that didn’t prepare me for the strange, almost flat, “holding the nose” manner in which they spoke the first time I heard an interview.

I have heard young American readers of the Harry Potter novels admit to being surprised when they went to see the movies and Harry and his friends had British accents.

Then there are all the American accents, some of which like “Southern” actually covers a wide range of accents.  Others which, like “Maine” only applies to a very small region and a comparatively small segment of that region’s population.  How helpful are these designations to a reader not already familiar with the accent in question?

So…  Where do we go with this?  How much should an author put onto the page?  How much is too much and gets in the way of the story?  How much does the presumed audience play into the issue?  Is this a problem when the book finds a larger audience?  Should the book be re-written to deal with this?  The more I think about it, the more interesting and complex the issue becomes.


15 Responses to “Accent on the Page”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Frankly I’d rather that writers didn’t put anything at all in their stories to indicate accents. It never works. Much as I love Kipling, I find many of his stories to be quite unreadable because he tries so hard to suggest accents phonetically that often I find the words to be quite incomprehensible. I read words, proper words, and I simply can’t read distorted words at all. Have you read the Iain Banks novel “Feersum Endjinn”? Pretty much every single word is a distorted word and I had to give up after a couple of pages. My brain hurt too much. There’s also a piece you can find on the net if you hunt hard enough. It’s called “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” and it’s a phonetic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”. I can’t read that either…

    Phonetic spelling does nothing for me.

    The best way to present dialect in a story is to ignore it completely. Ian Rankin does a magnificent job in his novels about the policeman Inspector Rebus. The stories are set in Edinburgh and Rebus is a very Scottish Scotsman with, presumably, a very broad accent. However there is no hint of this whatsoever in the narrative. Everybody speaks in normal, properly spelled English words (though you are free to imagine a Scottish brogue, if you wish). But in one novel, Rebus visits colleagues in London and although the conversations in the book are still *written* in normal English it quickly becomes clear that none of his London contacts can understand a word he says because his accent is far too thick. Naturally Rebus finds this very frustrating…

    I think that’s the proper way to do it. Don’t try and transcribe the accent, because you’ll never be able to do that properly. Instead, describe the *effect* of the accent on the listeners. It’s much more subtle, but I think that in the end it’s much more satisfying. And you won’t lose your readers with all the nasty made up words and idiosyncratic spellings.

    And if your story is about extraterrestrials, please, please, pretty please with knobs on, don’t use apostrophes in their names. (Though having said that, I kept reading Anne McCaffrey long after i should have given up on her because I kept hoping against hope that she’d call one her dragons F’art. She never did though. Pity…)


    • Sue Says:

      I agree that describing the effect that an accent has is much the best way to do it. That way the author can also educate audience members who may not be familiar with that particular accent.

      I’m a long-time Dragonriders of Pern fan, but I will definitely have a different point of view the next time I read one of McCaffrey’s books — I’m feeling the lack of a dragon named F’art! (Thanks for the laugh!)

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I’m going to have to say two things: “it depends,” “it dates the story,” and “you need to read the story aloud.”

    The point about it depends is that the use of accents is part of the art of storytelling, so it depends on the story and the audience. Some stories do better with standard english. Some don’t. To cite another easy example, Huckleberry Finn wouldn’t have worked without the accents, because the accents helped define the places, the characters, and their social classes.

    A sub-point is that, even without an “accent,” a story still is an artifact of its time (see Huck Finn, above). You can hear the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc in many books, even if they are supposed to be accent free. Even having an accent is condemned by some writing books as “old-fashioned.” Now that those books are out-of-date, who is to say? Are accents a sign of the 2012, or not?

    Another sub-point is that more and more English speakers are not native speakers. This is an interesting problem, because sometimes they’re lacking the cultural context to understand what an accent says. Even though I’ve never been to England, I know enough to get that Oxford and Cockney accents convey social classes and regional differences. Someone who grew up in China might not know this, and might be irritated by a story unless they figure it out. But many of them do figure it out. As I said above, who’s your audience?

    Anyway, on to the second point: reading it aloud. I got confused by the Feegles, too, until I started muttering their statements aloud, in an atrocious fake Scots accent. Then they made sense, and I realized how profane the little buggers were. This is the problem Anne McCaffrey had with that apostrophe. It was meant to be read more than spoken. This is unlike, say, Hawaiian (where the apostrophe is pronounced, and the accent marks matter, because the plural is marked with a long first vowel and a macron.). As another example, I’m currently I’m reading a history of Korea, and the writer insists on putting accent marks on words like Seoul. Say what? The standard Korean transliteration of Hangul doesn’t have or need accents. Why bother, historian dude? It’s not Hawaiian. I can see why critics of the book wonder whether he actually reads Korean.

    Speaking of Hawaiian, the accent matters because (if I recall right) the short first vowel is singular, a long first vowel is plural. Hawaiian marks this by using accent marks, but some other Oceanic languages mark this by using a double vowel. In this example, dude would be singular, while duude would be plural. This is, perhaps an accent too far. I’ve only seen the double plural in a book about Trukese (excuse me, Chuuk) mythology, and it was hard to read.

    Ultimately, the question is, who’s reading it. Personally, I think that if it’s a story that’s meant to be read aloud, accents can help define the characters. It gives them their voice. If it is meant to be read silently, then don’t bother.

  3. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I don’t mind accents or the lack of them. What bothers me in speech is when, for example, a character is described as being highly educated, and then speaks ungramatically, with commonly misunderstood attempts at correct grammar. It’s a grand device to use comically, though.
    I totally loved the dialect in Wee Free Men and its ilk, by the way. David (my husband) and I like to exclaim, “Crivens!” now. 🙂

  4. Tori Says:

    I think that describing an accent is far preferable to spelling it out in dialog. I couldn’t read the Redwall series because of all that ridiculous phonetically spelled text. However, I seem to remember the author claimed the stories were meant to be read aloud.

    It’s too exhausting for me to read a book where I have to puzzle out what half the words in sentences are, especially when they can’t be found in a dictionary! In any case, even if you say “Washington” like “Warshington,” you still better spell it properly.

  5. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I thought about it a bit more, and I realize that I *do* prefer accents; which is to say that writing phonetically to simulate the accents is something I enjoy. And the Nac Mac Feegles are some of my favorites! Crivens!

  6. Dominique Says:

    I have never thought about this before!… Err, well at least not in great detail. I suppose it would depend (which sounds non-committal, I know…). Like all the story-telling tools at a writer’s disposal, I think there is a time and a place for accents. And many times they can really enhance a story, mood, or atmosphere. Other times they can really take away from the writers story-telling.

  7. Emily Says:

    I like when it’s done sort of naturally if that makes any sense. In Tolkien’s books, I enjoyed the different word selection for the characters. I also like when a writer will say it normally then add the accent. For example, “Her ‘you’ sounded more like ‘ya'”. When you throw in a bunch of ‘ims instead of him and try to write just like it sounds, sometimes it just gets in the way. As a Southerner, I personally dislike some of the attempts at expressing the Southern accent. Especially in more recent books where the writer tries to throw in “ain’t” and “Yonder” and all manner of funny little expressions (like madder than a wet hen) every other sentence. Most people have the Southern accent and sometimes we do say funny things and use “ain’t” and “ya’ll”, but it’s more of a flavoring than the nearly seperate language it’s portrayed as.

  8. Chad Merkley Says:

    I kind of agree with both Alan and Heteromeles. Phonetically spelling out everything can be annoying and frustrating to the reader–especially if the reader isn’t familiar with the accent being presented. I’ve come across this especially as an American trying read some British literature. Kipling, as mentioned by others, is a good example. In something like “Soldiers Three”, he went to great lengths to make the Irishman’s speech different from the Cockney’s. I don’t know enough about how they should sound, so the funny phonetics just get in the way of the story. I’m familiar with many different American accents, so I often don’t notice those, and they don’t interfere with the story.

    So it depends on the intended audience, and is something that needs to be carefully addressed by authors, editors, and test readers. But, part of the craft of writing is learning to indicate accent or dialect with things like diction and rhythm. Tolkein did that quite well. Jane managed that nicely in the Firekeeper books, where the talking animals spoke differently than the humans, and humans from different classes spoke differently. The character of Firekeeper actually speaks very differently when talking to animals in their language versus talking to people, which adds a lot of depth to her character.

    • janelindskold Says:

      You noticed!

      Yes. Firekeeper speaks to Beasts a whole lot more easily than she does with humans. After all, as far as she remembers, whatever it is the Wise Beasts speak is her first language.

      Of course, it isn’t, but what you remember…

  9. Paul Says:

    I must come down on the side of annoyances in the phonetic spelling, too. It is that which spoils many of Zane Grey’s novels for me, among others. Some authors can make the reader imagine the accent through his or her choice of words, their cadence and their arrangement. It’s a gift to be able to do this, and not every writer can. But even the attempt, for me, beats out the phonetic approach.

  10. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Gosh. I never thought about it. Unfortunately, I’ve come across so little of it I can’t say which I prefer.

    Though I will say this. Sometimes when a writer just lists an accent, I’m at a loss. What dose a Chinese accent sound like? Or an Arab, or Hispanic, or whatever? But I can see where trying to write it like it’s supposed to sound. A book I’m reading now dose distort some words of alien races, and a lot of the time I have to work to figure out what they’re saying.

    That for sure is never good. I don’t think readers should have to work for anything. A little distortion of words if done well and carefully shouldn’t be too much. But when you need a mental translator to read it, the writer tried too hard.

    It’s certainly a balancing act. One I do not envy.

  11. janelindskold Says:

    Actually, I find what Nicolas calls a “balancing act” a very rewarding process. It’s one part of how to bring people into a world without creating a barrier by making it all too alien.

    Someone was telling me about a write-up recently that argued that careful use of a made-up language can really draw in the fans.

    When I think about all the people who have learned Klingon, I think there’s something to this.

  12. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Your comment about a made up language drawing in fans reminded me of something I haven’t thought of for over 40 years: when I was a kid, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories, and carefully noted down what the “ape language” words meant, and set myself to learn them all. I don’t remember now if I did, but I do remember that I learned most of them (though don’t ask me now what they were, other than that “tar” meant, ironically, “white” and “zan” meant “skin”… I think. 🙂
    But I think that having to work to understand extraterrestrials’ speech is totally fair; after all, the characters in the story presumably do. It makes it more real for me. (For a certain value of “real”.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      Oh, funny!

      I did that, too, Julie. I think I thought that maybe this was the secret language animals spoke and that Burroughs was letting us in on the secret.

      Happy memories!

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