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“Jaysus! Howaya Saggy Arse?”: The Challenges of Accents in Dialogue

A few weeks ago, my friend Drew posted about the challenge of writing dialogue with characters who have accents. I never much considered it. All the writing I ever did, the characters spoke pretty normal. Now I’m writing about Irish immigrants in the 19th century slums of New York and I find myself staring at the Irish accent and slang.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  How do I  go about tackling this?

The last thing I want is my readers having a hard time reading my dialogue. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes to mind. Good book, but at times, it was tough to read. Also, I don’t want to pull a Dick Van Dyke and come up with the worst sounding accent of all time.

I seem to have four options.

  1. Go balls to the wall and study the shit out of the Irish language so it sounds plausible when written. (I’m only writing short stories, though, I don’t want to become an expert on this stuff.)
  2. Fake the language as best as I can. (ala—Dick Van Dyke).
  3. Keep the dialogue normal and just spice it with the occasional “ye” and “yer.”
  4. Don’t try to write the accent. Just say the characters have Irish accents and write normal.

I checked out some writers I admire to see how they did it. Larry McMurty in Lonesome Dove goes for the fourth option. Here’s a few lines after he has already told the reader these men are Irish.

            “I say we eat the mule,” the younger man said.

            “Nothing of the sort,” the other said.

            “Then give me a drink,” the younger said.

This seems to work. There is something that sounds Irish about it—the way their sentences are laid out and their use of words. “Nothing of the sort” sounds Irish to me. Pretty good.

Michael Shaara in the Killer Angels goes for the third option. Try this on for size:

            “Colonel, darlin’, I hate to be a-wakin’ ye, but there’s a message here ye ought to be seein’.”

This also works. I’m not sure if this is faked or spiced or properly studied. It’s probably #3, though.

In truth, Shaara’s strategy is my preference. Irish seems to be one of those dialects that just begs to be written out a little phonetically. I don’t want to over do it, though, because most, if not all my characters will be speaking in accents. Will this get on the reader’s nerves after awhile? It’s a challenge that I will be experimenting with.

How about you guys? What’s your strategy with accents?

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13 responses

  1. It’s definitely good that you’re thinking abou this, I know what I would do in a situation like this is I would take the option of normal speech with a little spice. Enough to give the once over effect and feel of being off-english but making sure not to over do it. Like in your example of McMurty, structured properly, even basic english can still feel right to the reader. Good luck figuring this out.

    September 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    • Yeah, spice seems the way to go. Drew had said the same thing in his post. I’ve got some 19th century street slang and some Irish swear words that I can use to come up with something that’s unique I think but something that’s not overkill. Still a challenge, though. But fun at the same time.

      September 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      • I can see that being a fun project to tackle. I wouldn’t know where to begin, but then again I haven’t had the need to do it yet. When I do, I’ll be sure to tackle just as you are, with lots of questions, doubts, and guesses as to what best fits the story. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.

        September 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm

  2. I was wondering the same thing for my current WIP. I have a couple of Irish characters in it, so I’ve been putting in the obvious “ye” instead of “you” when they talk, but I don’t want to take it too far.

    September 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm

  3. Yeah. “ye,” “me,” “yer,” seem to be common for Irish characters. Its tricky.

    September 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm

  4. Be very, very careful with dialect.

    The guiding principle should always be that whatever you do be in service to your readers, to make the story come alive for them. What that means generally speaking is that you should use just enough dialect to give the character the right feel without making it intrusive or knocking your reader right out of the story as they try to parse what’s being said. You’re right, it’s a tricky proposition.

    I had a similar problem with Scottish recently (http://msmanz.com/2012/highlander/), although mine’s in a fantasy setting so historical accuracy wasn’t as important. What I found when I recorded the audio book version, though, was that Scottish accents are much easier with a keyboard than with a microphone. 🙂

    Final analysis: go for something between #3 and #4. Never, ever go for a Dick Van Dyke. Ever.

    September 6, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    • Hey, Mike. Thanks for stopping on by. Yeah, I definitely agree with you–reader experience is what counts in the end. And, never, ever go for a Dick Van Dyke.

      Seems like Scottish would be just as tricky as Irish, but I see you seemed to have handled it quite well.

      I’m not too worried about historical accuracy for the dialogue so much. If I wrote the street slang of the time, the reader wouldn’t be able to understand a word of what my characters were saying. I’m just gonna spice it, like you suggest.

      Thanks for swinging by! How is China these days?

      September 7, 2012 at 10:01 am

      • I was thinking about it off and on this afternoon and I realised what it was that makes the difference between successful dialect and failed dialect for me. It’s rhythm.

        Different dialects have a different rhythm of intonation and inflection and if you can nail that, the word choice doesn’t matter much and phonetic spelling can go out the window completely.

        And China is polluted and poorly educated, same as usual. 🙂

        September 7, 2012 at 10:40 am

      • Rhythm, huh? That sounds about right. I’m a big believer in rhythm in one’s writing anyway. Maybe I can focus this on the dialogue. Thanks for the tip!

        September 7, 2012 at 2:46 pm

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    September 7, 2012 at 10:37 pm

  6. Accents (or more properly, dialects) are always risky for writers. While an author may know the dialect well enough to capture it on the page, that’s not the same as saying it is readable! Literary critics (does anyone still believe in them?) have long held that just suggesting the dialect with a carefully chosen word or too is best. An example: I enjoy the work of 19th-century Scottish author, George MacDonald, but the unedited early editions are practically unreadable for non-Scots.

    September 19, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    • Thanks, Thomas. I’ve heard all kinds of opinions about this. I’m currently reading a book called Paradise Alley. The author, Kevin Baker, does an amazing jobs with the dialects. He writes out some words phonetically, but a lot of it is syntax or slang. Regardless, it sounds Irish. He’s my new hero. 🙂

      September 19, 2012 at 7:40 pm

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