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

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 multiple times 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. last 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 wen 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 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. I 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.

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4 thoughts on “Uh Wen To Da Ster, Or, Why Accents Don’t Belong In Your Manuscript

  1. I undrstnd exctly wht you wr wrtng abt th mnd seeing. It is a trcky plac to go. as yu cn se yu cn rd ths prtty wll wthut th vwls bcus yr mnd s trnd tht way.

  2. LOL, I feel your pain. I’ve the same problem with foreign tongues in published books. Being a native French-speaker, it irks me to see incorrect French in 99% of the American books in which it’s used. I always roll my eyes and think, “Couldn’t they find one single person with the most basic knowledge of French who could have told them right away that this is absolutely and forever wrong?” It doesn’t take a degree in French studies to figure out what the grammatical gender of a word is. In fact, it only takes a dictionary.

    In the last book I read, the hero was supposed to be half-Italian, and well, it happens that I also speak some Italian. Well, Italian! fail. I understand that it’s not something most people will even notice, but it’s a matter of principle. First of all, if you don’t know the first word of a specific foreign language, why bother to use it in your fiction in the first place? Secondly, it would usually be a matter of seconds to check the correct spelling or grammar of whatever you meant to write.

    1. Exactly. Fact checking is an important part of the writing process, so it seems silly not to check something like foreign slang. There are so many resources now, there’s really no excuse NOT to.

      And I had the same problem recently with the Italian! Granted, my three years of it in college have mostly left me, but I still know when something looks wrong. And like you said, most people aren’t going to notice it, but there is always going to be someone (or someoneS) who will.

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