The Problem With Accents

I listened to a free audiobook of Dracula a while back. The narrators were all volunteers, and each took a separate chapter. Of course, the quality varied‌—‌some went for a drawn-out reading to heighten the dread, others went with a more conversational tone. There were some interesting mispronunciations, too, which might be down to a 19th century book by an English novelist being read by American narrators‌—‌language changes over time and place, after all.

Then there were the accents. Most of the narrators read in a single voice, but some used accents for occasional characters. This was most usually Van Helsing, and I believe his lines are written with a hint of his Eastern-European pronunciation.

The main characters in the book are ‘educated’, and all speak with proper diction (with the exception of Van Helsing), but they occasional encounter ‘locals’, who would naturally speak in dialect (mainly in the sections set around Whitby, so we’re talking Yorkshire accents here). For one of these, Stoker writes the dialogue as the character would speak.

nosferatu-1-615x349The narrator for this chapter did his best, and I don’t mean to mock him. I know I could do no better with, say, a Texas accent. I don’t even know if the narrator had ever heard a Yorkshire accent before attempting to read Stoker’s text. But the accent he narrated in didn’t work. You know Dick Van Dyke’s ‘cockney’ accent in Mary Poppins? Imagine that combined with the occasional Scottish twang, and you’ll have a rough idea what this Yorkshire character sounded like.

Again, I want to stress that this was a free audiobook, narrated by volunteers. They all did a far better job than I could do.

But it got me thinking about accents in books.

The standard advice for writing is to be careful with accents. If you have to ‘write accents’, don’t overdo it. The aim is to convey a flavour of the voice, but the text always has to be understandable. Add too much authenticity, and things go wrong.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but spoken and written language are two different things. Just listen to how people normally talk, and then imagine this written down. How many times do people ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’? How many sentences are left unfinished? How much is repeated? Even when people are telling a story of what happened to them, their words will not translate perfectly to text.

“So, like, I says to him, um, ‘you want this or not?’, right, and he’s all like ‘I don’t know’, and so, um, I say ‘but it’s your favourite’, and he’s still, like, unsure, um, so, like, I don’t know, is he winding me up or I don’t know, why doesn’t he want it, I don’t know.”

You get the idea.

So the advice with accents is to be sparing.

“Aye, they came up from the South, like they allus do.”
“You talkin’ to me, son?”

The odd word, the occasional missed letter. It helps give a flavour of the accent while still being readable.

Too much can be hard to read, and I think this is down to how we are taught to read, and the way our brain decodes the written word. Initially, we learn letters, and use these letters to make up words and parts of words. We learn that ‘ough’ is sounded ‘oooh’ in words like ‘through, and ‘ohh’ in words like ‘though’. Gradually, out brain starts to decipher these combinations automatically, and we no longer have to sound out individual letters and sort them into groups. Instead, we glance at a word and instantly understand it. This is when we really start reading.

But with words written in accent, we have to go back a step. The words look wrong, and our brains have to resort to mentally sounding a letter at a time. The odd dropped letter (walkin’, ‘ope), especially when signalled with an apostrophe, isn’t too bad. Bu’ a rendrin ah th’slurrd word a slip aht in t’heat o’normal torkin is allus a buggr t’unnerstan’. Even with apostrophes.

That’s why too much ‘accent’ in writing is a problem.

But there are authors who use this to great effect.Trainspotting_IrvineWelsh

One obvious example is Irvine Welsh, especially in Trainspotting. The story is set in Scotland, and is told through a series of incidents from different characters’ points of view. At first, it is hard to read. Welsh doesn’t only render the dialogue in accents, but also the prose. At first glance, a page can look like it is written in a different language entirely.

But with a little perseverance, it becomes easier to understand. And the language fits the story. We’re in the heads of these characters, and Welsh uses the accented language to see the world through their perspective. It makes the book far more immersive than it would have been if he’d ‘written properly.’

FeersumEndjinn_IainMBanksAnother book comes to mind here, and although it’s not written ‘in accent’, it is still relevant. That book is Iain M Banks’ Feersum Enjin. Take a little time over that title, and you’ll get an idea where I’m going with this.

(I haven’t read this book for a good few years, so apologies for being a little hazy here.)

The story is split between a number of viewpoint characters. One of these is written almost phonetically (and this is shown in the title‌—‌Fearsome Engine, while being ‘correct’, just doesn’t work as well.) Banks also uses ‘text-speak’, using numbers and symbols to replace letters (so ‘into’ becomes ‘in2’, and ‘at’ becomes ‘@’).

Here’s the first line from this character’s sections, to give you a taste of it:

Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergate thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y doant u 1/2 a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in this I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbirth.

(Incidentally, that was a pain to copy out. I’m used to typing, so deliberately mis-spelling things slowly me down.)

Why does Banks use this style of writing? Again, it is down to character. This character is young, with a naive outlook on life. The language reflects this, unhindered by convention and free to view things in an intuitive and original manner. Language is used to provide insight into the character.

And, as with the Scottish dialogue Welsh uses, it does become easier to read as you go along.

There are those who say that all writing should be like this. Every so often there are rumblings about written language being too tied up with rules that, on the face of it, make no sense, and that words should be spelt out as they are sounded.

I’m not going to get into a major discussion on this, but I will point out one of the major problems with this approach to spelling, and it comes back to accents. A word like ‘out’ might be spelt ‘auwt’, or maybe ‘owt’. But ‘owt’, in some parts of the country, is a word that means ‘anything’ (as in ‘you doing owt today?’). So if we came across a word spelt ‘owt’, what is the meaning of it? We’d need to decipher the surrounding words, using context to gain meaning. But if we see the word ‘out’, we know what it is because we have been taught that this combination of letters reflects a certain concept.

And this is the problem with phonetic spelling. Spoken language varies from country to country and from region to region, even when the language is ostensibly the same. The English language is spoken in many flavours across the world. If written English reflected that, its universality would be greatly reduced.

This is the thing to remember with writing accents‌—‌we write to be understood. If the accent gives an insight into the character or the setting, or brings a scene to life, then it has its place, if used carefully, like a dash of seasoning. But overuse creates a barrier, like heavy seasoning can mask other flavours. And then, the reader is pulled out of the story, just as I was listening to that strange accent in Dracula.

AllusionistLogoNote: I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of them, The Allusionist, is all about words and language, and it just so happens that the latest episode is all about accents. You can give it a listen here.


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