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I am a writer, editor, reviewer and dance teacher based in Perth, Western Australia.

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The first novel of my trilogy, The Talismans, is available as e-books from Smashwords, Amazon and other online sellers. I do have paperbacks of The Dagger of Dresnia at the low price of $AU25 including postage within Australia. I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below. Book two of the trilogy, The Cloak of Challiver, will be available again shortly. The best way to contact me is via Facebook!

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The Cloak of Challiver
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Writing in dialect, accent and register



From time to time, writers need to depict a character who speaks with an accent, in a dialect, or even in a foreign language. And quite often, we will have a group of characters who are involved in, let’s say, magic. The area of interest, be it magic or anything else, will require its own register, of which more later.

Idiosyncratic speech can make writing tricky. But before we consider how best to handle the situation, let’s take a closer look at just what these terms mean.

A language is a communication system shared by a number of people. English is today an international language, not limited by national borders. Esperanto is an invented language, intended to provide a relatively simple means of communication among people who have no common language. Auslan is the sign language of the Australian deaf community. Cornish is a dead language that has been revived by a few natives of the county who are eager to give the ancient tongue a new lease of life.

Most languages contain more than one dialect. A dialect is a variety of language used by a specific speech community. A dialect may have noticeable differences in grammar, syntax and vocabulary from the ‘standard’ form of the language. ‘Dialect’ implies that it is spoken by many or most people who live in a particular area, so we talk, for instance of someone speaking in a Yorkshire dialect. But Black American English is definitely a dialect, and it is not limited to any particular area. Cultural factors can also come into play.

There’s a difference between a dialect and an accent. The term 'accent' usually refers to the way people pronounce words in a particular area. For example, most English people pronounce the name of the fodder crop lucerne with the accent on the second syllable, while their Australian cousins put the accent on the first syllable. Both Brits and Australians pronounce ‘buoy’ the same way as ‘boy’, while their Stateside buddies will say ‘booi’. However, Brits, Aussies and Americans (and Kiwis, South Africans Canadians and Indians, among others!) who speak a reasonably standard form of their country’s version of English can generally understand each other without too many hitches, so they are said to be speaking ‘with an accent' rather than ‘in a dialect’.

But try putting a country Cornishman, a country Queenslander and a native of the Deep South in a room together. You would probably get a few laughs from their mutual incomprehension because it’s quite likely their accents would be so broad, and would contain so many mutually unintelligible words, that they could be said to be using dialect rather than accent. This is less true today, of course, than it was even 30 years ago, but even so, anyone who travels around the different English speaking countries will tell a story or two about failures of communication.

So what about our last term, register? A register is a variety of language associated with people's occupations and interests. 'Register' describes variations in language use connected with a particular topic. For instance, if I go to a writers meeting, I will hear expressions such as ‘protag’, ‘POV’, ‘sub’, synop’ ‘blurb’ all of which are either limited to people involved in writing and publishing or have a different meaning in the literary context than they do in everyday speech. But I might go straight from the writers meeting to review a ballet, and my review is likely to contain words such as pirouette, pas de deux, balon, elevation, flic-flac and entrechat, all of which are French in origin because France is where ballet was first codified, so it based its vocabulary on that language.

All of us have more than one register, which we will use in appropriate contexts. It’s useless for me to natter on about POV or balon at a get-together for people who practise Yoga, for example. I might find one or two folk there who knew what I was talking about, but generally, it would be inappropriate. We all know intuitively to restrict register use to its proper context.

So how would we deal with these situations if they form part of a story we want to set down on paper? Let’s start investigating that.

It is indeed a curly problem. Full-on dialect or an entire new language would be too hard to follow, because most readers are not willing to learn a whole new vocabulary. Some readers are willing – just look at the number of SF fans who have learnt to speak Klingon or Elvish. My friend Joanna Fay has even been known to write verse in Elvish now and then! But these enthusiasts constitute an exception, not a rule. Most readers cannot be bothered learning too many new words, especially since reading science fiction and fantasy invariably means learning strange new given names, family names and place names. We might also have to fix entire world-maps into our heads! Expecting us to learn an entirely new vocabulary is probably going a step too far.

How, then, can a writer represent an accent in writing? Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve decided to have a main character who comes from London. George Bernard Shaw did this very nicely in his play Pygmalion, which later became the musical My Fair Lady. He introduces his heroine, Eliza, this way:
‘Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f'them? [Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.]’ Note Shaw’s directive at the end. Having established the accent, he modifies his representation of Eliza’s speech considerably thereafter, and tells us he is about to do it. But Shaw was a playwright. A novelist can’t step into the text and explain that she’s given up on the accent, so she has to find another way of approaching the problem. 

The best way, perhaps, is to pick out a few characteristics of the dialect and show only those in the way you transcribe the character’s speech. To make your point, you can be a bit heavy-handed when you first introduce the character and then tone it down over the course of a few scenes until only hints of the accent remain. But don’t copy Shaw’s efforts by trying to represent the accent by long screeds of text with apostrophes to denote dropped letters. He was giving us a lesson in what not to do!
So can you ever use a seriously full-on accent? Most readers, I think, are OK with an accent that involves just one or two characters, and if those characters are of the ‘cameo’ kind – people who just drop into the story once or twice to fulfil some purpose of the plot – so much the better. But an accent can pall if it is general throughout the book. It is tiresome to read long screeds of text with apostrophes to denote dropped aitches at the start of particular words and dropped g’s from the end of –ing words, for instance, as you would have to do with a Cockney accent like Eliza Doolittle’s. Strange spelling to represent regional pronunciation is also a sticky problem, and without using IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) it’s not reliable. Besides, most people don’t know IPA.

Perhaps the safest way to approach the writing of an accent is by representing not the sounds so much as the patterns and figures of speech that characterise both accent and dialect. For example, using Yorkshire again, we might have a character use expressions such as ‘our lass’ when referring to a daughter or sister, or ‘our kid’ for a son or brother. Idioms such as ‘Put wood in th’ole’ for ‘Shut the door’ and ‘Mash the tea’ for ‘pour boiling water on tea leaves’ would also quickly set the scene as Yorkshire. (West Australian author Anna Jacobs does this kind of thing particularly well in her historical novels, which are set in Lancashire.)

You can, however, get away with introducing a handful of dialectal words whose meaning is always obvious from the context. Greetings are an obvious choice. The standard Yorkshire greetings ‘Eh yup’ (an old Norse greeting – Yorkshire was overrun by Vikings in the ninth century, as any Bernard Cornwell fan will tell you!) ‘Aw reet then’ (All right then) and 'Nah theen' (Now then) will immediately tell your readers where they are, as will the old Cockney ‘Wotcha, cock!’or the Australia 'G'day'. Even people from other counties or countries will quickly cotton on to the fact that these are greetings. If you’re working with an invented society, it’s easy enough to create a few greetings for your characters to use.

Register likewise needs to be introduced gradually and in a piecemeal manner, dropping in a word here, a phrase there, making sure that the reader has ample opportunity to digest each new word or expression before bringing in more. Let’s say we have a magical system that involves a process called sprunking, that involves taking several different spells then condensing and combining them so that the wizard has only to work one spell for all to take effect. Here’s a bit of imaginary dialogue between a wizard and his apprentice:

‘Shaynee, did you remember to sprunk in the speeded-up turnip-cooking spell when you set up the cauldron for the stew?’

‘Yes, sir, I sprunked it in with the fire spell.’

‘You did what? Demons below, child, haven’t I told you a dozen times or more that you can only sprunk similar things together? A fire spell is a fire spell; a cooking spell is a cooking spell, and you can’t mix the two. First you must deal with the ingredients. You must sprunk in the bit about fast cooking when you call up the turnips.’

That will give the reader a bit of an idea what’s involved in sprunking. To reinforce the idea, the author might show Shaynee working another spell a few scenes later; a spell that involves sprunking, say, a wood-drying spell while making fire.

So, when introducing dialect or register, start with just one or two words, mention each one a couple of times, then introduce one or two more related ‘jargon’ words the third time the first two are mentioned. Repeat from the top until all the required new vocab has been introduced. If you throw too many new words at your reader in the first few scenes, some of them will give up before the end of chapter one and possibly refuse to look at anything of yours again, ever!

Slowly, slowly, catchee reader.

The article first appeared in two instalments on the Egoboo blog in 2012.

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