1. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese Contributing Member

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    A British Character?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by CheddarCheese, Feb 5, 2012.

    Hi all,

    First off, I'm quite new to this forum, so I hope I'm putting this topic in the right place. If not, I apologize.

    So I've been trying to write a story, and it includes a large variety of characters. I've decided that one of the more important characters would come from London, England. As you may already know, British English can be quite different from American/Canadian English. This is my road block. I don't want to accidentally make my British character use North American English, as that could end up badly. On the other hand, I can't force my character to use British cliches, as that would just be strange.

    I'm hoping that someone with good knowledge on the differences could help me with this situation. What are the little things that make British English different from North American English (in dialogue)? Words that are different? Commonly used phrases that exist/don't exist? Commonly used slang?

    My character is female and about seventeen years old. What kind of things should I tweak in her dialogue to make sure she is actually from London?

    Thanks a bunch.
     
  2. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    Well, you need to be a bit more specific about her character before I could tell you how she might sound. What area of London is she from? What is her social and economic background, i.e. is she from an affluent family, working class, lives on a council estate, goes to private school, a comprehensive school in a rough area?

    A common mistake that Americans make is to think that everyone who is 'British' sounds like either Liz Hurley or Michael Caine. There are many many many different types of British accent - and for a start, lets clear that up. There is no such thing as a 'British' accent. Britain is composed of 4 countries, and each has their own regional accents with their own regional dialect and slang. While you don't necessarily want to overload your dialogue with this (your American readers need to be able to understand what they're saying) a light flavour of it will add to the authenticity of your character.

    So, you've got a bit more research to do on your character's background before you start looking at speech patterns.
     
  3. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese Contributing Member

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    Thanks for the input,

    Although I knew that different areas of the United Kingdom would have different forms of speech (it works that way in Canada too), I guess I didn't pinpoint my character's background well enough. I suppose my misconception comes from the fact that my home town is quite small compared to a place like London England, so you would find people of different backgrounds speaking with the same general patterns of speech (assuming they grew up here). I was hoping there would also be general patterns in London, which apply to most people regardless of background.

    Since that's not the case, I will try to explain what I have currently constructed of my character. Be aware: My knowledge of London's culture is very limited. Short of flying a plane there, it's a little hard to figure it all out, even with sources. Because of this, my character is currently constructed as if she were North American.

    She is seventeen years old, which would put her in the twelfth grade if she lived here (I've heard they use a 'Year' system, not grades). Her family's economic background would most likely resemble middle-class citizens. I'm not sure how the school systems work in London, so I have no viable input on that. However, she would be receiving Secondary/High school education here (I think it corresponds to "comprehensive schools", but I really don't know). She has an assertive and confident personality. She is generally kind to her peers, but also quite strict and stubborn at times. She tends to be very serious about what she does.

    What I currently have on her character will most likely expand and change later, but this is what I've sketched up for now. Any more help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks.
     
  4. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    Ok, we're getting closer, but more is needed.

    WHERE in London does she live? It's a big place, with massive differences in class and culture. East London is where you get the typical cockney accent (Watch a soap called Eastenders if you can get it over there on BBC world - or try youtube). North London is a little posher, and somewhere like Chelsea is where the rich snobs live (Another programme, a reality tv series called 'Made in Chelsea' may help there).

    What kind of house do they live in? Is it in the suburbs or in an urban area? A house or a flat?

    What do her parents do for a living?

    At 17 she would be in 6th form - it's one of our English idiosyncrasies, but after year 11 (ages 15-16, at the end of which you do your GCSE exams and then finish compulsory edication) you can apply to go into further education, which should technically be called year 12, but everyone calls it 6th form after the old secondary school system. This would mean she is either at a secondary school with a 6th form (many of these used to be grammar schools before we did away with the two tier system of grammar/comprehensive schools) or she would be at 6th form college. This means she is in voluntary education, as she could have left school and got a job at 16. She would therefore be studying for A levels (google it) or some form of college/vocational diploma.

    But her personality or intelligence is really quite irrelevant to her accent, which is more tied to her social background and area she grew up. These two things will determine whether she is a Liz Hurley or a Michael Caine ;)

    I recommend you get your hands on as many English based TV series or films you can, use google and youtube, and also use googlemaps to look up areas of London where she might live, then research that area.

    Research and more research. There is no substitute for it if you want to write well.
     
  5. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese Contributing Member

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    This calls for a lot of research, which, for someone like me could take a very long time. I'm a casual writer (and not very good at it, mind you), so I tend not to know these things beforehand. I apologize for that.

    I'm just wondering: Would the type of housing she lives in have a large effect on her speech? Or the occupations of her parents? I see how these are important for the character herself, but does it effect her way of speech?

    As of current, I don't want to set anything in stone. This is because my story ideas, and its characters tend to change greatly over the course of my writing. In addition, the research for the placement of my characters (all of them, not just this one) will probably take longer than this thread will exist. So for now, I will pick a favorable area of London from where she could come. Currently, I think I'll have her living in the southern part of London; South London/South-West London (boroughs such as Sutton, Croydon, or Kingston). I haven't quite pinpointed the district that she would live in, and I hope to have that soon. Would this suffice for an area, or do I need to be more specific?

    Also, thanks for the education information. It seems I should look that up extensively as well.
     
  6. Cacian
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    Cacian Banned

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    can I just point something out.
    If you say British then it could be anyhting from English to Jamaican to Welsh, Northen Irish , Scottish, Pakistanee to Polynesian.
    All these different nationalities born or emmigarted in the UK bear a British Passport, although only one of them is actually English.
    O youneed to be specific about this character.
    Is she English?
     
  7. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you haven't yet, watch the movies "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" and listen to the varied London and regional accents. You should be able to pick up a lot about city vs country living in the UK too.
     
  8. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese Contributing Member

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    Thanks for the input.

    I have watched some English-oriented movies, and read some books by English authors. The problem is, that I probably will never find a movie with a character that will utter the same words as my own. The accent is actually not the main thing I am looking for - it's a little hard to portray accents in text. Rather, I'm looking for the differences of words, phrases, or slang that would differentiate between an American character and a British character. For example, I'm not sure how true this is, but the word "washroom" is not used in the UK, it's called the "toilet" or "loo". Little bits of knowledge like that would prevent me from accidentally making my British character use American terms.
     
  9. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese Contributing Member

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    Hi,

    Yes, she is English. Sorry about being a little vague; although I did point out she lived in London England. As I've currently discussed with Kallithrix, I've pinpointed her location to South/South-West London.
     
  10. prettyprettyprettygood
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    prettyprettyprettygood Active Member

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    If I'm allowed to post this link, here's a list of Brit vs American words:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_words_having_different_meanings_in_British_and_American_English:_A–L

    It sounds to me though that apart from watching as much British stuff as you can be bothered with, you should just write your story as best you can, then hopefully find a Brit to cast their eye over it and check for authenticity. Your example is correct, by the way, we don't tend to use washroom or bathroom when we mean toilet.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    I'm going to say in advance that most of what I know about Britain comes from mystery novels.

    That said: In America, at least Midwestern small-to-medium-town America, economic and social class tend to merge. People with similar incomes tend to live in the same neighborhoods and send their kids to the same schools, and therefore they tend to socialize with one another, and, to return to your question, to use language in the same way. This isn't an unbreakable rule - people are capable of putting up barriers based on anything and everything - but it's a pretty strong trend.

    My impression is that in Britain, economic class and social class are not nearly so tightly intertwined, and that your social class comes from your family, your background, and so on, more than just your income. If your social class is undistinguished and you suddenly become extremely wealthy, I believe that you're still in precisely that same undistinguished social class. So that's why it's probably not sufficient to refer to your character as "middle class" - there are all sorts of other factors that would affect her language and use of language.

    (And there are, of course, similar situations in the United States - for example, New York City supports a variety of accents, regions, and social groups within its borders.)
     
  12. Cacian
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    Cacian Banned

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    Anyone can live in London England.
    The location means nothing to the actual root of a British person.
    I am British/I have a British passport but I am not English.
    I live in London Essex. again I am not English but have a British passport.
    British is actually vague/ vast of what it actually means.
    West London is vast again but tends to be slightely expensive. One is more likely to bump into a posh English person but also a non Enlglish person too.
    If it is posh you are looking for then they are more likely the 'queen's English'.
    Variations's of English accents are very indicative of one's background.
    You can a posh/cokney/northern/middle class to working class accents.
    An English accent always gives a person's background so it should be easy for you to portray someone's background by the way they speak.
     
  13. Protar
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    Protar Active Member

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    I believe there are quite a few tvtropes articles which should help. This is the main one on British English:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BritishEnglish

    Also keep in mind, we love tea :p
     
  14. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unless you have a good working knowledge of British English, I don't think it is possible to accurately portray that language, in the book or on film. Just think of all the cringe-worthy English "baddies" in an average American movie. And American actor mixing up the accents so that he sounds like some weird mishmash of Irish, Australian, Cockney and West Midlands, using words and phrases that have been put together by the writers who, likewise, never went to England, let alone lived there long enough to assimilate the speech. To a person from the UK, there is nothing worse than that.

    I would suggest you simply write as you would, and then in editing, later, you can change the more uniquely American phrases to either non-determined or English phrases.
    In the UK we have a so-called "mid Atlantic" accent. This is how relatively wealthy people who travelled a lot speak, and it is a mixture between US and British English, so you can easily give your character such a background.

    Otherwise, there is no book that can hel teach you these things, language is a very complex thing and it can't be faked.
     
  15. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    To me the modern "posh" people, like your typical Eaton kids who then get jobs in politics and on tv, don't really speak the "queen's English", that is a very old fashioned accent and only old over 60 aristoctrats speak like that. No, typical public school accent is what you'l get in Kensington, Belgravia etc. Think Nigella Lawson, David Cameron, Boris Johnston, people like that.
     
  16. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    Not directly, but it establishes her social and economic situation, which reflects class, therefore education, and thus accent. If her parents are pretty well off, live in a 5 bedroom townhouse in an afluent suburb like Notting Hill, drive a nice mercedes, and send her to private school, she's not going to sound like someone who lives in a 2 bedroom flat in Peckham with her unemployed parents who spend their dole money on crack, and goes to a rough inner city comprehensive.

    No, that's probably enough in terms of pinpointing the area - south london accents are a little less 'common' than east or north London, and there's less dropping of the 'h' from the front of words, but you'll still get things like using 'me' instead of my, like 'just look what you've done to me car!' The further away from Croydon and closer to Surrey you get, the more well spoken the accent is ;)
     
  17. Cacian
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    Cacian Banned

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    Thanks jazzabel.
    Iwas not aware of this.
    I thought you meant only 60 aristocrats in total speaks it..hehe.. I misread it.
    I actually really enjoy listening to the Queen's accent. It is so neat and perfect. Anyone English or not can understand it. It is simply amasing.
    When I first came to England I could not make head to tail of what people were saying because of the differences in accents.
    I had terrible time trying to watch an American Film for example. I just did not get and still don't get what they say.
    I sometimes have to have subtitles to follown an American films.
    I don't do that when I watch an Englsih film.
    The only accent I could understand when I fisrt started English was the received English or the Queen's.
    It made learning English for me so much easier.
     
  18. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    Just so. In Britain, economic status and social class are really not linked at all - there are lots of poor aristocrats, and also lots of wealthy people who are essentially still considered 'working class'. However, as they no longer need to work, they are designated their very own class known as 'new money'. This is basically all the footballers and reality TV celebs who are still common as muck, but rich as Croesus.
     
  19. Jonp
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    Jonp Senior Member

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    One little thing you could do to make the point clearer is spelling the words in her dialogue the english way, i.e. colour with a u.
     
  20. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    If she's in school, she would likely be attending 'sixth form' by that time. Have a google for some information on that. Lower-sixth form is Year 12, and upper sixth-form is year 13. She'd be studying towards her A-levels (or AS levels.)

    'Secondary school' is used for many schools, although some are classed e.g. 'Sixth Form colleges' or just 'Colleges'.

    I would try and identify where in London she's from. Do some research about the various boroughs and their differences. Middle class? Look more towards West, perhaps including areas of Greater London.
     
  21. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you are making a mistake if you have this girl as a major character because you do not have any first hand knowledge of such a person. You will only be able to depict a superficial caricature of the real thing and your mistakes will be blindingly obvious to any English person. I second everything that kallithrix says, and cacian makes a good point that 'British' is just what is printed on your passport--I am southern English with a bit of exotic seasoning from colonial, Indian army and old mercantile times (what's known as 'Leventine' where I live). My background is pretty evident to any other English person if they speak to me for ten minutes but I suppose an American wouldn't have a clue. Oh, yes--if she's posh she's likely to be at a private school (in other words, a 'public' school in England), either as a day pupil if it's one of the prestegious schools in London, or at boarding school (all girls), or at a boys public school which takes girls in the sixth form (most likely, the school her father went to, if they take girls).
     
  22. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Haha, no, unfortunately there are more than 60 of them left :D I don't know if you ever watch the cooking show called "Two Fat Ladies". They are old posh women, one is a Baroness, the other was a QC (the highest form of barrister), they speak in the "Queen's English" as opposed to Nigella who has the modern, public school dialect (bizarrely, "public school" in the UK means really expensive private school, I have no idea why).

    When I moved to Australia, years ago, I spoke relatively decent English but I could not understand anything other pupils were saying. The only tv channel I could understand was the ABC which adhered to the old BBC standards for English pronunciation.
    I am surprised you are having trouble with understanding American movies, I suppose the world culture is so strongly dominated by Hollywood that the American accent tends to be best understood by non-native English speakers.
     
  23. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Re: Public Schools
    It's not rocket science. Originally, most aristocratic boys were educated at home with tutors (and girls with governesses). If/When parents sent them away to school for their education, it meant they were no longer being educated 'privately' i.e. in the privacy of their home, they were being educated with other pupils, i.e. at 'public' schools. At first, there were no non-fee paying schools apart from endowed/charity schools, but when they were set up in Britain, they were paid for by the government, hence the perfectly logical term we use: 'state schools'.

    Understanding and using accents is all to do with exposure. If all your schoolfriends and family speak with a public school accent, you do too. However, the amount of c*** and ridicule some people think they can freely pour on you because of this forces kids to try and make their accent sound a bit sloppier, so they speak like Princess Anne's daughter or Nigella Lawson. Some English people cannot understand American movies very well and put subtitles on because there are not all that many American programmes or films they want to watch. They only turn on the TV to watch something--so when would they ever hear it? American culture is not as all-pervasive in Europe as youmight imagine.
     
  24. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    listen to kalli!... all that s/he says is valid info and good advice...

    as for spelling differences, it would make no sense to spell that character's dialog the british way and everything else in the novel american/canadian style... the only time it would make sense to change would be if you include something that character wrote, which would then be in the spelling she'd use... dialog sounds the same whether or not you use an 's' for a 'zed' or 'ou' for 'o'...
     
  25. Domino
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    Domino Active Member

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    I've been writing a story with an American character. It's easy to make slip-ups with dialogue. I have a really good excuse in place for any mistakes I make, though. lol.

    Here's a few translations, if it helps:
    Fries - Chips
    Chips - Crisps
    Stroller - Buggy/pram
    Diaper - Nappy
    Sidewalk - Pavement
    Mail - Post
    Trunk (of car) - Boot
    Hood (of car) - Bonnet
    Candy - Sweets
    Gas - Petrol
    Pants - Trousers (pants to us usually means men's underwear.)
    Shopping Cart - Trolley
    Cop - Copper
    Apartment - Flat
    Elevator - Lift
    Soccer - Football
    Soda - Fizzy drink/pop
    Leash - Lead
    Diner - Cafe
    Kindergarten - Nursery
    Movies - Pictures
    Cell - Mobile
    ER - Casualty
    Fall - Autumn
    Yard - Garden
    Trash - Rubbish
    Trash can - Bin
    Cookie - Biscuit (or cookie if it's an actual cookie)
    Vacation - Holiday
    Wrench - Spanner
    Parking lot - Car park
    Sneakers - Trainers
    Grades (at school) - Marks
    Eggplant - Aubergine
    Walker - Zimmerframe/walking frame
    Windshield - Windscreen
    And (Yeah, yeah, hardy har :p): Eraser - Rubber

    Oh, and don't bother using Cockney rhyming slang. lol. As far as I know people in London don't go around talking like the chim-chiminy sweep from Mary Poppins. ;)
     

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