1. The Crazy Kakoos
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    The Crazy Kakoos Member

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    A Character With Bad English

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by The Crazy Kakoos, Feb 10, 2013.

    I have a side character who speaks English as a second or third language. Point is his accent is VERY thick.
    I'm torn between having his dialogue spelled how it sounds with his thick accent or trusting the reader to supply the accent themselves. I'm afraid that if I spell the accent the reader might get tired of reading the butchered language. Then again it could simulate the other characters difficulty in understanding him.
     
  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My preference is always for the writer to reflect the word choice, but not attempt to reflect the accent.
     
  3. Lunatia
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    Lunatia Member

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    I'm reading a book at the moment with a very minor character having a very thick accent. In the dialogue, the character says "woid" for "word" and "woik" for "work". Personally, I stumbled over the words a little but rereading the sentences and the words as they were written had me hear the accent perfectly.

    Sadly, though, I'm horrible with accents so you can tell me someone has a thick such-and-such accent and if it's not an accent I'm very familiar with I would have to look it up. But not all readers are as unschooled as I am. :D

    I don't know if this is how it's supposed to be done at all, but the book I mentioned (obviously) got published so it didn't seem to count against the author too much. I'm interested to see what others have to say about this. :)
     
  4. mcrowe
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    mcrowe New Member

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    I think it would be too distracting to a reader to see the words spelled out strangely every time the character speaks. I have seen it where the author will explain, after the sentence of dialog, what one word sounded like. "Are we going to work today?" asked Jeff. His thick New York City accent coated his words, making 'work' sound like 'woik'. He moved to Michigian five years ago....

    When you first introduce the character this gives you a way to give light backstory along with small character details. You can mention the accent once or twice more (don't overdue it) to make sure the reader remembers
     
  5. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    When you introduce your character you can give an example of how his speech would sound.

    eg "Watt are zou zayng? I dant woik far zou", his butchered accent caused headaches to anyone who listened

    And from then on you can start using normal language with the occasional reference to his accent outside the dialogue.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Don't bother with phonetic rendering. If it sounds like another real word, use that word and have your other character scratching his head in confusion.

    Main thing is, establish the treacle-thick accent in narrative, and don't burden the reader with trying to slog his or her way through bad attempts to render the accent phonetically.
     
  7. The Tourist
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    The Tourist Banned

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    It might be simpler to change the character to a teenage boy, stumbling out into the light of day after his X-Box malfunctions. He only communicates with smilies, twitter abbreviations and black-ops jargon and has an almost Turrets Syndrome response of "Mom, pizza rolls!" which litters his discourse.

    Readers will get the point, they won't have to trip over the linguistic onomatopoeia of your spellings, and research should be easy to do.
     
  8. tinylittlepixie
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    tinylittlepixie Member

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    Is it a crucial plot device that English is his second language, that communication challenges are key? If it is, I would stick with it. Personally, I would suggest speaking to people with similar backgrounds to your character to get an indication as to the type of speech patterns that are likely.
     
  9. Captain Ahab
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    Captain Ahab Member

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    I personally find overdone phonetic rendering unpleasant to read; I'd used a light brush.

    Better I think to convey this in the rhythm of his/her speech. What is the character's first language? This will help you define what aspects of English grammar and pronunciation prove a challenge to your character. A phrasebook of that language could provide useful answers. I have taught English as a second language in several countries and found that each linguistic group has its own specific challenges.
     
  10. Shadywood
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    Shadywood Member

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    I am also of the opinion that writing the accent is troublesome to the reader. I often skim over dialogue that is like that, as it is too much work to decipher and does not add to the character.
     
  11. JennyM
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    JennyM Member

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    Wouldn't attempt to write in slang, not everyone would understand. It is also exhausting for the reader.

    How about a fine sprinkling in perhaps places where there is a profanity? "Gawd mister" for a cockney. Have read a delightful book where this worked beautifully 'Mr God this is Anna'.

    Perhaps you could trigger the reader's imagination, "Get off your horse and drink your milk!", the Texan drawled,
     
  12. Ian J.
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    Ian J. Active Member

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    It can be done (Iain M. Bank's 'Feersum Endjinn' has a character whose words are phonetically written amongst other characters whose words aren't, and I believe Irvine Welsh often writes dialogue with a heavy Scottish phonetic spelling) but the fact that it is so rare suggests that most readers don't like it. It's therefore best to avoid phonetic spellings as much as possible, only resorting to them very infrequently. I think this is one of those times when tell beats show: telling the reader how a character sounds rather than showing it is the 'norm'.
     
  13. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    First paragraph from Huckleberry Finn

    EXPLANATORY

    IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

    I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

    Mark Twain


    The full book is here, you can see for yourself how many accents combine to make a classic - http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7100/7100-h/7100-h.htm As you can the source is Gutenberg and not pirate so no copyright issues :)

    Hope it helps
     
  14. The Crazy Kakoos
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    The Crazy Kakoos Member

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    What about a cowboy accent?
    I live on a farm and am pretty familiar with how rural or country people speak. Hell, I myself slip into it often. But things like

    "Son of a bitch."
    Is tended to be pronounced
    "Sum bitch."

    And "You're " can be "Yer"

    Most everything is still pronounced more or less normally, but would I be able to get away with phonetically spelling a cowboy accent, and if so is that how you'd properly spell it if there is a proper way to spell that?
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It can be done, but best in tight moderation. It quickly becomes tiresome.
     
  16. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    content removed by author
     
  17. outsider
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    outsider Contributing Member Contributor

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    I must say I disagree wholeheartedly with most of the above advice. If you, as the author make the decision that your characters are going to use a dialect, and it is justified as an accurate reflection of the people and places you are trying to portray, then you should absolutely do that.
    You as the artist should make these decisions in concurrence with your vision not to conform to literary 'norms'. If the story is good enough, people will read it.
    Why shouldn't literature reflect the wide and varying tapestry of dialects and acute regional linguistic variations that exist? As long as its presented in such a way that the reader understands then there should be no problem.
    To suggest otherwise is elitist snobbery.
     
  18. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    I tried phonetic dialogue once... it did not go over well.

    Luckily when you're dealing with charaters that have a thick So. Cal accent (yes, we have an accent) it's as easy as saying they are in L.A. or San Diego, then lightly sprinkling in words such as: like, totally, you know, I mean, ans Spanglish e.g, "no problemo" and everyone will pretty much know what you mean. (Unless they believe the stereotype that all males sound like Jeff Spicolli and all females talk like valley girls *rolleyes* gag me with a spoon.)
     
  19. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Are you doing this for the sake of realism? If so, the accent won't be your biggest hurdle. It's very likely his English is grammatically incorrect as well. How are you going to tackle that? Do you know enough of his mother-tongue so that you can replicate the mistakes the speaker is likely to make?

    Suppose too much is too much, but this also depends on how much he talks. If he's not a blabbermouth, the readers could be just fine with a few "butchered" lines here and there. On the other hand, don't underestimate your readers. I doubt it'll be the accent that'd cause them to drop your novel. Try it out, give it to a few beta-readers, and listen to what they have got to say.
     
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  20. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Be aware of the difference between dialect and accent.

    New Englanders have lunch while Southerners have dinner. Easterners put their groceries in a bag; many Midwesterners use a sack. Those are differences in dialect.

    But where New Englanders write with a pen, Southerners write with a pin. That's a difference in accent.

    If your character speaks English as a second or third language, it's likely he would speak a dialect based on his native language, and also speak with an accent.

    So ... I would focus on dialect to convey his peculiar speech. Recall the Amish grandfather, Eli, in Witness trying to teach his grandson about guns: "The gun, that gun of the hand, is for the taking of human life. Would you kill another man?"

    That bit of dialect, gun of the hand, would work beautifully in print to convey that he is German. In addition to such dialectic twists, a few grammatical errors could give readers the flavor of this character: I not go unless you come with me, yes?

    As for accent, I agree with those who suggest that you go easy on spelling out odd pronunciations. There are other ways to give readers enough to go on. One way is to have other characters reflect the accent.

    Tom Wolfe does this in A Man in Full:

    Miss Martha Starling had reached down and found a beautiful diamond in the rough, Charlie Croker, and she had lifted him up to her level, and she didn't care what Richmond, Virginia, thought, which wasn't much. If he said Ah caint for I can't and latbubs for the things you put in lamps to create light, she would be Pygmalion and change all that!​

    I have a character who speaks with a heavy hillbilly drawl. I mention this early on. But rather than use phonetic spellings, I waited until a point in the story where he hires a speech coach to correct his accent:

    She taught him how to analyze and change his pronunciation, to say such things as home rather than hawm, what and not whut, bring rather than brang, right instead of raht, and to include the final G on words like coming and going.​

    In this brief passage, I changed spelling to convey Lloyd's accent (rural West Virginia) and also used some of the local dialect:

    "I’m talking with people who knew Chief Baylor when he worked here, just trying to fill out the background a little."

    "I remember him," Lloyd said. "Nice enough fellow. Never heard no harm of him. He was on the police and also did lay preaching out to the Mount Gilead Church south of town."

    "Did he grow up here?" Bolt asked.

    "Nawsir, he come here when he was maybe twenty-one, twenty-two. Stayed on the police seven or eight year, then took a job somewheres over in Virginia. I remember they give him a nice little send-off. The mayor made a speech and all. Ever’body seemed to like him all right."​

    In Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe puts in a few spellings to show accent but relies mainly on description:

    "Hello?"
    "Maria?"
    "Yes?"
    Taking no chances: "It's me."
    "Sherman?" It came out Shuhhh-man. Sherman was reassured. That was Maria, all right. She had the variety of Southern accent in which half the vowels are pronounced like u's and the other half like short i's. Birds were buds, pens were pins, bombs were bums, and envelopes were invilups.​

    So, there a many ways to skin this cat. But I wouldn't burden the reader with a great many phonetic spellings for accents.
     
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  21. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    And if you are in Appalachian Tennessee you use a poke. :)
     
  22. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Yes! Thank you. I almost included that one.
     
  23. outsider
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    outsider Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting, as I believe the majority of Appalachians are of Scots/Irish descent and my own gran (and many others of her generation) here in Scotland would refer to a bag as a poke. It is largely a dated term now though I would say.
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Most people have heard the proverb, "Never buy a pig in a poke," but few understand it because the use of the term "poke" for a sack is no longer widely known.
     
  25. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Yeah, you rarely hear it except from some of the hill folk up in the mountain towns.
     
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