WORDS WITH AN ACCENT
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
A commercial for a cable company promises via a friendly-looking female, “I speak with a local accent.” To me, that says this company is not outsourcing their call centers and I can expect to speak to someone who understands my own accent. I am told I do have an accent, though to me, the sound of my voice sounds rather indistinguishable than at least the woman in the advertisement.
Many times writers are told their characters need to have their own voice. Beginning writers often take that to mean someone has to drop their “g’s” or resort to a dialect. Nothing is more bothersome than when too much dialect is coming from one person in a story. And if for some reason more than one character speaks entirely in a dialect, it gets downright confusing—and often boring.
I judged a contest where a writer had an excellent story to tell. His pacing was right on, his characters were fresh and exciting and I loved his style. The only off-putting feature was one major character’s every word was told in a heavy Irish brogue, so heavy it stilted the conversation and made the reader stumble over entire sentences, having to re-read again and again his dialogue. Unfortunately, this one thing kept him from winning that particular contest. A nod to an accent here and there would have been sufficient.
An editor advised me to “add some Texan” to my character’s speech. It was a simple idea that made all the difference. My friend, Nan, who is still a pure Californian spirit though she’s lived in Texas for twenty years said, “Just put in some of that stuff you always say. You know, “y’all” and “fixin’ to.” You are always saying those words.” She had a point.
I think part of the reason I adore noir stories (and the 1940s) is because of the hardboiled language that bespeaks the times. (Okay, it’s also because of the clothes!)
“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”
“I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
—Sam Spade, in Dashiell Hammett’s
The Maltese Falcon
Though English phrases may show us the locale, dialogue still needs to differentiate between characters. We don’t confuse Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes’ in any of their conversations because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a master of distinguishing each character’s “voice.”
“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”
“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
—Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, in A. C. Doyle’s
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
You can almost see Watson blustering about as he speaks, while Holmes is always a bit introspective.
Putting just the right accent on the right words mean the writer has drawn me into a particular locale where I felt quite at home, with or without my personal accent.