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How to write accents in your dialogue

The best cure for the “manuscript on submission” anxiety, I’m told, is to start working on a new one. And so I have.

My new novel-in-progress is set in Europe with a troupe of international characters and multiple languages. Building this multi-cultural world presents a unique challenge: how to represent languages and accents on the page.  

I consulted with editor extraordinaire Deborah Halverson, author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and founder of DearEditor.com.

You can read about my previous experience with Halverson HERE.

Halverson explained, most written accents distract from the content of the dialogue and take away from the story, instead of adding to it. She said, the unskillful use of accents can jolt readers out of the page, while a well executed dialogue technique will keep readers within the fictional plane of the story.

As an alternative to accents, Halverson suggested the use of other dialogue mechanics such as:

  • wrong word choices
  • odd grammar and sentence structure
  • sprinkled-in foreign words
  • use of regional or cultural idioms
  • use of cultural slang
  • noting that the characters are speaking with an accent
  • showing characters struggling to find the right word in English

These are some examples I discussed with Halverson, taken from Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier and Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. (As an aside, I devoured both series! Sooooo good!)

EXAMPLE from Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, page 154 (hardback)

“Allo,” she said. She had a slight French accent. “You must be Gwyneth. I am Madame Rossini, and I look after your wardrobe.” She held up a tape measure. “We can’t have you traveling in time in zat dreadful school uniform, n’est-ce pas?”

EXAMPLE from Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, page 155 (hardback)

“I’ll be quick. Can you take that jacket off, pliss?” Madame Rossini put the tape measure around my waist. “Wonderful. Now the ‘ips. Ah, like a young colt! I think we can use most of what I made for the other one, with maybe some leetle alterations ‘ere and there.”

EXAMPLE from Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, page 214 (hardback)

“No French, then?” he asked, switching to German. I was a little better at German, or at least, my mark had been a regular B for four years now, but once again there were those annoying gaps in my vocabulary. “Why has she been so poorly prepared?”

“She hasn’t been prepared at all, sir. She speaks no foreign languages.” Gideon was speaking German too now. “And in every other respect, she is also entirely [gap]. Charlotte and Gwyneth were born on the same day. But everyone mistakenly assumed that Gwyneth was born a day later.”

“How could such a thing be overlooked?” Ah, at last I could understand every word again. They’d switched back to English, which the count spoke without a trace of foreign accent.

EXAMPLE from Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, page 190 (hardback)

“Monsieur Gideon, I ‘ad put out lose lemon-yellow breeches for you, not ze dark ones.” When Madame Rossini was annoyed her accent was stronger, and she forgot how to say an h or th now and then.

(Cont.)

“Men of ze Rococo period liked colors.” Madame Rossini looked at him severely. “And I am ze expert here, not you!”

EXAMPLE from Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, page 10 (paperback)

“I cried the first night, too.” She tilts her head, thinks for a moment, and then nods. “Come on. Chocolat chaud.”

EXAMPLE from Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, page 15 (paperback)

“It’s okay, I didn’t see you either. Are you all right, then?”

Oh my. He’s English.

“Er. Does Mer live her?”

Seriously, I didn’t know any American girl who can resist an English accent.

EXAMPLE from Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, page 89 (paperback)

“It’s considered pretty high art here. There are load of first-run theaters, but even more—what do you call them?—revival houses. They play the classics and run programs devoted to different directors or genres or obscure Brazilian actresses or whatever.”

Other helpful posts:

You can read Halverson’s post on this subject HERE.

Grammar Girl

Penultimate Word

Standout Books

Mayra

Comments

Deborah
Reply

Thoughtful post. Those examples are good ones to consider. Glad I could be helpful as you worked out your preference for handling characters who don’t speak English as their first language. Happy writing!

Mayra
Reply

Thank you as always!!!

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