How to write sound – putting an accent on the page
The way we use language differs depending on whether we are speaking it or writing it and that difference has to come across on the page. But what about how it sounds?
There is a tendency to think that only other people have accents while we just speak normally.
The truth is we all speak in a way that reflects where we come from and our experiences, but only some character are subject to the indignities of dropped letters and other visual tricks.
Here’s an example of it done very, very badly. So badly it makes you want to wince.
“Ello, Miss,” he said, politely touching his forehead with a finger in a kind of salute. “It’s a right ‘onor. ‘Course, my old mum an’ I, we seen all yer pictures. She’s a great fan ‘o yers, is me mum.”
It can be done well. Here’s a short snatch of dialogue from Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Jim, an escaped slave, is talking about what he will do when he knows he is safe.
‘Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free mnan, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.’
Illustration of Jim and Huckleberry Finn, by EW Kemble from the original 1884 edition of the book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
However, it can be a struggle to read on the page and we are perhaps less prepared to give it the time and attention it needs as a reader in 1884 when Huck was first published.
You can see that Twain also uses phonetic spelling to capture the voice of his character and this is often easier on the eye. However, you don’t have to hammer it home with every word: be consistent with a few words and make sure that the spelling you use accurately reflects the way it is pronounced. Don’t be lazy and use faithful old stand-bys like gonna unless you know that is exactly how your character speaks.
Another dialogue tool is grammar. It can be used to express different speech patterns. The only ones I am familiar with are Gaelic such as the Scots phrase: ‘are you wanting to go?’ but I think the same holds true for Caribbean English.
Here’s another example from a speech made at a funeral.
“We loved the great woman’s heart of her.”
An Englishman or woman couldn’t have said that. If they wanted to express the same sentiments it would have to be something like:
“She had a great heart.”
“She was a big-hearted woman.”
I think the first line shouts Irish as strongly as a green passport. Irish English is sometimes called Hibernian English and it has a distinctive quality because Irish grammar is imposed on the English language
No book can tell you how to do this – you have to listen and if you are going to have a go at putting a distinctive way of speaking down on the page start by listening to the voices that surround you, the ones from your own community and the streets where you live, the ones you hear on television and radio and, like a musician, practice, practice, practice.
Listen to this wonderful piece of film made by Tralee music technology students. It translates Pulp Fiction into a Kerry accent.
A version of this article was published in January 2013