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On Writing Characters With Accents

So you want some diversity in your novel, (because you’re a good person and different cultures are cool!) but you don’t know how to write accents and don’t want to be disrespectful?

This has been one of my biggest struggles with my current novel. Not only am I writing in a different time period, but my characters are from all over the globe and thus speak with many different accents. There are times when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel and make everyone from the same place just to make my life easier. (Bad! Diversity in novels is great!) But I persisted and learned how to use phonetics to write different accents!

You may be wondering:

How do I write this without it coming off as cheesy or annoying or just incorrect/offensive?

Well the internet is a wonderful place and I’m going to compile all the info I’ve learned from it here!

My main character is from England, but since she is my main character I do not exaggerate her or others’ British accents unless they are from another social class because this is normal to them. However if you are writing for a British accent:


•British Accent: 

First of all there are many different types of British accents (like with any accent), so do some research on the different regions and dialects! Social status will influence the accent as well. There is a more regal, or high class accent (the go to for bad british accent mockeries) and there are more posh accents, and many in between. There is also a Northern and Southern divide, just like the US (but not exactly).

It is difficult to use phonetics without coming across as posh, Australian, or something else all together. I think most people are familiar enough with a British accent that they’ll easily be able to imagine it without the use of phonetics.

In general, your character may use the whole phrase instead of using contractions, or if you want a more posh feel drop ‘g’s such as “me bleedin’ head!”

Simple phrases like this every so often will get the idea into your readers mind that they are british, so there is no need to bring it up all the time or overuse british slang. (This goes for all accents!)

•French Accent:

For native French speakers they will not be able make the ‘th’ sound, so wherever you see a ‘th’ put a z instead.

Example: “Zee apple of my eye”

‘ze’ can also work, depending on how strong you want the accent to be.

It can also become an ‘s’ such as in ‘sank you’ so speak the words aloud to determine this

Finally,

the ‘h’ is dropped so “how” becomes ” ‘ow” and ‘hospital’ becomes ” ‘opital”


•Russian, Slovic and Eastern Europe accents

-People with theses accent cannot use the ‘wu’ sound, so instead use ‘vu’

Example: “What if” become “Vut if”

In reality is a cross between a w and a v, but this is the easiest way to do it phonetically

-instead of ‘th’ use ‘z’ so instead of ‘this’ say ‘zis’

•Scottish Accent

-long r sounds do not exist, they ‘tap’ the r so bird becomes ‘baird’

-also rl makes an extra syllable after the l so ‘girl’ becomes ‘gairle’. This might be excessive to spell out phonetically though and confuse the reader, unless you want to demonstrate that they have a VERY thick accent.

-oo sounds become u sounds so ‘good with food’ becomes ‘gud with fud’

•Jamaican Accent

REALLY watch out for hurtful stereotypes here. People often jokingly mimic Jamaican and African dialects insinuating that the speaker is ‘slow’ or stupid. Just because someone’s way of speaker is vastly different than your own says nothing about their intellect! They just have a different way of pronouncing sounds. So make sure that your characters personality comes through in their dialogue by having them say longer, meaningful sentences. You can even have this be a plot point, have your character talk about how they feel like others are treating them differently because of how they speak!

-the gs at the end of words are dropped and ‘th’ sound become ‘d’ sounds so “telling each other” becomes “tellin’ each udda”

-‘ts’ at the end of words are dropped and double aas are often used in place of double vowels. For example: “waa gwaan” means “what’s going on”

-you becomes ‘yaw’ or ‘yuh’ and ‘ay’ sounds become ‘eh’

so “weh yaw seh” instead of  ‘what you say’ (this is also a common phrase for ‘what are you saying?’


•Filipino Accent

-first off, there are no ‘f’ sounds so the word filipino itself is pronounced ‘pilipino’

-no v sounds either, they are pronounced like bs (victory becomes bictory)

-no th either, it becomes just ‘t’ or a ‘d’ sound (this-> tis, beneath-> benead)

-another fun fact, there are no gender distinct pronouns, they instead say ‘sha’, but if they are speaking english this might not matter. My character uses filipino words a lot in her otherwise english sentences, so I do have her say sha.

Those are all the accents I’m using, but here are some other accents that I’m not using in my novel, but you guys might find helpful!

•German Accent

-W and vs both sound like v  “wine” becomes “vine”

-th changes to z or s “sank you for zis”say the words allowed to see which one is more appropriate

-s’s on the end of words can sound more like zs so with a thick accent you say ‘bitz’

-they can also sound a bit more hissy so words starting with s can add multiple s’s to effect: “vut is zat ssound?” again this might be overkill, so think about if you think it makes sense for the character

•Australian Accent

The primary thing to change here is different vowel sounds.

-A sounds are very distinct. For example, land becomes laynd, under becomes undah. The a in ‘hat sounds more like an e, so write ‘het’

-I sounds sound like ‘oy’s so if you really want to exaggerate you can write ‘roight’ instead of ‘right’

-the ts on the end of words are dropped. Alright can be written ‘Alrigh’

I would not recommend both dropping the t and adding the ‘oi’, too confusing!

•American Accent

What? Do Americans have an accent? Yes. Everyone has an accent.

Even if you have one it’s important to understand how your own speech works in order to try to write for other accents

-for general american accents, the ‘r’s are always pronounced, ‘cot’ and ‘caught’ sound the same, and t and d sounds are ‘flapped’ so they sound very similar. So instead of ‘butter’ it sounds like ‘budder’

This could get confusing to read with words that have a different meaning with ds instead of ts, but as long as there is context, it an help convey this.

The southern American accent is very different. They draw out sounds so instead of ‘talking in a southern accent’ you could write ‘tawkin’ inna suthern accent’. You’ll see I switched out ‘alk’ for ‘awk’, ‘in a’ for ‘inna’, and ‘ou’ for ‘u’

With all of these languages there are things that don’t translate well phonetically, so you’ll just have to rely on your reader to read in the accent. As long as you have the major vowel switches, this shouldn’t be a problem, especially since too much funky phonetics can get annoying and confusing.

If you are working with accents in your writing I would recommend having a cheat sheet for each character when you start out. Put some common phrases from that culture too. Don’t worry, it gets easier with time and soon you’ll be writing phonetically without even thinking about it.

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