I Got My Own Way of Talkin’*

Accents and DialectsAn interesting comment exchange with Australian author Angela Savage has got me thinking about dialects and accents. Before I go any further, let me encourage you to check out Savage’s books Behind the Night Bazaar and The Half Child. Both are believable and engaging mysteries in a deftly-drawn Thai setting and feature the likeable PI Jayne Keeney. Seriously, I recommend them.

Now, on to the whole question of dialect and accent. Here’s the challenge for the author when it comes to dialogue. On the one hand, we all know that people speak differently. Even people who speak the same language may very well speak different dialects of it depending on all sorts of factors (age group, education ethnic background, socioeconomic class and region being just a few of them). So if an author wants to create a believable character that character has to speak in a believable way. For instance, most Americans wouldn’t use the expression car park to describe a large area where people put their cars while they shop. It’s not an Americanism; Americans would be more likely to say parking lot. There are a lot of other examples of this kind of variation too. For instance, do you put your groceries in a shopping cart, a buggy, a wagon or a trolley? The main point here is that authors who want their characters to sound authentic need to be aware of the way people from a given background speak.

The same goes for syntactic patterns and other aspects of the way we speak. And if the author doesn’t match the characters’ voices to the setting and to the characters’ backgrounds, readers find the story less believable. It can be jarring.

On the other hand, putting too much emphasis on dialect can distract the reader, especially if it’s hard to understand what a character is saying. That’s even more the case if characters use a language that is foreign to the reader. What’s worse, using dialect without handling it carefully can have the effect of being condescending and can stereotype characters. Honestly it’s not easy to address this question of using accents and dialect in writing. I work on that one myself. But it can be done deftly.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is Belgian by birth and his first language is Belgian French. Once in a while he uses French expressions, but not to any great extent. And what’s more interesting is that Christie writes his dialogue without using stereotypical indicators of accent (e.g. zee for the). For example, in Cards on the Table, Poirot and three other sleuths (including Christie’s fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver) are invited to a dinner party hosted by the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Also invited are four people whom Mr. Shaitana hints have all gotten away with murder. When Shaitana is later stabbed by one of his guests, Poirot and the other sleuths look into the case. At one point, Poirot is talking to Superintendent Battle, who was also at the dinner:


‘‘Any ideas, Monsieur Poirot? As to motive? Anything of that kind?’…
‘Yes, I have something to say on that score. Tell me – Monsieur Shaitana, he did not give you any hint of what kind of party you were coming to tonight?’…
A bell whirred in the distance and a knocker was plied.
‘That’s our people,’ said Superintendent Battle. ‘I’ll go and let ‘em in. We’ll have your story presently. Must get on with the routine work.’’


If you look at this exchange you can see the difference in language background, class and occupation between the two men. But Christie doesn’t overdo it and she tells us about the characters through a little deft use of speech patterns such as syntactic structure.

Here’s an example of what you might call class differences in speech that comes from Martin EdwardsAll the Lonely People. In this story, Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin is shocked when his ex-wife Liz shows up at his home. He’s hopeful at first that this means she wants to put their relationship back together. But she tells him it’s because she’s run away from her lover Mick Coghlin and needs a place to stay for a short time. When Liz is murdered, Devlin becomes a suspect. In part to clear his name, he starts to investigate the murder. He finds that Liz had been mixed up with some seedy people, one of whom was Joe Rourke, with whom she’d recently taken up.  Devlin wonders if Rourke might be involved in Liz’s murder so he interviews (among other people) Rourke’s former lover Jane Brogan. Here’s just a bit of their conversation:


‘‘When did you find out that Joe was seeing my wife?’
She considered. ‘Fortnight ago, three weeks maybe.’ With a harsh laugh she said, ‘Caught him good and proper, didn’t I?’
‘Found her photograph in the pocket of his jeans. I was only after a few bob to pay off the ‘leccy bill before they cut us off…’
‘What did you do, Jane?’
‘Took the money, didn’t I, what else?’’


You can tell just from this snippet that although Devlin isn’t from an upper-class background, he’s educated. Jane Brogan on the other hand is not. And what’s particularly interesting is that Edwards doesn’t paint her character in a stereotyped or condescending way. She’s doing the best she can in a very bad situation, but she is neither stupid nor an object of pity.

The point here is that integrating dialect in subtle ways can be a very effective way of showing not telling about characters and distinguishing them from each other. So long as it isn’t self-conscious or condescending, dialect can be an effective tool.

What about accents? Everyone knows that regional accents vary greatly and writing accents can be a challenge. But again, it wouldn’t be realistic if characters had no accent. In real life, they do. Some authors (Edwards is one of them) simply mention the accent without demonstrating it. Since the Harry Devlin series takes place mostly in Liverpool, many of the characters have what’s called a Scouse accent – the accent and dialect of Merseyside and the Liverpool area. But Edwards doesn’t go into detail writing that accent. Instead, he simply mentions it.

So does Peter Temple. In Bad Debts for instance, we meet sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish, who investigates the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. McKillop had been sent to prison on charges of drink driving that led to the death of local activist Anne Jeppeson. When McKillop is released he tries desperately to reach Irish but before Irish can meet with him, McKillop himself is murdered. One of the links in this case may be a charity organisation called the Safe Hands Foundation. Here’s just a bit of Irish’s encounter with the ‘doorman’ at Safe Hands:


Then he wanted my driver’s licence.
‘I’m not trying to cash a cheque here, sonny,’ I said. ‘Just phone the man.’
Tight little smile. ‘The body corporate lays down the security procedures.’ Flat Queensland voice. Pause. ‘Sir.’
‘This isn’t Pentridge,’ I said. ‘Didn’t they retrain you for this job? Just phone.’’

Here Irish makes clear just with a few words what the ‘doorman’s’ background is. Readers can also tell that this is a distinctly Australian conversation. It’s subtle and not condescending but it’s real.

Some crime novels involve code switching, or changing from one language to another. Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney for instance speaks Thai as well as her own Australian English. And in Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, the Swedish-speaking Violent Crimes Unit of the Göteborg police investigate a murder with a London connection. So a few of the Swedish-speaking characters code-switch to English. Tursten addresses that in a matter-of-fact way by simply mentioning the switch without writing different accents and in my opinion (so do feel free to disagree with me if you do), that’s an effective way to handle it.

The question of how to make one’s characters authentic through accent and dialect isn’t an easy one to answer. It seems though that subtle uses of grammar and expression rather than, say, a lot of spelling changes can do the job effectively. More important is the character him or herself. If characters are drawn well and have at least some depth to them, the author can use that depth to avoid stereotyping or condescension because of accent or dialect.

What’s your view on this? Do you get strong feelings about characters based on their accents or dialects? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this question?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Cash’s Southern Accents.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Helene Tursten, Martin Edwards, Peter Temple

20 responses to “I Got My Own Way of Talkin’*

  1. Another interesting topic. In general, I think I don’t like dialects in novels. In particular, I find it depends on the writer. Sometimes it is distracting, but I had no problem with the use of dialect in The Cape Cod Mystery (Phoebe Atwood Taylor). Maybe because it was not told in first person. Whereas, in The Smoke by Tony Broadbent, the first person narrative is full of slang and sometimes distracts from moving the story forward. A lot of people love that book for that very reason.

    One thing I find very irritating is when a book from the UK is published in the US with words like car park changed to parking lot. I went out of my way to buy UK editions for all the Harry Potter books for that reason. Maybe because those books were aimed at younger ages? But it is insulting.

    • Tracy – I agree 100% about the use of Americanisms in books published in the UK. There’s no need to change words such as petrol, windscreen or lift to their American English equivalents. Readers likely know what those words are and if they don’t, it’s not hard to figure them out from context. When the words are changed to American English I get pulled out of the story. If a story takes place in London and people discuss talking on their ‘cell ‘phones, it simply doesn’t fit for me.
      As for dialect, you have a really interesting point. The Smoke has a lot of slang in it – slang one might not know at first. And there’s dialect too. So I can see how one might notice the use of dialect more than in a book such as The Cape Cod Mystery, which is told in the third person. I’ll have to think about other novels told in the first v third person and see how that applies. It’s an interesting idea! What do the rest of you think?

  2. AS with so many things, it’s hard to judge the line… too much dialect drives me mad, but I like differentiation of speech – as you say, it’s a help with characterization. And agree strongly that local words should be kept – it is insulting to the reader to think they can’t cope with chips/crisps/fries and so on. MInd you – when we first moved to the USA, we went to the hardware store and asked the assistant where we could find torches. He started leading us to them, and asked ‘what kind of thing were you looking for?’ Oh, we said, just something simple for the children to play around with. Well fortunately we all worked out that what we wanted was flashlights BEFORE he called child protection! (For UK readers – a torch in the US is what we would call an oxy-acetylene torch…)

    • Moira – You are right; it’s all a balance. Dialect really can distract the reader, and if it pulls one out of the story, it defeats its purpose anyway. On the other hand, it is important to be able to distinguish characters. Real people’s speech varies and so should characters’ speech, at least a little. Your story of torches reminds me of a former student who’d learned UK English (She was Russian by birth). One day, so she told me, she was taking an exam when part of her pencil broke off. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, ‘I’ve lost my rubber.’ UK readers will know that the rubber is the part of the pencil used to remove mistakes. US readers will have a very different mental picture as in the States, a ‘rubber’ is a slang word for a condom. Needless to say, the poor girl had quite a moment in class…
      As to keeping local words? I couldn’t agree more. As you say, there’s no reason people can’t make the switch among torch/flashlight, mobile/’cell phone and so on.

  3. Skywatcher

    I was looking at an American edition of one of Helene Tursten’s Inspector Huss novels the other day. Even before I had checked the back of the book I realised that it was an American edition, because throughout the book there are footnotes to explain exactly what a Kilometre is, not to mention various other metric weights and measures. In the UK we tend to switch confusingly between miles, kilometres, feet and centimetres, but I notice that American books usually keep to the old Feet and Inches. I suppose that this counts as a speech pattern.

    • Skywatcher – Interesting point you make about the use of measurement terms. I have indeed seen both feet/inches and the metric system used in UK novels, but pretty nearly always non-metric in US novels. I’ve seen that difference in a lot of translated crime fiction. There is indeed more consistency in novels translated into American English than those translated into UK English.

  4. kathy d.

    Interesting points. I say keep the local words, idioms and expressions. I say this as I sometimes am thrown by books in English from countries outside the U.S., where the story is rife with words to which I am not accustomed. Glossaries anyone? Some Australian writers have put glossaries in the back of the books, which I appreciate. Some books do not need that at all.
    Even with British books, I’ve read some where 1/5 of the page is made up of words and expressions I don’t know. I say leave them in and put in explanations in the back.
    I believe with some translated books, there are “British English” and “American English” translations. Is that necessary? I don’t know.
    With translated crime fiction, Stephen Sarterelli writes the best end notes and explanations in the Salvo Montalbano series of any I’ve ever seen. Love them as much as the inspector’s adventures. (And who doesn’t love Catarella’s very own language of malaprops, misspellings, mispronunciations, his very own “dialect”?)
    On dialects, it’s okay if it’s not overdone. It is distracting. What I have a problem with in ethics and sensitivity is dialect being written for characters of nationalities other than their own. It can be insulting.
    For instance, many friends didn’t want to read “The Help,” because it contains dialect of African-American women in the South. This turned off many readers. It turned me off so I didn’t read it.
    Yet, Tom Franklin avoided this pitfall in the superb Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. A great book, without dialect.
    So, this is an issue. Also, it’s a global issue as we read more books set around the world and more books written by U.S. authors whose books are set abroad. What to do? I say describe the characters in depth, give a feel for their lives, their problems, their economic and social situation, and then think about how the people in the countries being depicted, and in the same situations as the characters, feel about the dialect. That’s the key to me.

    • Kathy – I think you’ve hit on a very workable solution to the dialect issue. Many authors write dialect for characters not of their own background. That doesn’t have to be a problem per se but you’re right that if it’s not done with sensitivity and perspective it can be stereotyped and insulting. Getting the viewpoint of someone who is a member of the culture one’s writing about makes sense. In fact, in field research, it’s the custom to work with someone who a member of the culture one’s studying. Why not in writing too?
      I couldn’t agree more about Stephen Sartarelli. His translations capture the nuances of Andrea Camilleri’s stories and yes, his end notes are really informative. If the author includes those notes, I agree with you that there’s no need to remove all of the dialect and expressions. Yes dialect can be a distraction if it’s not done well. However, it is the way people really speak. taking away from that authenticity takes away from the ‘feel’ of a book. Quite frankly I’d rather have a set of end notes to check now and again than to read a book where the characters done sound like real people from the area where the novel takes place.

  5. kathy d.

    I agree with your comments above.
    I’m thinking about the fact that I tried to watch a movie in English but set in Scotland. The dvd actually came with English subtitles. I needed them.
    Yet it wouldn’t have been real if the actors weren’t speaking in the way they speak there.

  6. Reblogged this on Angela Savage and commented:
    Crime fiction blogger par excellence recently posted on a subject dear to my heart: how writers capture nuances of language and dialect in dialogue without either sounding condescending or alienating the reader.

    Years ago I read a novel set in Bali called The Kris of Death (I still recall the title, haunted by it) wherein nearly all dialogue was written in the sort of pidgin English which non-native speakers may use and which native English speakers frequently use when speaking with them. It was excruciating!

    Later, when I invented my Bangkok based Australian expat PI Jayne Keeney, I knew she would need to be a fluent Thai speaker in order to avoid the same pitfall. This enables me to signal to the reader that the conversation is taking place in Thai and write normally, albeit with a little Thai syntax. I reserve my (rare) use of pidgin English in order to shed light on a character or mine the potential comedy of a situation.

    Anyway, here’s Margot’s take on the theme.

  7. Wonderful post Margot, and thanks so much for your kind plug. I’ve re-blogged on my site.

  8. I like the Camilleri crib sheet at the back too. I think in terms of Americanisms I can usually work the meanings out and I definitely prefer them to stay in than be Anglicised. I too sometimes find it hard to read books in dialect but a clever author can get the feel of an accent without making it too inaccessible. I think Reginald Hill did it very well with Andy Dalziel.

    • Sarah – Oh, Hill did indeed do an effective job of using dialect in the Dalziel/Pascoe novels. There is no mistaking at all what Dalziel’s background is and where he grew up. At the same time, Hill’s use of that particular dialect doesn’t detract from the character or the reader’s enjoyment (Well, not this reader). And I agree: expressions that are very typical of one country should not be replaced with those of another country just to sell books in that country. It really does take away from the ‘feel’ of a book and honestly, it sends the message that the reader can’t be trusted to work out meanings.

  9. Some writers are so good at showing different patterns of speech without trying to use mutilated spellings to illustrate them. Different word order is easy to adapt to and read, but when the writer attempts to write the words exactly the way they sound, especially if it then requires translation, it pops the reader right out of the story. We never want to distract the reader from the story.

    • Pat – That’s exactly and precisely it. It’s critical to keep the reader in the story and interested. It’s hard to be absorbed when one’s also trying to figure out what a character is saying. But yes, things such as word order, certain use of words and so on can give important clues to a character without being insulting or distracting.

  10. Interesting points, Margot. I know I find that some uses of dialect, or even just ordinary speech patterns of characters of a particular group or class, can sometimes be perfectly acceptable (as with, say, Asey Mayo), and at other times cringe-making (as some early Peter Wimsey and, alas, most Reggie Fortune and Philo Vance). Perhaps it’s a matter of what, for want of a better word, I’d call “naturalness.” I’ve heard enough people who really did sound rather like Asey Mayo (I went to school in Rhode Island) to be comfortable with Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s use of it. I’ve heard remarkably few who moan like Reggie Fortune or are always droppin’ their Gs, don’t you know…

    • Les – You put that so very effectively! When a way of speaking comes naturally, it doesn’t sound contrived, condescending or stereotyped (and I like your example of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo). I’ve found that Ngaio Marsh did a fairly effective job too of showing dialect in a natural way. But when a dialect does seem forced or contrived, or when the author uses it only to show, ‘This character is poor/rich/educated/stupid/a local/wise/etc.,’ it is indeed cringe-worthy. In my opinion, the more familiar an author is with a group of people and the way they speak, the more likely it is that s/he’ll be able to create authentic dialect for that kind of character.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s