How to Write Dialects, Accents and Slang

A lot of people think that accents, dialect and slang need to be a part of their story especially if their story takes place in a section of the country or in another country where the way people talk is different from the way you, as a writer, normally think and talk. In some cases these is admissible, but never feel you must use an accent, dialect or slang to get your story conveyed. First let’s look at the difference between dialect and accents. Dialect is the specific nuances of how people talk and how they pronounce their words and how they put their sentences together. This all depends on where they are from. The proper use of dialect can help make your dialogue more believable because it creates a consistency to the speech patterns of your character and lends credibility to your character.

The problem is that writing dialect is tricky and if you aren’t careful this may come back to haunt you. Dialect, the art of giving your characters a natural-sounding foreign accent (regional or international), can sometimes make them sound like caricatures or worse you turn your readers away because they are slowed down or confused by all the abnormal spellings. More importantly you may come off appearing to be prejudiced or even ignorant by the way you portray the manner in which your characters talk.

Dialect is about what words are used, how they are pronounced and the structure of your sentences. Nonstandard varieties of English are governed by rules just like Standard English. In the United States people who are from Boston, California, the Midwest and the South all use words differently. Through the use of dialect you can portray your character in ways that are more descriptive then all your scene settings can describe.

If you decide your story would be better off using dialect consider taking some time to be around people who naturally talk the way you want your characters to talk. Don’t rely on the dialect you hear in the movies. If possible go to where your character is from and spend some time just listening to the people who live there. Being immersed with people who naturally talk in a certain way helps your assimilate their speech patterns and nuances which in turn gives more creditability to your story.

Take a recorder with you so that your can hear the speech patterns over and over again. Notice people’s mannerisms and the whole way people conduct themselves during their conversations. In some parts of the country people are more outgoing in their conversations and are likely to interrupt each other in mid-sentence. In other cultures and in certain parts of our country women can be more submissive when talking in a group of men.

Learning these kinds of nuances can help you create full, rich and believable dialogue. Later in your book when your character comes on the scene and starts a conversation your readers should know who that person is long before you identify them. Do your homework. Accents are often mistaken for dialect but the two are not the same although accents my help give emphasis to dialect. Accents are the result of the way a speaker pronounces the English words they speak. Accents are also noticeable in the speakers diction (choice of words), syntax (the order in which the words are spoken), grammar (how the parts of speech are structured) and idiom (the peculiarities of certain phrases). The differences in dialect and accents can convey differences in background, geography, vital or social statistical class, education and culture.

This brings us back to the same problem occurs with dialect. This type of writing has a tendency to distract readers to the point that they miss what is being said or how it is being said. Back in the 19th century it was in fashion to use dialects and accents to portray your character as realistically as possible. Many of the very famous authors of the 1800’s went to great lengths to achieve this. Take into consideration the works of Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and others. Now days, we find this type of writing to be somewhat annoying and bigoted. It slows down your reading when you have to examine almost every word to understand the meaning of each sentence or paragraph.

Everyone has an accent compared to others who are not in their ethnic group or region. Very few people pronounce English the way it is spelled. The most overused and abused accents are the “southern” accent, the African American accent, British cockney and Scottish/Irish brogue. Sometimes the overuse of these accents makes a parody of our characters, which is not our goal of making them seem real and believable.

So, how is the best way to portray our beloved characters? First do your research as stated above. If you can’t go to the region where they live check out other books with similar characters and choose about a half dozen nonstandard spellings and contractions and use them consistently. This way your readers will get the feel of your characters, but not have to wade through your conversations and get bogged down with all those apostrophes and odd contractions.

Also research and learn the idioms of the language you are portraying. Idioms are a combination of regular words that are unique to a particular dialect and they may not make sense to any other language. Some common idioms are: “She is pulling my leg.”. “The early bird catches the worm.” or “The devil is in the details.” Idioms can be used to make readers more readily identify with your character. But be careful. Idioms along with dialect and accent can easily be overdone.

Lastly, let’s talk about slang. Slang is the jargon of a particular class or profession. In many parts of the county and especially with the younger generation slang terms change meaning almost as often as you change your clothes. Using a lot of slang can really date your work unless your character is an older person and reminiscing about their younger days I suggest you stay away from slang.