Conveying Accent


How writers show variation in speech style

Growing up, one of my favourite novels was ‘Wuthering Heights.’ I loved its wildness and passion – so unexpected from a female Victorian writer – and found Cathy and Heathcliff’s love story completely absorbing. But there was one element of the novel I didn’t get on with, and that was Emily Brontë’s attempt to convey the Yorkshire accent of her character Joseph. As a southern schoolgirl who had rarely been north of Watford, I struggled with utterances such as:  “He’s patience itsseln wi’ sich careless, offald craters—patience itsseln he is!  Bud he’ll not be soa allus—yah’s see, all on ye!  Yah mun’n’t drive him out of his heead for nowt!’ In fact, I’m still not really sure what it means. Had Brontë been writing today, her editor would have probably asked her to tone down the accent. Interestingly, though Emily’s sister Charlotte thought Joseph's speech "exactly renders the Yorkshire dialect," after Emily's death she edited it to bring it closer to standard English. "I am sure Southerners must find it unintelligible."  In my case she was certainly right!

Nowadays, with most novelists wanting to avoid racial or regional stereotyping, the ‘less is more’ approach is generally favoured. In her novel, ‘Small Island’ for example, Andrea Levy conveys the impression of Gilbert’s Jamaican roots by omitting the dummy auxiliary ‘do’ in utterances such as ‘Why the English come to cook everything by this method?’ (instead of why do the English…), and the elided ‘gonna’ for ‘going to,’ as in ‘Man, women gonna fall at your feet.’ Just a few features are enough to give us the impression of Gilbert’s way of speaking.

Other options are to find out the language ‘errors’ made by a particular nationality and use them sparingly to avoid caricature – Russian for example omits auxiliary verbs so expressions such as ‘she nice lady’ or ‘I go work tomorrow’ would work well. Sprinkling in a few dialect words such as ‘ginnel’ for alleyway (Yorkshire or Lancashire), ‘chobble’ – to munch on something loudly (Birmingham) or ‘gurt’ for ‘great’ (Devon) can also give an impression of a regional speaker but should definitely be used sparingly.

So when it comes to accent, less is definitely more – convey the essence of someone’s speech rather than a faithful reproduction of it. That way you’re much less likely to give offence or baffle readers!