Thursday, November 13, 2008


My husband suggested that I write about accents today, so here goes. I'll try to dig a little deeper in than when I was trying to deal with dialects as a whole.

Anyone who hasn't read or seen Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw should go out and do it if they're interested in accents. Henry Higgins in the first scene identifies the personal history of at least three total strangers just by listening to them talk. There are indeed some gifted people out there (and not just fictional ones like Henry Higgins) who can listen to the way you talk and thereby place not only where you're from, but where you grew up and how you were educated.

I'm not one of those people. I take pride in my ability to tell the difference between Australian, New Zealand, South African, and English accents and that's about it. Still, accents fascinate me.

Typically, accents will have what I'll call major and minor features. Major features are the ones that stick out and play a critical part in defining the accent, such as r-dropping and "a" sounding like "i" in Australian. Minor features are ones that form a part of the whole but usually go unnoticed, like subtle changes in vowel quality.

When a person like my husband moves to the US, having no particular desire to alter his accent but nonetheless possessing an ear for such things, the first thing that will change is the minor features. People with an ear for accent will change their speech unconsciously to match their surroundings. I am terrible with this, and in fact sometimes I'll even pick up my friends' speech quirks, like a dentalized "t," extra-rounded vowel or slightly lisped "s".

When a person moves to a new region and wants to assimilate to the accent, but has less of an ear for the subtleties of accent, you see the opposite - people who have deliberately changed the major features of their accent, but are nonetheless unable to change the more subtle aspects of their speech.

My husband has changed a few of his major features to reduce confusion, and has changed his minor features somewhat but not completely. The amusing (and sometimes irritating) result of this is that while Americans comment on his accent, his mother teases him for sounding "so American." Poor guy.

Of course, dialect is more than just accent, which is why it's so funny when Eliza Doolittle announces in her perfect accent "they done her in." Those of you who want to find my other dialect post can now search for it in the search bar!

When listening to foreign accents in your own language, it is generally easier to decipher what is meant when you have a sense of the person's native language. My husband, who never started learning Spanish until he came here (no reason to!) still struggles sometimes to feel fully in control of his comprehension of Spanish-flavored English. I found that once I started learning Japanese it became far, far easier to understand people with Japanese accents.

An accent is a system. It is not random. Not only does a person's native language make a systematic change in the pronunciation of a foreign one, but native accents are systematic as well. Take the English vowel system, for example. What we in America call "short i," as in "hit" is called a lax vowel, while "long e," as in "heat" is called a tense vowel, and then you have the diphthongs like "long i" that change their value over their length (a--->i = "i"). If you compare that to Australian vowels, it's actually pretty fascinating. In Australian English, all our lax vowels are pronounced as tense, and all our tense vowels as diphthongs, and all our diphthongs as more extreme diphthongs. It's like someone took the whole vowel system and shoved it towards the tense end of the spectrum. The relation between the vowels is pretty much the same, even though every individual sound value is different.

When dealing with accents in your fiction, don't forget that they give you a great opportunity to animate attitudes in your characters. Once you have a reason why the accent (dialect) diverges - isolation of a population geographically or socially, greater or lesser contact with speakers of another language etc. - then you can give your characters a judgment of it. Do they associate it with poverty? Arrogance? Ignorance? And don't forget this last question: Why? If you can give us a sense of where your characters' attitudes come from, then they will seem much more grounded and you can push them further than you would otherwise.


  1. I've been trying to develop different accents for the Spiral Arm stories:

    The accent of Planet Alabaster and the Jen-jen Cluster:

    "If the rendevoo manoover is soo dangeroos," a scowling businessman from Alabaster said, "why doo soo many use it?" Like most people from his world, he heightened his back and central vowels, a favorite target for comics on a score of other worlds.
    "Shortens trip for most," said another passenger; this one, an elderly woman from the Jen-jen. "Imagine if throughliners must crawl down to planet, then crawl up again! Why – longest part of trip is Newtonian crawl! Such time-waste!"
    from Up Jim River
    * * *
    The accent of Planet Gatmander:

    Leather-face grunted. He shifted the glass to his left hand and held the right out as before, beckoning with his fingers until the barman put the rum bottle in their grip. "The invitation as it regards myself is acceptable," the Gat said.
    Hugh led him back to the table. "My name's Ringbao," he said, not entirely lying.
    The Gat gathered glass and bottle into his left hand and held out his right, which Hugh took briefly. "The name as it pertains to me is Todor," he admitted, taking his seat.
    "What brings a Gat all the way to Die Bold?" Hugh asked.
    Todor gave him another look and let the silence lengthen before he said, "A ship," in front of another sip of rum. This time, he set the glass down on the table half empty. "With regard to the years upon me, there have been many," he said.
    Meaning he wasn’t born yesterday, so get on with it.
    -- from The January Dancer
    + + +
    The accent of the Terran argot:
    All was decided when Mgurk appeared in the entry and said, in his execrable Terran argot, “Hey, alla come-come, you. Jildy, sahbs. Dekker alla cargo, here. We rich, us.” And so they all hurried after him.
    -- from The January Dancer

  2. Awesome stuff, Mike. I can see why your stories are so successful. What I like is how principled the accents are, and how you don't let the altered spelling stand solely on its own, but provide description that allows us to understand exactly what the spelling change is standing in for. I also like how you change the syntax around. The Gat syntax reminds me a little of the Japanese topicalizer "wa" which essentially serves to say "regarding this..."

    I'll be putting The January Dancer on my Christmas list :-).

  3. In his historical novel, An Elephant for Aristotle, L. Sprague de Camp had the various Greeks and Macedonians speak in different English dialects. The Spartans, being laconic, spoke like State of Mainers: "Ayup" and in few words. The Athenians spoke very proper British; the Thessalians in Scots dialect. The Argives, famous for being an archaic tribe, spoke in "thee" and "thou" and "wouldst." He later said that he thought that was a mistake, but I actually found it made the world more convincing.

    Kipling, too, was famous for his dialectical usages, although his insistently phonetic spellings could be a hurdle to get past for a modern. His "three musketeers" -- Mulvaney, Otheris, and Learoyd -- speak in Irish, Yorkshire, and (hmm, Cockney?). And his "Dray Wara Yow Dee" begins thus:

    ALMONDS and raisins, Sahib? Grapes from Kabul? Or a pony of the rarest if the Sahib will only come with me. He is thirteen-three, Sahib, plays polo, goes in a cart, carries a lady and—Holy Kurshed and the Blessed Imams, it is the Sahib himself! My heart is made fat and my eye glad. May you never be tired! As is cold water in the Tirah, so is the sight of a friend in a far place And what do you in this accursed land? South of Delhi, Sahib, you know the saying—‘Rats are the men and trulls the women.’ It was an order? Ahoo! An order is an order till one is strong enough to disobey. O my brother, O my friend, we have met in an auspicious hour! Is all well in the heart and the body and the house? In a lucky day have we two come together again.

  4. I should add that "Dray Wara Yow Dee" came a bit later, when he had mastered the suggestion of dialect through word choice and phrasing rather than from phonetics.

  5. Another good point, Mike. I mentioned this in a previous post, but it's always good to see well-done examples, to get ideas of how to make it work ourselves.