Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Written by Elias McClellan
There is poetry in an accent. Chistopher Waltz’ Austrian lilt, Lupita Nyong ’o’s intercontinental elocution, or even the late-great Dennis Farina’s Chicago brogue—truly, accents are lyrical on the stage and on the screen. In print, however, accent marks and dialect-indicative spellings are a pain in the posterior for the reader and can provoke editors to chainsaw killings.
Anyone who’s read Twain, the Bronte sisters, and/or Dickens knows that the use of accents has a longstanding, if dubious, history. All-too often reads archaic, at best and exploitive at worst, e.g., Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump.
The young’uns call it country, the Yankees call it dumb, Tom Petty, Southern Accents.
Is an accent “local color,” or offensive? The balance is between intent and reception. When I submitted my Louisiana-Creole-accented hoodlum to my crit-group, I was surprised by the response. My dialogue met with praise…from the six white writers. The one writer of color and the crit-group leader, (a recent immigrant from Ireland) remained coolly silent. I gutted all accent and dialect from my work that night.
As important as intent and reception is, the salient question is what does an accent mean now? Willie Nelson is from Abbott, (a farming community about 25 miles north of Waco), and he sounds like Texas. Jennifer Garner is from Houston, (4th largest city in the nation). She sounds like Texas, too. Neither sounds like the Texas in television and the movies.
The UK is comprised of 12 regions, including Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—mostly speaking one language and yet the diversity of accents is legendary. By contrast, Nigeria is nearly four-times the size with four lingual families and over 500 distinctive languages. A thesaurus can provide synonyms for accent and dialect but can’t tell you which Nigerian accent is in play.
So how do you do it?
Thomas Harris trusts the reader to decide what Louisianan, Will Graham, and West Virginian, Clarice Starling sounds like. But Hannibal Lecter is the ultimate example of “tell” efficiently moving the story forward where “show” would only encumber the reader. Born in Lithuania, relocated to France in adolescence, and settling in Baltimore in adulthood, Doctor Lecter’s accent is mentioned but never defined.
However, if you must “show,” remember the axiom: less is more. William Faulkner is sparse with his accents—like a word or three for every 1000 words. Robert B. Parker has a character mimic Lieutenant Martin Quirk’s Boston burr and we read him that way forevermore. Neither author relies on Franken-spellings or grammar mutilations. Elegant prose beat pyrotechnics any day.