Search this site:

Accent in Dialogue

by Diana
(Brunswick, Ga, USA)

I am writing a YA Adventure (Harry Potterish) There are two worlds, Ours (present day) and medieval Germany with castles and dragons and gnomes and such. My gnome is gnomish (Jewish) and he speaks mainly with a German accent should I spell the words in his dialogue as they are actually spelled or as they are pronounced i.e. in German w's are pronounced with a v?

ANSWER

If you choose to give your character an accent in dialogue, be careful. A little goes a long way. If you have your character occasionally pronounce a word with a "v," that aids characterization.

However, if every time he speaks he uses a "v" word, readers will tire of him. Suggesting an accent in dialogue is much better than trying to recreate it.

The same goes for baby talk. A child who refers to herself with one nonstandard personal pronoun: "me want water" or something similar, occasionally, is much more interesting than a child who says every sentence as the equivalent of "mama, me want wawa."

The narrator in Room, by Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins Canada, 2010) is a five-year-old boy who has been locked in a basement with his mother his entire life. He has seen only what is in the room, and knows only what his mother has taught him.

One might imagine that his dialogue could quickly become tiresome. However, Donoghue handles it brilliantly.

He speaks in short sentences as children do. He and his mother have named all the articles in the room, and the occasional word is used as a child might use it. For example, his mother has told him the story of his birth, and he notices the stain on the carpet where he was born:

I look down at Rug with her red and brown and black all zigging around each other. There's the stain I spilled by mistake getting born. "You cutted the cord and I was free," I tell Ma. "Then I turned into a boy." (p.4)

This boy actually speaks much better than most 5-year-olds, but through the naming of items, the cadence of the sentences, and the occasional non-grammatical choice, such as "getting" or "cutted," the voice of a young child is suggested.

Readers have a low tolerance for nonstandard language and accents in dialogue, so finding the right rhythm, or using the occasional mispronounced word, will suggest the accent without irritating anyone.