Accents and dialects—as in a manner of pronunciation peculiar to a particular person or group of people—can be difficult to convey in written prose. Usually, writers deliberately misspell words to reflect how they are actually pronounced with a certain accent. For example:
“Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po’ little thing! De Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long’s he live!’ Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb — en I’d ben atreat’n her so!” –Jim, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
“Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament.”
–Sam Weller, from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers.
“Could ye manage ta go ten minutes without perforating yer aorta? Just once?!?” –Durkon, from Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick.
Accents and dialects in print can range from heavy alterations to nearly every word (as in the case of Jim above) to minor alterations to just a few words (as in the case of Durkon).
On the one hand, accents are a prominent part of cultural identity and daily life. We would be remiss not to include them in our writing from time to time. Many characters just don’t come across as strongly without their accent. Characters from certain cultures or ethnicities can seem unrealistic, or even offensive, without the proper accent.
On the other hand, deliberately misspelling words to convey an accent can quickly render a passage of text difficult if not impossible to read. Many readers will find such passages irritating; and if there’s enough of them, those readers might just walk away from the story.
Here’s a few tips for incorporating accents and dialects into your writing:
Know the purpose of the accent: Why is this accent part of your story? Is it conveying important information about the character? Is it adding to the realism of the narrative? Or did you just feel like writing an accent? Accents aren't a gimmick to attract readers; they're actually more likely to drive readers away. Try to make sure that the benefits of the accent outweigh the potential negative reader response.
Try to keep words recognizable: In our examples above, many of the altered words are still immediately recognizable. De, fogive, hisself, anythin’, ye, yer—especially in context, none of these are difficult to interpret. Other words, such as kaze and gwyne, have gone so far afield from their actual spellings that they force the reader to pause and sound them out. It forces them, temporarily, out of the story.
Don’t count on people reading the passages out loud: Unless you’re writing a script, you’re not writing something that is intended to be read aloud. Your defense of the accent might be that “it’s perfectly understandable if you read it out loud.” But just remember—many people will be reading your work in situations where they cannot read it out loud. Many others simply won’t want to. Still others will attempt to read it out loud but will be unfamiliar enough with the accent that they still won’t understand it.
Focus on unusual words, diction, or idioms: Accents and dialects often come with unusual words or phrases, such as Jim’s “she was plumb deef.” If you take out the misspellings, you can still get a bit of an idea of his speech simply from his use of the word plumb. “She was plumb deaf.” If you use the word haver (to babble or ramble foolishly), many readers will understand that your character is Scottish. Since the Russian language doesn’t have the articles a or the, many Russians have trouble learning to use those words in English. This can result in sentences such as, “We must find bag and then quickly return to car.” There are all useful methods of conveying accent and dialect without actually having to phonetically misspell words.
Make sure you know the accent: If you get an accent wrong, then many people will notice and be bothered by it. For example:
Now, I applaud Walter Koenig and Anton Yelchin as actors. But every time that I have to listen to Ensign Chekov speak, I get irritated. Why? “Nuclear wessels.” “Wictor wictor two.” The problem with these phrases is that they don’t represent a Russian accent—in fact, they represent the exact opposite of a Russian accent. Russians don’t have trouble with the sound “V”; their language is packed full of Vs. However, their language does not have a “W” sound. Consequently, they often say “V” instead of “W”: "I'm on my vay," for instance. The makers of Star Trek got the accent backwards, making Chekov sound like he has a speech impediment. (Just on the Ws and Vs, though. The rest is pretty good, especially as portrayed by Yelchin.)
Why is this such a problem? Because I usually love Russian characters simply because they are Russian. Because of Chekov’s mixed-up accent, however, he irritates me. I am thrown out of the story by a character who should have been pulling me in. There are enormous amounts of people out there who understand any given accent or dialect you might choose. Find one of them and ask them to help you out with your character’s speech.
A personal pet peeve: I mentioned above how many Russians omit a and the when speaking in English. They do not omit the words my, your, his, her, our, or other possessive articles. They have those words in Russian, and they know how to use them. It’s really just a and the.