Recently, I’ve had two characters with accents. Because I’m a geek about language and sound laws, I did sit down and have a good think about this. I’ve seen accents portrayed phonetically; I’m reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman right now, and John Fowles spells words such that you can actually distinguish between a Yorkshire and Cockney accent:
“’Ow about London then? Fancy seein’ London? Expec’ you will. When they’re a-married orf hupstairs. I’ll show yer round.”
“Would ‘ee? All they fashional Lunnon girls, ‘ee woulden want to go walking out with me.”
“If you ‘ad the clothes, you’d do. You’d do very nice.”
“Doan believe ‘ee.”
“Cross my ‘eart.”
-John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
This works very well.
But I didn’t want to do that. Partly, I was nervous that it would turn into something like, “An’ den, ze deah boy wen’ doon t’crick” (I don’t even know what accent what that would be). But also, I had a theory.
Fresh off writing an opera libretto and suggesting music through text, I wondered if it was possible to show cadence and speech rhythms through syntax and word choice.
Two characters, two backgrounds, two different accents:
In my story for the Tales from the Archives podcast, Anouk Tremblay is an agent of the Québec version of the Ministry—le Ministère Officiel d’Occurrences Sans Explication (M.O.O.S.E.). She’s a francophone, uses English sometimes at work, and speaks with a Québecois accent.
For the Victorian Dark Fantasy, Mairi Brae’s got a lovely Skarrish accent—which in my head is pretty much an Irish accent. Skarrish is her first language, though she grew up speaking both Skarrish and Aldoran.
This doesn’t work in every case (like Fowles, above), but it helped me with Anouk. I’d write some of her lines in French and then translate them back into English:
Et ici, mes supérieurs ont dit, c’est nécessaire d’avoir une présence Québécoise.
And here, my superiors have said, it is necessary to have une présence Québécoise.
A few things. First: yeah, I left some French in there. Not much, but enough to flavour it. Second: structurally, the sentence is a little different than one a native English speaker might compose. Still perfectly understandable, just different.
Think of dialogue the way your character would. How does their first language shape their approach to others?
Skarrish has a tense called the “after past” (funnily enough, a variant shows up in Irish English). It’s the immediate past, the past which just happened, and the past to which some emphasis is attached. In Aldoran, it shows up thusly:
I just asked her!
I’m after asking her!
Not a construction you’d find in native Aldoran, because that tense doesn’t exist in that language. Doesn’t stop Mairi from trying to use it.
Other weird things can carry over from language to language—what forms and structures is your character unconsciously clinging to?
At one point, Anouk tells Brandon to “Take care.”
Except, that’s not a phrase that’s found in French. The nearest equivalent is faire attention—“to make/have attention.”
Working with anglophone Ministry agents, Anouk knows enough to replace attention with care. But “take care” still wouldn’t necessarily sound natural to her—she ends up saying, “Have care” instead.
Anouk pretty much only uses English when she’s dealing with English government officials. She’s fluent, but it’s a work language. It’s similar to how students learning French in an academic setting take a long time to relax from “Bien, je m’appelle KT” to “Ben ouai, j’pelle KT.” You don’t break the rules until you know them very well—which is why Anouk doesn’t use contractions.
Mairi, on the other hand, grew up bilingual. Skarrish left an indelible mark on her syntax and grammar, but it’s a subtler effect:
“Ah, she’s a flair for the dramatic.” Mairi chuckled as we turned up the road. “She’s like to do a few wreaths herself, for to get her mind off it, and then I’ll finish the rest when we’re back.”
I could probably do an entire post on Skarrish-Aldoran grammar. But for now, notice the abbreviated possessive (she’s, not she has), she’s like to (not she’s likely to) and the for to + infinitive.
“The Skarrish tale’s a touch of the darkness to it, to be sure, love,” she said. “But never you mind yourself!”
Overuse of the definite article (The Skarrish tale, the darkness), idiom carryover (to be sure), and overuse of the reflexive (never you mind yourself).
Practice and Instinct
After a while, your characters’ speech patterns do settle in your ears:
Even Charlotte says—said he’s spoken naught at home…
Which didn’t seem right to me, so I changed it to:
Even Charlotte says—said he’s naught spoken at home…
Only to realize later that you can place the past participle after the object in Irish English (naught = object, it’s what is being spoken; spoken = our past participle).
Kind of, I guess. If you’re letting different rule sets bounce off each other, it helps to know the rules in the first place. But we can sum it up:
Is your character attempting word-by-word translation?
What grammar/vocabulary exists in one language, but not another?
How does your character’s background affect their speech patterns?
Can you LISTEN to people who have your character’s accent?