Image is some text saying ‘434. When authors type out accents phonetically.’ In small print at the bottom it says ‘fuckyeahfan-fiction//tumblr’.
Submitted by: transsexualtransylvania
THIS IS A RECURRING THEME IN MY FANDOMS AS OF LATE. I’m getting used to it and I write it out a little bit but some people do it waaaay too much :x
I have so many opinions about this sort of thing. On one hand, yes, it can be kind of irritating if an accent is written so thickly that it’s hard to understand. On the other hand, an accent is usually an important part of who a character is, and sometimes the accent changes not only the way they say certain words, but also the particular words that they use—and in that case you just have to write it out phonetically.
This is especially true of characters who speak a non-standard dialect, or in an accent that originates somewhere that there is or was colonial rule. In those cases, I think it’s very important not to “clean up” a character’s accent for the sake of writing. Having them speak King’s English would not only be a lie to the character, it would also be yet another case of erasure against the people who speak with that accent—who have historically been told that in order to sound “educated” or “intelligent” or “civilized,” they have to drop their own dialect in favour of conforming to “proper” English. Accents are still very much a marker of race and class, and ignoring them in favour of making things easier for the privileged speakers of “standard” English is pretty problematic.
So, as far as I’m concerned, accents in fiction are pretty great, even if they inconvenience me—and I do my best to represent them, too, even if that means looking up dialectal dictionaries and compiling a glossary for personal use (which I have done for the sake of a character). I’m tired of being told that accents shouldn’t be written out, or being worried that my writing won’t be taken seriously if I do write them. It’s very possible to walk the line between making your story comprehensible to most English speakers and accurately representing an accent in writing. Complaining about the minor inconvenience of reading an accent is really not looking at the big picture.
(Of course, this is all coming from the perspective of an upper middle class, educated white kid whose first language is English and who is widely regarded in his region as “not having an accent,” so if I’ve made any egregious fuck-ups here, or should really just shut up on the subject, please tell me off.)
Yeah, I’m completely on board with the suggestion that it’s problematic to take a character who, in the historical or geographical or cultural or racial setting, would be speaking English with unorthodox grammar, idiom, &c. and effectively ‘translate’ their dialogue into orthodox ‘proper’ English. To take an extreme but clear example, writing Bob Marley as a character and having him say ‘old pirates, yes, they abducted me; sold me to the merchant ships’ rather than ‘old pirates, yes, they rob I; sold I to the merchant ships’ would erase his Jamaicanness and his Rastafarianism (and, because this is an extreme example using an actual person, would also misrepresent the lyric he actually wrote). It may make life slightly harder for a reader who isn’t familiar with that type of Jamaican English but it’s perfectly comprehensible and if it isn’t comprehensible (and if it needs to be — I find quite a lot of the dialogue on The West Wing incomprehensible but it usually doesn’t matter) then the writer needs to work harder on the surrounding context to help make the meaning clear.
On the other hand a large part of regional or sub-cultural accent is often pronunciation rather than the selection or arrangement of words, and in order to indicate the pronunciation writers sometimes deliberately depart from conventional spelling to convey a sort of quasi-phonetic effect. Which is really a separate thing from what you’re talking about, Tchy, so it doesn’t contradict what you say, but I think it’s another aspect of what the original image relates to. So for example to prompt the reader to read those lines in Bob Marley’s accent a writer might write ‘ol’ pirates, yes, dey rab I; sold I to the marchent ships’. Now, this is the white leading the white here, so there’s just as much chance of me going wrong as you, but from what I’ve read and heard I think there may be problems here too. Not that it makes it harder to understand, but that it marginalizes and others Marley’s pronunciation. Because it isn’t as if he, when writing the lines down, would actually have written them with those non-standard spellings. The spellings aren’t his. They’re deliberate misspellings by the writer, and they tend to indicate that the writer regards the pronunciation as mispronunciation. If you have to spell a word wrongly to indicate how a character is pronouncing it, it suggests that the pronunciation is wrong. If, of the two most popular pronunciations of ‘tomato’ in the white English-speaking world, I spell one ‘tomato’ and one ‘tomayto’, I’m clearly positioning the British pronunciation as normal and correct and the North American one as aberrant; if I spell them ‘tomahto’ and ‘tomato’ I’m allying myself with the North American one and othering the British one. Also because that kind of deliberate misspelling looks funny and is often used for comical characters it tends, whether intentionally or not, to make it easier for readers to regard the character’s way of speaking as a source of amusement. And finally the writer is assuming something about their readers, because if I use misspelling to indicate to you, the reader, that you ought to hear the words ‘old pirates, yes, they rob I’ in a Jamaican accent, I’m assuming that you aren’t already hearing every word in the book in a Jamaican accent, because I’m assuming you aren’t Jamaican; so it can alienate exactly those readers whose speech is intended to be represented. (I’ve used an example that brings race, nationality, and colonial history to the fore, but of course similar issues can arise with class, for example with the ‘comical cockney’ type spelling.)
Which means one needs to tread a line between suppressing linguistic difference and othering it. But I suspect — though I speak hesitantly because I’m both white and not a writer — it can in many cases be done without too much difficulty. For example one can just tell the reader what a character’s accent is — ‘Marley spoke with a Jamaican accent’ — and trust that that, along with an accurate rendition of Jamaican vocabulary, syntax, and rhythm, will enable the reader to hear approximately the right sounds in their head. And if it’s a crucial plot-point one can perhaps remind the reader by having other characters mishear or misunderstand. Of course it also partly depends on the view-point of the narrative: if you’ve got a first-person narrator it’s perhaps more okay to have accents significantly different from the narrator’s own represented by misspellings, if that really seems necessary, and if the narrator is the sort of person who thinks of their own pronunciation as ‘right’ and other people’s as ‘wrong’. Or one could use misspelling to deliberately point out the issue by having, for example, a cockney narrator who writes her own dialogue with ordinary dictionary spelling and uses comedic misspelling to represent how the received pronunciation of upper-class Londoners sounds to her. The color purple deals with the whole issue very neatly, it seems to me, by the fact that it’s written as a series of letters. That means that the spellings are whatever spellings the character would use when writing, rather than conscious misspellings by the writer, but spelling can still give the reader an occasional tip about how the character probably pronounces the word (because it’s fair to assume that if she thinks an unusual word is written in a certain way it’s because that’s how it sounds and she’s never seen it written down). I haven’t got my copy to hand but here’s a random snippet from Google books:
But what do it look like? I ast.
Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself.
Anyway, I don’t know. That’s the impression I’ve picked up from things I’ve seen and heard, filling in the gaps with my uninformed intuitions. These are really things for less privileged people than me to take the lead on, but it’s an interesting topic so I thought it would be worth nudging it along.