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I am trying to write a character that speaks English poorly. I do not want to grossly misspell words for sounds or use bad grammar. I find those techniques to sound juvenile and the bad grammar is never the correct bad grammar a language would use.

From my bilingual experience, most people that speak poorly will pronounce words as accurate as they can as long as they are new words. On the other hand, when the word sounds similar to the word in their language they will often just say the native word.

I want to pass this on in my writing by including similar words spelled out in the native language.

Will readers correctly pick this up? Will having to figure out these words improve the feeling of the character or just become breaks on the reader's flow?

Some details.

The writing is obviously fiction. The language in question uses a similar enough alphabet to make the words readable.

I think my question is distinct enough from Style when intentionally misspelling? as I am looking to know how it affects the flow of reading, not just a judgement of the reader.

Adding an example of how I am using the technique

“You. You kill my father, and then you stroll in here with your little våpens, You come to see Maud V. You think he is weak, and frail and can be pushed around? No mine babyer. Maud V is going to give you the punishment you deserve."

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    Your character has poor English, but completely intelligent? Don't do misspelling then. Do "fake accent", mess with grammar and word usage, but leave spelling alone. – Alexander Oct 26 '17 at 17:23
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    @Andrey then I don't quite understand your question. Could you give an example? – Alexander Oct 26 '17 at 19:37
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    So, your character occasionally inserts his native words in English speech? I see this in literature often enough - but those words are used sparingly. Typically author does it when he/she wants to introduce a word that would be seen more than once. – Alexander Oct 26 '17 at 20:20
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    As a native English speaker, I have no idea how to pronounce "våpens" (vay-pens? like "vapor"?) or "babyer" (babier? baby-er?). If your audience is English and not familiar with Norwegian (coincidentally, I am learning Norwegian, but not enough yet to know the orthography), you'd do better to respell the words how they sound in English. Maybe "vorpens"? – CJ Dennis Oct 27 '17 at 1:19
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    You said the native words would be near to the second language. If that language is English, then I have no idea what våpens is. The rest seems quite authentic, though, and reminds me of my neighbours in London, back in the day – Mawg Oct 27 '17 at 8:33
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Dialect writing can be extremely difficult to read. The preferred technique today seem to be to do just a very small hint of it. The best way to portray the background and intelligence of a person is through the words they choose and the ideas they express.

People from different areas use different words. If you want to portray US south, you could throw in a "y'all" now and then.

But more important is what they say, not how they say it. Stupid people say stupid things. If you want your character seem stupid, have them say and do stupid things.

The screen has other techniques. Actor can act the dialect and the halting speech. It is hard for novelists to reproduce this kind of thing effectively. Don't fall into the trap of trying to act our your characters through words. Instead, make them known through their actions and the actions of others towards them.

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    I find the actions of others towards them particularly effective. – DPT Oct 26 '17 at 19:06
  • This was something I learned the hard way. Initially, I wrote my speech with poorly written grammar as it was their nature. Reading it though felt really uncomfortable, even for me. After reading around on here a few on questions in regards to slang, I surmised that it would be best to do exactly as you said in your answer. The text and conversations feel a lot better. I will leave it to the actors to add the accents! – ggiaquin16 Oct 26 '17 at 20:24
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    I strongly disagree. When very well done, it can be extremely effective—and can convey dialects not otherwise appreciable to the reader. Huck Finn is the classic example. – Wildcard Oct 26 '17 at 23:01
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    @Wildcard Actually, Huck Finn is a great example of accomplishing the effect with just a hint of dialect. Most of the effect that Twain achieves with Huckleberry Finn is done just as I described, with vocabulary and with what the character actually says. Compare Huck Finn with some of Kipling's stories where he attempts to fully recreate the dialect of British Soldiers. They are enormously hard to read. Fortunately, he did not try to do this in greatest work. (I am a huge Kipling fan!) – user16226 Oct 26 '17 at 23:12
  • Y'all give good advice here. ;) – jpmc26 Oct 26 '17 at 23:32
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Long ago, there was a story by Daniel Keyes titled "Flowers for Algernon" (later made into a movie titled Charlie which was then novelized with that title, much longer than the original story and, in my opinion, less impactful). The story was in the form of diary entries by the narrator character, who started the story with an IQ of 63, and very poor ability to write. The spelling, grammar and vocabulary in that part of the story reflected that. Later, an experimental treatment brought the narrator to near-genius intelligence, and his narration reflected it, with greatly increased vocabulary and perfect spelling and grammar.

In the final part of the story, it was found that the effect of the treatment was temporary, and the decay of the narrator's English was used to emphasize the agony of knowing that his mind was decaying.

This is a very good example of using the character's speech to build the character -- maybe one of the best ever.

So, short answer: yes, if you do it well, using poor spelling and grammar can contribute to your story, if it tells the reader something about the narrator or other character, and doesn't make the reading too much of a chore.

  • I thought of this book when I saw the question title, actually. It doesn't exactly fit the question in this case (which seems to be more about non-native speakers rather than low IQ) but I'm glad I not alone ;) – Muzer Oct 27 '17 at 9:02
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    "doesn't make the reading too much of a chore" When I was younger I owned an anthology of prize winning short stories, some of which I loved. One though, I never read in its entirety. This was one that the author had decided to write as phonetically, as a heavily accented african native might speak. That story was notable for having a forward of its own, which recommended that it be read out loud so that you can hear the words and translate what you hear... I still have no idea how good that story was, if it cant be read, it won't be. – Baldrickk Oct 27 '17 at 9:17
  • It's funny, I read that book just barely out of ESL. I did not pick up on the langue or grimmer shift at that time – Andrey Jan 2 at 17:56
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I wouldn't write that way. When I read, I internally hear what the characters are saying, and I certainly cannot hear any misspellings!

If they are using slang or an actual local dialect, "y'all" or "fuhgeddaboutit" might be what I hear. Those are not misspellings, they are an accurate representation of what you hear. But I'd leave out "sound effects" of drawls, slurring, or missing words, nobody in my writing is going to say "butt'n up yer fly" instead of "button up your fly".

Write out the words that people understand regardless of accent or dialect. If what we hear or understand is different enough to actually count as its OWN word, like "y'all" or "fuhgeddaboutit", then I might write that out.

Do not misspell a word if the listener can actually tell what the word is supposed to be. And if your character can't understand it, you should make sure the READER can't figure it out, either.

If you listen to foreign speakers (and I did all the time with foreign students) the problem is not that they are unclear, but that they fail to understand articles and pronouns and other connecting speech, and they often use standard tenses instead of special tenses, much like a six year old. As in, "We are getting the burgers" when asked what they are doing for lunch. Or "we already eated."

Late add: I guess one exception I have seen that seemed alright, was a main character we have seen several times imitating an accent (invented for an alien) for the fun of it. In that case, what he is saying doesn't sound "right" to either him or the person he is conversing with; and the humor they feel would not be apparent without the misspellings. To generalize, the mini-scene demands the distinction in sounds to work; whereas in nearly all other circumstances it doesn't, and a constant reminder of an accent just gets tiresome and increases the reading difficulty. Real people would get used to the accent and hear what was said, both speaker and listener adapt to make their conversation smoother.

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    I can't agree more. characters should be expressed by the language they use, more than how they say it. Their speech patterns can be described, but shouldn't impact how well the reader can consume it. A less educated character may make use of a restricted dictionary, in contrast to a more educated character. – Baldrickk Oct 27 '17 at 9:24
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It will probably distract quite a few people

I would certainly be distracted by this and search for the words the author really meant, probably without even realizing that this is intentional.

Most authors will use the grossly misspelled words and similar techniques to show the reader that it's intentional. This also emphasizes the problems with the language.

Many people will not even catch every single mini-mistake you place in your text and they might even only realize it after being through half the book. Humans normally don't read every single letter of every single word. We are used to reading fluently and our brain will often just correct minor mistakes if we are not specifically searching for them. Espeially when doing some light reading your readers will probably not dedicate so much attention to everything and will skip over quite a few small typos.

But those that realize will be distracted by it. They will search for the right word because they think that the author just had a typo or that they are misinterpreting the meaning of the used word. And then they find the next typo and they have to re-read the sentence with the correct word in mind.

You might want to mix the two versions if you are bent on using this - you could for example start with obvious mistakes and let your characters point them out, but then switch to another character and let someone point out to the reader that this person "is quite good and only makes minor mistakes". This way everyone will get it and people won't be so distracted, because someone told them "he typically confuses he and she" or whatever you want to use in your text.

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As a reader of several genres, rather than a writer, I like being able to "hear" a person. It's fine if everyone talks as if they are an English teacher, but that can get boring.

Hif ya wan' yer peeple t' tak ha certin way, ya need t' make 'em do hit.

One of the more interesting characters I've read was from a series called "Star Risk", by Chris Bunch. (Or maybe it was "Sten", by the same author. I don't remember.) The character spoke in a Scottish brogue, which was typed according to how the character would have said it.

You wouldn't want to make a Confederate "southern boy" from the 1800's sound like they went to Harvard, even if they did. It just wouldn't be right. They may sound more refined than the average red neck of the period, but they still wouldn't sound like a Yankee.

In my above example, instead of trying to tell a reader that my character put too much air into the words that start with a vowel, I simply added an "h". Instead of explaining that the character talked in choppy words, I used them, but left in "peeple", since sometimes these same speakers may draw out certain syllables.

And yes, this may annoy some people. I'm one for being very conscious about my spelling, but even I understand that someone who doesn't speak perfect English in a written story needs to be read in how they speak. It needs to be more than a passing remark at the beginning of the book (only for the reader to be surprised when the movie comes out), or to have to be remind the reader of it (annoyingly) every time the character speaks.

As @Mark Baker mentioned, it can be a fine line between getting the point across while having a little fun with your characters, and making it difficult/annoying/unacceptable to read.

I just remembered that in either "Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn", Mark Twain wrote in his foreword that he was trying to get across how people actually spoke, rather than trying to fit a specific dialect. He was very unapologetic about it, too. He wrote in broken sentences, misspellings, and mangled English other ways whenever he needed to.

In the end, it really matters what you need vs. what you want to do, as well as how comfortable you feel doing it. Good luck and have fun!

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In the Dark Hunter series by Sherrilyn Kenyon there are two characters with bad English. The Goddess Artemis and the demon Simi. They are not main characters, but when they show up it is funny. Especially Simi. Simi is very popular for her cute, bad English. I would not want to read an entire book with them as MC, but they provide much needed comic relief in awkward moments. enter image description here

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I think the main point is not to "subtract" from good English to achieve their way of speaking, but how to build it up as a "Gestalt".
If you can't hear them speak in your head, or in real, I think this will be difficult to pull off and sound natural, because it's not about this or that defect, the entire way of speaking – and thinking! – has to show a consistent appearance.
As said before, with speach impediments or accents, it's easy to end up having a comic effect, intended or not.
One practical idea would be to use lists of common words; in your example, I wouldn't write "scroll" or "frail". But again, it all depends on the character's background.
Are they simply uneducated or maybe unintelligent, are they tired or angry, drunk or drugged, from Japan or Sweden, etc, etc.: there is not one voice called "poor English", but whole universes full of different voices!
Certainly, poor spelling is not the way to show poor English, unless you're literally quoting something they wrote.
Concretely, in your example, I'd avoid the words "scroll" and "fair", as well as "is going to give you" a construction foreigners don't have in their language. Also, avoid sophisticated punctuation and phrasing, like compound sentences connected by "and" or commas.
And what on earth does "mine babyer" mean? "Våpens" is crazy enough ("væpens" seems better, in fact) but don't write stuff the reader can't understand…

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My feeling is that with accents and dialects less is usually more.

Part of the problem is that English in not a phonetic language and, even when people speak with an accent they don't necessarily write in it and there is a real danger in ending up with a totally incomprehensible mess of apostrophes and unfamiliar spelling which the reader has to stop and decode and unless the reader is reasonably familiar with the accent in question it doesn't actually add anything.

What is far better is to initially signal the accent in some way and then focus on getting the rhythm and vocabulary right.

I would say that your example is pretty much right, the words are legible and you get the sense of unusual speech patterns from the grammar and sentence construction and 'foreign' words are signalled by the typography so I know I can skip them without having to understand exactly what they mean.

For example I have no idea what våpens means but I get the gist from context and if I'm that interested I can look it up or not as the mood takes me (actually this is one of the great things about Kindle, as I often do want to look it up but forget).

  • "våpens" means weapons, "babyer" means babies. I did not think this would need to be looked up – Andrey Jan 2 at 18:00
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A point that has not been touched on in any of the other answers: for some of your readers, English is not their first language. Such readers, if they don't know English very well, would wonder if that word you're using is an English word they don't know, or something you've made up. They would try to look it up in the dictionary, come up with nothing, and remain confused about what you wanted to say.

Phonetic accent is also much harder to read when English is only your second language: it is considerably harder to parse it into the original word.

I remember having particular trouble reading Walter Scott's Waverley. It is heavy with a mix of Scottish dialect words, phonetic accent, and words that are no longer in use. At times I found myself struggling to understand what was being said, and no dictionary could help me. Don't do that to your readers.

  • Do you think having the words in italics helps guide the reader towards understanding that these words are not in English? – Andrey Mar 11 at 21:11

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