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In my writing, I feel it can give a character distinction if they have an accent; our main character(s) have an American accent, but the newly-introduced one of them has an Irish accent.

My problem, though, is that in the medieval fantasy world this hypothetical story is set in, there is no such thing as America or Ireland.

I feel that using recognizable and familiar accents does two things:

  1. It makes the story slightly more humorous and, more importantly,
  2. It gives the reader something familiar and comfortable. They have experiences and know what an American accent or an Irish accent sound like. They have no experiences of what an elf’s accent sounds like.

So, ignoring the improbability of these same accents arising, how do I describe these accents to the reader without outright saying “American” or “Irish”, or saying, “…an accent you might call American.”

4 Answers 4

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An author can't really show an accent, except via spellings intended to suggest pronunciation, and in my view only a very little of that is enough to annoy many readers.

You can describe a character's accent, either via an omniscient narrator, or from the PoV of another character, in terms such as "quick", "sharp", "drawled", "high", "low" and the like. You can also describe the effect on particular phonemes or "letters". But this is also easy to overdo.

What you can show is a character's diction. Characteristic word choices are often closely associated with an accent. For example in David Weber's Bahzell series the title character and others from his nation use words and phrases that strongly suggest an Irish Brogue. In fact in this case it is IMO rather overdone, but it suggests the sort of thing that I mean.

The very careful way in which Tolkien used varieties of language in LOTR: Roughly modern English for the "Common Speech", Anglo-saxon and somewhat antique English for Rohan, quite formal for Gondor, Norse names (but not actual Norse) for people Dale and for Dwarves, etc; is perhaps hard for most authors to achieve, and many readers miss its subtleties. (But do read the section of Shippey's The Road to Middle-Earth on the Council of Elrond, where this is discussed in some detail.)

But some attention to the choice of words for each culture might help achieve a distinct effect.

Another example is the very careful way in which Mark Twain used differing local accents in Huckleberry Finn. In an introduction Twain mentions having used six different accents. As a river pilot he would have encountered the wide variety of speech patterns along the Mississippi, not then harmonized by the influence of broadcast speech. These differences are quite subtle, but are there if one pays attention.

I would advise against an American/Spanish or English/French distinction, or other obvious use of a "real" accent, such as is described in the answer by hszmv, unless this is an SF work set in the future where cultures clearly descended from current ones are present. I for one find such out-of-place cultural artifacts distracting. But some consistent distinction is speech could be a good thing.

Another thing one can do, as mentioned in the answer by KeizerHarm, is describe speech in terms of the reactions and associations noted by characters who hear it. For example:

  • Kayla's sharp, quick Azainian tones grated in Bolar's ears. It reminded him of all the things he has suffered at Azainian hands. But he resolved -- yet again -- not to let his resentment show. Kayla was on their side now, and they needed her badly.

  • "Stop lifting your nose, Marik", Jondar said. "I know I don't talk fancy like you and the rest of the court folk. I was raised on an estate, and I talks like it. But I know ten times what'n your lot do about sneaking through the woods, so this time you listen to me."

  • Marik sniffed at the crass way the farm lad put things. No graces at all, yet he presumed to instruct his betters. But, he reflected, Jondar had led them around the guard post safely, so he supposed he could put up with a few "what'n"'s and the low growly tone of his words. After all, a proper noble should be able to command, and learn from, anyone at all.

  • As he listened to the stranger in the tavern, Falma thought there was something just a bit odd about him. But when he said "... and we'll get them right where we want them" the "right" was so sharp-toned you could cut yourself on it. He sounded like Kayla, Falma realized. He must be Azainian, although he had said he was from Sandor, far to the East. He was probably a spy!

These show some of the ways in which character perception of speech patterns can tie into other aspects of character. They are a little clichéd, but then I just dashed them off, and have invented what context they have. (They are not from any work in progress or real work.) But they should serve as examples of the sort of thing I am talking about. Note that I have mixed informal descriptions of manners of speaking, such as "sharp", "quick", "low", and "growly" with more subjective evaluations such as "fancy" and "crass", non-standard spellings such as "what'n" and "talks", and emotional reactions such as Bolar's resentment, Marik's disdain, and Falma's alarm. In my view such a mixture works better than any one of these alone. But even so, this is easy to over-do -- passages like these examples should be scattered, and fairly rare, or the reader will revolt and abandon the book.

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There's phonetic description, there's even phonetic spelling if you are feeling ambitious. Like "Sumsing iz wrong ’ere." for a French accent. Most find it distracting. Phonetic description is more like "Bob left out every 'h' and nasalised the vowels." while giving Bob regular dialogue.

I personally think those tactics have their uses, but the problem is that they imply objectivity. Someone either uses a standard h or they do not, that's hardly something well-hearing people would disagree on. And when you have an objective description of an accent, then what are you doing with it? You have to add the listener's experience in a separate description, unless you don't wish to communicate anything to the reader and leave them to associate French with whatever value they want.

An omniscient narrator works like that; they tend to be objective at the core and add individual experiences on top. So with an omniscient PoV, phonetic description can work.

But with a closer PoV, it might be more useful to describe the accent in terms of how someone else experiences it. Be subjective. Rough, grawly, staccato; smooth, slurred, aristocratic. Moreover, does this accent simply sound funny to the listener, or does it sound more specifically rural or low-class? And just how do they carry their accent? Does the speaker with joyful confidence manage to substitute every single vowel for a totally different one and still feel shocked that they are very hardly understood?

You can say subjective things as if they were objective. Someone is talking like a hobo, because that's the person whose mind you are residing in thinks. For bonus points, switch PoV's and have someone else describe the same person's speech as elegant.

Now you can make every sentence about the speaker's speech do double-duty; they are just subjective and the reader can gleam the objective truth below it - if there is any. And if you do it right, the reader will imagine an accent that sounds the way your listening character experiences it. That might be an entirely different accent than what you thought, but it would serve the emotional theme of the scene very well - maybe even better than a purely objective description could accomplish.

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  • [1] When you say phonetic description, do you mean that dialogue could be written as a pseudo-phonetic transcript? Or are you talking about actual phonetic transcription? I doubt it's the latter one, as that would be quite problematic (mainly because few people know how to read phonetic transcription, but also because it would look odd). However, the first option is also a bit problematic. I like your answer, +1 from me, but I think it could be improved by specifying what you mean by phonetic description and to perhaps address the issues with it.
    – A. Kvåle
    Nov 3, 2021 at 2:11
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    [2] Also, I don't quite see how having a non-omniscient POV means that something like a pseudo-phonetic transcription would is less good. What exactly makes a pseudo-phonetic transcription worse when the POV is non-omniscient? When one italicizes a word in a character's dialogue to show sarcastic tone, it's still implicit, via the choice of POV, that this sarcastic tone is only necessarily existent in the perception of the POV. As such, the accent dialogue being written as a pseudo-phonetic transcription would abide by the same principle; the POV hears the dialogue the way it has been written.
    – A. Kvåle
    Nov 3, 2021 at 2:15
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    @A.Kvåle I meant phonetic spelling, not IPA, e.g."Sumsing iz wrong ’ere," to imply a French accent. I think it has its uses, but it is at its core an objective description of an accent. Skipping the "h" is not something that has emotional value beyond designating someone as unusual. So if you want to actually use the accent for something, you either have to hope the reader thinks of a French accent the way you do, or you have to inform them of how the listener)is feeling about it. The latter can be done more easily with a closer PoV.
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 3, 2021 at 9:50
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    @A.Kvåle When you have a PoV that's more involved with the listener then you could actually just describe directly how they hear and associate it, because there's no requirement to be objective. You can just say that the speaker is slurring their speech like a drunkard despite being obnoxiously intellectual. Then forego the phonetic spelling. Even better if you can switch PoV's and have someone else consider the same accent elegant. This can be done with an omniscient PoV too of course, but there's a barrier; gotta put "She thought his accent was... <x>" before every such description.
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 3, 2021 at 9:58
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    @A.Kvåle I think phonetic spelling/description is objective, not subjective. It also stipulates the language being used, so hard for fantasy worlds. Stress is also not very subjective. Sarcasm, that I agree is closer to one's perception.
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 3, 2021 at 10:02
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You describe the letters they elongate, drop, clip etc... for example a Scottish accent can be described in terms of rolled "r"s and "l"s, the pronunciation of the "h" after the "w" in words like "what" and "which" where it is generally silent in other dialects, and a dozen other distinct phonological features. Have a look at the accents you want to use and look at describing them in these terms.

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  • That can work nicely in a here and now setting, although it has the problem that many people do not think of the accents they hear is such detail, so it can sound contrived. But in a fantasy setting where presumably our modern letters are not used, although the sounds might be similar, I think that sort of thing can be very distracting. Much like the fantasy i once encountered where an assassin was paid "twenty dollars" to attack a character. Brought the setting crashing down, at least for me. Nov 3, 2021 at 16:01
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So the first problem is medievel accents are just as unusual to our ears as modern versions of the same regional accent. They tend to drift over time, so a London accent of 1521 would sound nothing like a London accent of 2021.

In fact, to hear Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliette in the closest modern approximation to the play on it's debut at the Globe Theater, one would probably look to a U.S. Southern accent (specifically a Tidewater accent, which is commonly heard in Central Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia). This isn't uncommon as America being the largest English Speaking nation in the world by population (India might be second largest, but only 10% of the population speak English) is relatively new development and prior to WWII the UK was the language center... it also led to the cross the pond spelling changes, as often U.S. English used words or terms first originating in the U.K. but later falling out of style there (The word "Soccer" was first developed in England as slang for "Association Football" and introduced to the States (and Canada) as such... only for UK English to start favoring "Football" for the name of the sport. This also happened with Aluminum, which was first named in the UK and had it's name changed only after the first one was introduced to the U.S.).

One suggestion is to develop a series bible that will allow you to write down world building notes (like which nations have which accents). Then in written works, you could have characters take note of different accents, while if you have an audio book or film adaptation, you could direct people as to what accents they should use. Another thing to try is if the character's accent is because he speaks the book's language as a second language, you could have a scene where that character speaks actual untranslated dialog to clue the reader what the accent the character should be using such as:

"Please Stand Clear of the Doors!" The Train conductor announced, before repeating the order in Allerian accented Zaranian, "Por favor manténganse alejado de las puertas!"

While it's not exactly specific to a regional accent, one could tell by the two translations of the same request that the fictional culture of Aller is likely "Anglo-Saxon" while the Zaran is culturally Hispanic which can at least help form an idea of what accents the reader should be hearing when people from those nations speak (It doesn't help much but more context clues can help narrow it down. For example, if you know what real life Train System uses the specific warning (It's iconic departure message on the Walt Disney World Monorail System) than you can narrow it down to "Aller is probably American-English" and Zaran is probably "Spanish" (yes, there is a distinct American (or "Estado") Accent in Spanish brought about from American English Speakers speaking Spanish in distinct ways. And it's likely different than UK accented Spanish (English Speakers can observe this when they listen to different German accented English as there is a difference from the stoic and almost robotic Berlin accent (think Colonel Klink) vs. the more jovial and friendly Bavarian Accented German (think Sgt. Shultz) to the bombastic Austrian Accented German (AHLL BE BACK! GET TO DE CHOPPAH!).

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  • By the way, the departure message of the NYC subways and the Philadelphia airport monorail is very similar to the Disney message you quote. Both include "Please stand clear of the closing doors." Nov 3, 2021 at 17:44
  • Having never been on the later and haven't been on the former in 14 years, I wouldn't know. But my family did almost semi-annual trips to Disney and the Monorail holds a special place in my heart.
    – hszmv
    Nov 4, 2021 at 12:05

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