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Use of Accents and Vernacular in JAFF

Inspired by question posted by author Linda Thompson in her blog about accents

She was asking if readers preferred reading a transliteration of accented speech (“Oi ‘ere. C’mon. Nowt see ‘ere.) or a modified use of some easily understood phrases to indicate that the speaker might have an accent (Oui, M’sieur. It is true what you say.).

I have gone both directions…but if the character is to have several sets of lines, I tend to start with the accent and then dissolve into clearer English. It strikes me as this is what happens when we are in regular contact with a person who has an accent. We tend to normalize the sound the greater the exposure. See Maggie’s conversations with Kitty in Book 3 of “The Exile.” She begins with an East End accent which gradually vanishes.

The core of the question is…”what is the message transmitted” as opposed to “what is the message received?” In other words, we do need to suggest to our reader that the individual is speaking with an accent…but then, to facilitate the normalization of the experience for the reader, we do with our writing that which they would normally do with their hearing but cannot with the printed word.

Now, this does bring us directly up against the great question in ethnography–something with which historians and anthropologists struggle mightily. Since language is a socially constructed discourse, the life of the individual shapes the creation of the language used to express that life. If we “correct” that speech to “proper” English, we likely will destroy the underlying context for the speech. OK…that is for historians.

But even in fiction, we can find opportunity to use vernacular. (I know this is off the question of accents…but, hey)…

“Jody heard nothing; saw nothing but his plate. He had never been so hungry in his life, and after a lean winter and a slow spring … his mother had cooked a supper good enough for the preacher. There were poke-greens with bits of white bacon buried in them; sandbuggers made of potato and onion and the cooter he had found crawling yesterday; sour orange biscuits and at his mother’s elbow the sweet potato pone. He was torn between his desire for more biscuits and another sandbugger and the knowledge, born of painful experience, that if he ate them, he would suddenly have no room for pone. The choice was plain.”                 — MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS, The Yearling

Here we see Rawlings use vernacular to create a remarkable image of a young southern boy utterly ravenous! She establishes context by demanding that we consider what life in back country Florida must have been like “…lean winter…slow spring.” Then she parks us inside of Jody’s world…”supper good enough for the preacher”…”white bacon”…sandbuggers”…”cooter” and “pone.” No, this is not accent…but it is the use of a regional dialectic which instantly places a reader in the 1930s Depression-era South.

Whatever we do as writers, we should NEVER seek to sanitize speech…much as Harvard researchers in the 1930s did with the transcripts of recordings recounting their experiences by putting the verbiage into “proper English.” It was not until the 1990s that researchers went back to the original recordings to discover all that had been lost by the “efforts” of those privileged white men of the 1930s. Vernacular can and should be used…but ultimately, in the writing of fiction, we cannot let “authenticity” get in the way of comprehension.

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