Regional accents in England

No sooner said than done, Carolyn!

I was wondering what to post about today because I’m all in a tizzy with Jane and the Damned and Bespelling Jane Austen released two days ago and I still haven’t gloated over them on a shelf in a store (although I may do so today even though it’s pouring with rain). I’m going to spend the entire weekend talking about them and giving away copies so I hope you’ll stop by.

So … regional accents. I’ve frankly never seen such bizarre treatments of regional accents as in romance, where a sort of one-size-fits all generic vaguely Cockney reigns, unless the character is Scottish, in which case he or she assumes the one-size-fits all generic Scottish accent. What complicates matters is that we know accents change over time. We don’t really know how people spoke two centuries ago. Should we care? Yes. Should we try to make them sound “right”? Yes, because an accent, or rather, the way someone speaks reveals a lot about them, not only where they grew up, but also their education, their background, and everything else that goes into defining their place in the English class system–and their role in your book.

Take a look, and listen, at Sounds Familiar? at the wonderful British Library website. This demonstrates particular pronunciations and dialects of the twentieth century, after radio and TV dulled things down a bit. It’s more likely in pre-industrial revolution England that there would be even more accents; I visited an area in the Midlands one time where there were subtle changes in accents every five miles or so.

Another good source may be IDEA, International Dialects & Accents of England, which I’ve just discovered (I’m at work with a computer that has no sound).

Yes, but … this is a huge scholarly research area. How did our characters speak? My theory–and it’s only a theory, and it’s mine (suppresses inner John Cleese)–is that it’s quite likely our aristos talked one way with their peers, but could lapse into local dialects when at home in the country. Why? Children were raised by servants, not by their parents. My sole source for this theory is Kipling’s Stalky & Co., a book about a group of cool, subversive, inventive boys at a public school in the late nineteenth century. They adopt the lingua franca of a Devonshire accent when they visit the local village; one of them, of Anglo-Irish descent, had his native accent bullied out of him when he joined the school.

We know that the Londoners of the Regency probably used the interchangeable Vs and Ws of Dicken’s characters, because Dickens was writing the dialect of his youth.

So how do we differentiate the way the lord speaks from his valet? If the valet was particularly ambitious, they might sound pretty much alike. It’s more a question of diction, vocabulary, phrasing, than anything else.

I find attempts to duplicate dialect are really annoying, particularly those generic Scottish ones. You don’t want your reader to have to slow down deciphering dialogue. Also, I don’t know how attuned the American ear is to English dialects anyway–I know that I can just about tell a southern US accent from a Boston one and I’ve been here for years.

Now you can hear me all over the place–I narrate my book trailer, for instance, and I have soundbites on my website (and a new contest, while you’re there). If you have the RWA conference tape to which Carolyn referred, you’ll hear me and Miranda Neville, who also has a new release this month and will visit weekend after next. Can you tell the difference between us? She’s much posher than I am. I have more of a multipurpose, upper lower middle class southeastern urban accent.

The pic I used for this post is also from the British Library site, which has a whole wonderful section on cookbooks and recipes from the past, very useful stuff. Enjoy.

What do you think about simulated dialects in books?

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