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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Elena Greene
12 years ago

I’m usually OK with accents and dialects in books. Even if it takes more effort to read, it’s OK if they feel reasonably accurate and the characters and plot draw me in. I didn’t have too much trouble with the (somewhat modified, I think) Middle English used in Laura Kinsale’s FOR MY LADY’S HEART, although I know some readers didn’t care for it.

The time accents do bother me in novels is when everyone in the working classes speaks Cockney, including the butler and the housekeeper.

In my own writing, I feel a little goes a long way. I try not to think just about how the characters form the sounds but also about patterns of speech. For instances, there are places where “I be” was used instead of “I am”. Things like that add local flavor without being too hard to read.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

I found a wonderful site on regional UK accents when I was trying to write a Yorkshire accent for my Christmas novella, A Twelfth Night Tale. I worked really hard on getting it right, but my UK editors nixed it, allowing only one or two words in, just to set the tone. They do the same with Scottish accents and I figure because they are THERE in the UK, they (and you and Miranda) ought to know!

I also get annoyed at written depictions of regional Southern US accents. A little goes a long way there, too.

If I can find that site, I’ll pass it on.

Susanna Fraser
12 years ago

I think less is more when it comes to writing a regional accents. I try to make my characters’ word choice and speech rhythm sound more English than American, and I try to vary vocabulary, grammar, and formality based on each character’s class and education level.

I don’t go much beyond that for three reasons:

1) I’m Southern by birth and upbringing, and few things annoy me more than a poorly written Southern accent. It’s nails-on-a-chalkboard painful to me and is enough to make a book a wallbanger all by itself. I don’t trust my non-English ear not to butcher a regional English accent the same way.

2) I tend to write stories with characters from a variety of regions (e.g. army stories), and I don’t want to overburden my reader with too many accents at once.

3) No one, but no one, pronounces English exactly as it’s spelled. Sometimes (not always, of course) attempts to write regional accents can come across as a bit condescending, as if the reader is being invited to join with the author in making fun of how Those People talk. (My Southern roots are probably showing in this reaction, too.)

Sophia Harrop
12 years ago

I much prefer it when just a flavour of an accent is given in a book. You don’t need to put many suggestions of it into speech for a reader to start to hear it.

The worst example of dialect speech in a book that comes to mind is Joseph, the servant in Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte tries to write just about every word he says ‘phonetically’. I can remember struggling through it at school, with the rest of my class. And when I tell you that I was at school in Leeds, West Yorkshire, with Bronte country just down the road …!!! I suppose one of the problems is that you might not necessarily read the ‘phonetics’ in the way the writer intends.

12 years ago

Thank you for this post, Janet! Bookmarking those sites now.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Here’s the dialect site I found.


There’s LOTS on it.

12 years ago

I have a pretty good ear for dialect. I can tell Bronx from Brooklyn, Parisian French from Provence French, etc. But when I am reading, I LOATHE phonetic attempts at dialect. It not only slows things down, but I spend my time trying to decide if that is really the best way to suggest that sound.

The same is true for dialect words. Sir Walter Scott could write Scots dialogue beautifully, but few readers today can understand it. And that is the great danger of writing accurate dialect.

I would strongly urge writers who want to portray a character who speaks with a regional accent to simply say, “So-and-so spoke in a strong Southern/Yorkshire/Cornish/Whatever accent” or toss in a couple of words of dialect and leave it at that.

After all, the point is to tell the story, not display the author’s cleverness.

12 years ago

I’m a Brit, an avid reader, and as a previous poster pointed out – I agree that less is more. And there’s nothing more irritating than the ubiquitous ‘Mummerset’ accent used by villagers from all over the country – in poorly written books anyway.

Just my tuppenceworth (says this Lancashire lass 😉 )

Tracey Devlyn
12 years ago

Hi Janet,

Congrats on your two releases. I picked up Bespelling Jane last night!

I really enjoyed this post. But now you have me wondering about my own manuscript. 🙂

I have a Frenchman in my book. I’ve intersperse a “mon coeur” and a “ma petite” throughout his dialogue to remind the reader of his origins.

And with one of my secondary characters, I’ve dropped dropped his “h” to set him apart. Here’s an example: ” ‘ere now, we’ll have non of that.”

Are those the types of things you find annoying? LOL I do use them sparingly. Just giving the reader a flavor.

Thanks again,

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Not Janet, but Diane here. I recently also wrote a French character and I sprinkled such French expressions here and there, trying not to overdo them. My character lapsed into French when tensions were high. I have yet to hear what the editors think about it, but my advice is to be very very sparing.

About the other character saying ‘ere – I would not do that at all, but I would rely on the rhythm of the sentence to do the job. Your example works, even with here. (I’ll alert Janet to this message, too, so look for her advice, which I’m sure will be spot on.

Lexi Best
Lexi Best
12 years ago

Really late to the game here but I hope you’ll read this.
I don’t think phoneticizing accents too much really works. You get caught up in trying to figure out just what they are saying really. If I write “um” or “erm” they won’t necessarily sound the same to the reader.
Now the part I wanted to share. Years ago I was on a train out of glasgow feeling very lonely and homesick. I shared a car with another party and they chatted to each other. I felt lonelier because they sounded like they were speaking something toally foreign to me like Hungarian. Gradually over time i realized that they were in fact speaking English, just with very strong accents.
I told this to a friend from Glasgow years later. She was a navy nurse and got called in to translate for a sailor because his accent was totally impenetrable to anyone from more than 5 miles from his place of birth. This was the 70s so I imagine that people did have a very hard time understanding foreigners from other British counties.
I remember reading of a movement in the 18th century to standardize spelling and accent across the British Isles.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Your story reminds me of being in the pub of our inn in Edinburgh during my 2005 UK trip. I was sharing a pint with a very friendly and talkative couple from Glasgow. I had a whole conversation with them, with me nodding and making a comment here and there. When they left, my friends said, “How did you do that? We couldn’t understand a word they said.”
“Me, neither,” I replied.
I often wonder what we talked about.

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