For Avid Readers

Accents in Books: What Can Go Wrong?

Accents are humanity’s craziest inventions. We craft our own languages, then some clever-clogs decides to start pronouncing the words all funny for some reason. That, ladies and gents, is my best guess for how the Scottish accent came to be. Probably Welsh, too. And maybe Texan.

In the books we read, accents are an important if unassuming detail. The way we envision the characters speaking affects how we connect with them and whether we relate to them. Let’s face it, Russian and posh British accents will always give us a sneaking suspicion that they belong to the baddies, thanks to filmmakers everywhere before 2010.


Don’t Get Us Wrong – We Love Accents

Relatability aside, we love accents. We listen to them, laugh at them and get a little turned on by them. Here’s looking at you, Ireland. The presence of accents is key to bringing some life to characters effortlessly, providing backstory before we even know the character. But to what extent do accents need to be present in dialogue in books to achieve this? I mean, we can barely understand the Scots face to face, let alone on paper. (Sorry Scotland, I’m picking on you because I know what good sports you are.)

What we want from dialogue is clarity, and if an accent hinders our understanding of what the character is trying to say, its presence becomes counter-productive. Harry Potter’s Hagrid manages to convey his “West Country” accent (South West UK for those of you wondering where the devil that’s from) without the readers misunderstanding what he says. The words he speaks that we aren’t sure about when we read them are supported by context so well that it’s difficult to misinterpret his meaning. But, not all books do this quite as well as the marvellous JK.


Oh Boy, Can Accents Go Wrong

There are plenty of books that have gone rogue with their characters’ accents, but the best example I’ve come across of accents gone wrong is Elizabeth O’Neill’s “Broken Shell of a Man” which is set in Glasgow. Hello again, Scotland. The whole cast of the book speak in thick Glasweigian accents which was only a problem because every word of dialogue was spelled exactly as you would hear it. To those of us that aren’t accustomed to the accent, i.e. most people outside Scotland, we don’t stand much chance of understanding. While the premise made the book enticing enough to pick up, by the end of the first chapter it was difficult to know what was going on.

The fact that the book is set in Glasgow is enough for us to know that the characters will speak with a Scottish accent, even if we can’t picture it all that clearly. Accents in books need to be subtle, or they obscure what the contents of the dialogue.


So, what’s the verdict? It’s a no-brainer, really. Accents are a small, story-telling blessing that should never be excluded from books, but like in films, authors need to stay conscious of how they write them. Accents can be as terrible on paper as they sometimes are on the silver screen. Just ask Keanu Reeves.

The attraction of fiction is the fantasy of an action-packed, romance-filled, out of this world adventure; to experience something we have no chance of experiencing in our day-to-day. But as out there are we love our books, we need an element of realism, and relatability which accents are fantastic at fulfilling.

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