The Language Quandary


Recently, I was reading a novel in which a doctor spoke English with a lovely French accent. At least that is what the author told me. Her dialogue was written in normal, modern, American English which I could read without a problem. It did not help that the main character’s thoughts were inserted to let me know that he could barely understand her. I could understand her perfectly, which removed me from the illusion of the story whenever the woman spoke.

Advice concerning use of accents often violates the maxim “show, don’t tell.” I’ve heard it often said not to imitate the way a person speaks, but just mention their accent occasionally. Honestly, if that accent is important to the character, it should be shown. This requires some expertise in the character’s first language. and it may be tedious to create a legitimate accent. The writer needs to know what English language sounds are not in the native tongue, and what the person would use to replace these. For example, “th” is common in English, but not a lot of other languages. It can appear frequently in dialog.

For example:

“The man walked to the theater with that woman. I saw them there.” 

The “th” sound can be replaced by various sounds such as d, t or z. It not advisable to change every other incident of “th” to “z,” which is the typical way that French speakers pronounce “th.”

“The man walked to ze zéâtre wiz zat woman. I saw zem zere.”

Also, “th” may not always be replaced by the same letter if a person has a French accent. The word theater is a French cognate spelled “théâtre.” This actual French word would be used even if the “th” is pronounced as a “t.”  Also, “the” might be written as “zhe” to appear more like the English word. Perhaps only “the theater” needs to be changed to provide the effect of an accent.

“The man walked to zhe théâtre with that woman. I saw them there.”

French syntax differs from that of English. So the normal order of words would change in a sentence. “I saw them there,” would be rearranged as “I them saw there,” which makes no sense to English speakers. So syntax cannot be replicated in that case. However, spoken French past tense uses helping verbs which can replace the simple past tense used in English.

“The man was walking to zhe théâtre with that woman. I have seen them there.”

Choose a few words that are spelled as pronounced by the non-native speaker and sprinkle them through the dialog. This should probably not be done for more than 10% of the words. In the case of the French accent, all you may need to do is change every “the” to “zhe.”  If that seems like too much, choose lots of French words with English cognates, such as “théâtre,” to insert with their accents and slightly altered spelling.

If the language does not use Roman letters, the internet still provides a wide range of guides to sounds found in other languages, so the spelling reflects the actual pronunciation. If you are not sure this is worth the trouble, don’t mention the characters accent at all.

Did I mention that it may be tedious to create a legitimate accent that an English speaking reader can still understand? Both pronunciation and the normal order of words in a sentence are unique to most languages. Of course, the easy way out is to say that the character has a thick French accent and then simply write in normal English. But, too much dependence on telling rather than showing is the mark of an amateurish author.

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