Hearing Voices Revisited

I’m in yet another quandry with my characters and the use of accents, regional and national, in my dialogue. At the start of the book the action takes place in France and, not unreasonably, most of the characters are French. So the question vexing me is what to do with the dialogue? Is it enough for the reader to know that the characters are French and so write the dialogue in the normal way. Or iz it zat zee words needz to ‘ave lotz of zee’s? Peut-etre mes amis, it would be better just to throw in a few well-known French phrases, n’est-ce-pas?

Then again, what about the regional accent? In historical novels and family saga types, dialogue containing regional accents seem to be used in many cases to denote characters of, shall we say, lesser status? The faithful servant, humble henchman and their ilk. In Space Opera a sprinkling of made-up words and an accent is permissible and of course in edgy, gritty Northern (England) based tales it’s obligatory.

I’ve checked out Austen and the Bronte’s. Austen never permits anything but the King’s English whilst the Bronte’s allow their menials to mangle their vowels. Perhaps I should be guided by Charlotte B who allows Mr Rochester’s French ward the odd phrase – tiens, oh ciel .

I turned to TV to see how scripts are handled and listened to an episode of Agatha Christie’s OCD detective Poirot, admirably played by David Suchet. What gives him away is a sprinkling of French phrases, a few literal translations and the rearranging of words in sentences. So we get, “tell to me if you please, mon ami, how is it that the butler was to be found in the library?”

I suppose script writers don’t have quite the same problem – I guess they would only need to indicate some verbal idiosyncracy like “he speaks as though chewing a mouthful of walnuts”. It would be the actors themselves who decide how to deliver their lines.

So, iz a puzzlement. I must set the little grey cells to work n’est-ce pas?

8 thoughts on “Hearing Voices Revisited

  1. My opinions–first, less is more when including foreign or slang words. Having a French character refer to “M. and Mlle. So-and-so” is an unobtrusive reminder–spelling out the titles is a little in your face. Remember, you want your reader to be more concerned with what is being said than in how it is being said.

    If you are writing a French character speaking French as English I wouldn’t have them say, “c’nest pas?” but, “isn’t it so?”

    In my experience with people who are speaking English as a foreign language (I work on a campus with a high percentage of International students) are less likely to use a word from their native language and more likely to use an English word that is close, but not quite right. Or stop and say, “What is the word?” and describe the object.

    For me, what gives a character’s language its distinctive feel is mostly rhythm. Native Russian speakers tend to drop articles– “Hand me hammer” rather than “Hand me the hammer”. Native German speakers tend to structure sentences so verbs are late in the sentence (not always so blatant as Yoda, but that’s the general idea.) Native Asian speakers often use the present tense of verbs when the past is called for.

    All of these are a consequence of how their native languages are structured. I’m not that familiar with French grammar, but I suspect there are similar rules that would color the speech of someone thinking in French and speaking in English.

  2. I’ve had those problems and learned that I’m really bad at writing accents. If you can figure out how to do it then I say go ahead. Maybe you can alter the dialogue with accents during a round of editing to make it easier to write the first draft.

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