When you’re writing a character who isn’t from where you are, one of the best ways to convey their origin is the language they use. Since I’m writing in English, my characters will always speak English, but that doesn’t mean I can’t add a little flavour, and within English there are many different dialects and accents.
So how do you let the reader know that someone in a story is from a particular place, without doing the obvious and telling them, ‘hey, this character is from London,’ or, ‘this person is from Mexico?’
One way to do this is to mostly use English, but throw in the odd dialect word, or a word from another language. Use dialect, but don’t overdo the accent or it will be hard to understand.
‘E were nowt burra big babby. I telt ‘im ta sling ‘is ‘ook burre wunt. ‘E just kept on whingeing about not gettin’ enough respect.
Being from south Yorkshire, I can understand that, but others who aren’t used to the accent might have difficulty. Let’s try it with dialect but lose some of the glottal stops and dropped h and g sounds.
He was such a baby. I told him to sling his hook but he wouldn’t leave. He just kept on whingeing about not getting enough respect.
The second version is a bit easier to read, but I’ve kept the dialect words such as ‘sling his hook’ and ‘whingeing’. I also gave context for the meaning of ‘sling his hook’ by saying ‘he wouldn’t leave.
Ear mate, wotcha fink abart goin’ darn the pub forra bevy?
The above seems a bit ‘Dick van Dyke’, if you get my meaning. If we take away the exaggerated accent, it becomes:
Fancy going down the pub for a bevy?
We’ve kept the speech pattern of ‘going down the pub’ and ‘bevy’ (which, since we’re going to a pub is – by context – obviously a drink).
So now we’ve got a couple of British accents, how about someone from another country? Here’s my take on someone from Mexico.
I waved to get the flight attendant’s attention. She smiled and held up her hand, and said, “Momentito.”
I waited until she finished helping the other passenger. When she turned to me, I asked, “do you speak English?”
She held up her forefinger and thumb pinched together. “Un poquito.” She grinned.
We can see that she means ‘a little bit’ by the action she makes for ‘un poquito’ and the same goes for her putting up a hand as if to say, ‘wait a moment’ when she says, ‘momentito’. Plus, the word sounds similar to ‘moment’. It’s enough to show she’s not English without going into too much detail or dwelling on an accent.
How about German?
Some people might make a big deal of writing every ‘w’ sound as a ‘v’, or every ‘th’ as a ‘z’ but it comes out quite stereotypical if we do that.
I gave her the moeny we’d collected for the orphans and she was brought close to tears. “Zis is vonderful!” she said, hugging me. “Zank you! Zank you my friend!”
I gave her the money we’d collected for the orphans and she was brought close to tears. “This is wonderful!” she said, hugging me. “Danke! Danke mein freund.”
Instead of using stereotypical accents, we use the language itself. The words are commonly known, and sound similar enough to their English counterparts that we can see what she means, especially alongside the actions. Again, it’s all about the context.
This is an especially useful method to use when writing fantasy, especially if your fantasy is set in another world. Rather than make up new words for everything, it’s probably best to choose a few important words and put them in a context where it’s obvious what they mean.
I’ll leave you with a partial scene from something I’m working on. Can you tell what’s going on here? What do you think the word ‘hekesha’ means?
“I loved her, yes.” Laera hung her head. “But that isn’t why I ran away.”
“Hekesha!” Her father shrieked.
Still she did not look at him, not even at the sound of tearing cloth. She did not need to look to know that he had torn off his sleeve and cast it at her feet. The ultimate in rejection. He had disowned her in front of the entire court.