Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

All right. Be honest, how long did it take you to figure out the title? Did you even bother? All right, if you did, what is easier for you to read, that title or “Why I hate phonetic accents”?

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that the English language makes little sense. It’s a Germanic language that was morphed by Anglo-Saxons, too far away to remember original German, adapted by the French during the Norman Conquest, and then had a thousand years to go through a vowel shift, changes, and added words (it’s reported Shakespeare alone invented 1,700 now common English words). Standardized spellings weren’t common for long after the Elizabethans (after all, Noah Webster decided to standardize “American” spellings in 1780) and many grammatical rules have come and gone, made by people often referred to as “pedantic” (split infinitives were only classified as “wrong” in the 20th century by scholars who more than likely believed English should follow Latin grammatical rules [where it’s quite literally impossible to split infinitives]). So why isn’t “phonetic” spelt “fonetik”? Because it comes from a Greek root, transcribed from the Greek Alphabet as ‘ph’ in the Latin alphabet, and it’s been that way since.

So, all of it is made up. So why can’t we make sure our character’s accents come out properly by having one say “dahlin'” one “dahrling” and one “derlin'”? The same reason people standardized language in the first place. It’s harder to understand. 

Truly, language as a whole is made up, if you want to argue it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s purpose is ultimately to have one person understand another. That vastly increases when you’re a writer. If you want to write something out phonetically as you understand it for your own notes, it doesn’t matter. If you’re expecting people to understand you in a novel/short story/article you’ve written, eet prabalee shudent b ritten liek dis.

Furthermore, how an accent sounds to you and how it sounds to someone else can be two very different things. Think of a British accent. How would someone with a British accent say “Really” to you? Reelee? Realeh? Rehleh?

Does it change if they’re speaking with a Kightsbridge Accent? London Accent? RP Accent? Cockney Accent? So now, not only is the phonetic spelling subjective, it can also be insulting if you don’t actually speak with that accent. Personally, I’d think I [in DC] say “really” something like “reelee” but I don’t speak with British accent. How do I know what sounds correct to someone from [insert place character is from]? After all, I’ve never heard someone say “pip, pip, cheerio” even though that’s supposedly British from what TV tells me. If you suddenly try to make your Irish character sound like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun saying top o’ the mornin’ to ya everywhere, you risk people considering you ignorant and/or insulting.

So is there any reason to write out an accent? In my opinion, no. In a novel I recently edited, there was an Irish character speaking with the thickest phonetically spelled attempted-accent I have ever seen (even sounding it out it didn’t sound Irish to me). Eventually I gave up trying to read what that character was saying (reading shouldn’t be that difficult in my opinion), leaving a note along the lines of “please, please, please don’t do this” but I do still remember one perfect example of the confusion spelling things out phonetically can cause.

“Fairreh”

Any guesses on that one? Perhaps some context, unphoneticized:

“Look, a fairreh!”

What I heard saying it? Fairy. It was a fantasy novel, so I thought, all right, fairies are showing up.

Too bad the author meant “Fire”

Just a small difference in the tone of the scene there.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t throw in small changes like “gonna” or “haveta'” if you feel the need to (e.g. “Tommy! Why haven’t you taken the trash out?” “Ah….I was gonna.”) but I highly, highly suggest staying away from trying to show your character’s accent bi mayking ehveree wurd fonetik.

But then, how do you show someone’s accent if you don’t spell it out?

I’d suggest some less intrusive (easier to read) ways:

1.  “He said with an X accent.” It’s simple, but showing accents in writing might be best suited with simple mentions. There are many ways to get it across in the same way:

“Hi,” he said with an Irish accent.

“Hi.”
She smiled at his lilting accent. It made even “hi” sound magical.

“Hi,” he said.
“Oh, that’s an interesting accent. Where are you from?”
“Ireland.”

“Hi,” he said, noticing how much his accent seemed out-of-place in the new school.

They all let you say he has an accent without  obscuring the actual words and making it hard to read.

2. Use speech patterns to show differences, not phonetics. Again, this is another one you have to be careful about not being insulting, but people from different areas don’t only have different accents, they use different grammar. Where I say, “I was going to go…” My great-uncle in West Virginia says, “I was fixin’ to go…” Where most people I’ve met say, “Turn off the light.” My college roommate from Brooklyn used to say, “Shut the light.” Don’t overdo it with regional slang (especially when you aren’t familiar with the region) since you’ll be in danger of going back to that “insulting” thing, but it tends to be a better way to show accents than, “I whas goeing too goe…” and “I whus fixen ta goh…”

3. If necessary, use phonetic spellings tastefully. As I said above, if your character doesn’t say “going to” properly, it might be all right to put “gonna” It’s a generally well-known version, and “I was gonna go…” would more than likely make sense to the bulk of your readers. Same with fixin’. Putting “fixing” just wouldn’t sound right in my head for “I was fixin'” Without the ‘g’ though, it’s still possible to generally understand what is being said. “I was fixin'” isn’t quite the same as “I whus fixen” The average reader will be able to read small changes like that easily. It’s when you start making people sound out every word that it gets tiring.

Now, can people write out phonetic accents well? I’m sure they can. Should they? In my personal opinion, no. Of course, that’s my personal opinion. As with everything else on this blog, people can take or leave what I say. They are all just suggestions after all. But, as I see it, anything that makes your writing difficult to understand isn’t generally good for it. After all, we standardized the language to be understood. And, as writers, it is our job to use language well.

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2 thoughts on “Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

  1. Emma LW says:

    Hm, I’d say that sometimes I disagree. My example is from Trainspotting. Irvine Welsh writes the dialogue using phonetic spelling for a Scottish accent. The first chapter of the book was the hardest thing I’d read in a long time, but after that, I really got into the flow of it and understood it. I get that it can be annoying, but I think once you get used to it in a certain book, it really can work well. Same thing goes with the book Their Eyes Were Watching God. Then again, maybe like you said–most people can’t write phonetic accents well.

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