Following up on last week’s post, “Don’t Write Accents Phonetically,” here’s some more specific advice on what to do rather than what not to do.

But first, let’s take a look at the offending passage from Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die in more detail. This is text scanned directly from the book:

 ‘Aw, honey,’ the girl was anxious. ‘ ’dey ain’t no use tryin’ tuh git mad at me. Ah done nuthen tuh give yuh recasion tuh ack dat way. Ah jist thunk you mebbe preshiate a ringside at da Par’dise ’nstead of settin’ hyah countin’ yo troubles. Why, honey, yuh all knows Ah wudden fall fo’ dat richcrat ack’ of Birdie Johnson. No sir. He don’ mean nuthen tuh me. Him duh wusstes’ man ’n Harlem, dawg bite me effn he ain’t. All da same, he permis me da bestess seats ’nda house ’n Ah sez let’s us go set ’n dem, ’n have us a beer ’n a good time. Cmon, honey. Let’s git out of hyah. Yuh done look so swell ’n Ah jist wan’ mah frens tuh see usn together.’

‘Yuh done look okay yoself, honeychile,’ said the man, mollified by the tribute to his elegance, ‘an’ dat’s da troof. But Ah mus’ spressify dat yuh stays close up tuh me an keeps yo eyes off’n dat lowdown trash ’n his hot pants. ’N Ah may say,’ he added threateningly, ‘dat ef Ah ketches yuh makin’ up tuh dat dope Ah’ll jist nachrally whup da hide off’n yo sweet ass.’

‘Shoh ting, honey,’ whispered the girl excitedly.

Bond heard the man’s foot scrape off the seat to the ground. ‘Cmon, baby, lessgo. Waiduh!’

Bond put down the menu. ‘Got the gist of it,’ he said. ‘Seems they’re interested in much the same things as everyone else—sex, having fun, and keeping up with the Joneses. Thank God they’re not genteel about it.’

Okay, where do I begin?

First of all let’s just get past the overtly racist context this is set in, and Bond’s reaction to the overheard conversation, which goes to the chapter’s general feeling of men observing wild animals in their natural habitat. What’s additionally troubling is that Bond, who is English, is hanging out with Leiter, a Caucasian American CIA agent, and Fleming makes no effort to try to render Leiter’s “white American” accent in any way. The residents of Harlem are singled out for special honors. The content of the conversation is intentionally unflattering, and we’ll leave that aside too, and just look at the words on the page.

By now, I’m sure everyone on Earth has seen that bit of text that’s run several million laps around the internet that shows that as long as the first letter and last letter of a word are left in place, the rest of the letters can be in any order and you’ll still be able to read it without much trouble. This turns out to be true, and actually points to why Mr. Fleming’s rendering is so difficult. He’s turned this into a sort of exercise for the reader, a puzzle we’re forced to work out, taking each word and trying to decode it. I’m still suffering over the meaning of “recasion” and “richcrat,” for instance. The fact that “Ah” is capped is a particularly weird touch, subbing in for “I.” .

My advice is to not try to render the pronunciation of words phonetically, which really almost every single time ends up being confusing at best, demeaning at worst. Instead, look for the peculiar word choice and then swap in those words, allowing sentence structure and word choice to convey that peculiar voice.

Screenwriters have the luxury of relying on actors and a director to infuse written dialog with the proper cadence and pronunciation, but prose authors have to be the actor in every part, the director, etc. But we can learn a lot from movies and TV, listening how people talk. I once had the opportunity to interview Harlan Ellison, one of my absolute heroes, and he told me he watches Judge Judy in order to keep up with the way people talk. That’s by far the best reason to watch reality TV!

I sat down and watched a couple episodes of some scripted TV, and transcribed the dialog. We’ll start with The Sopranos, which made exceptional use of an outstanding ensemble cast who reveled in that New Jersey dialect.

From season one, episode eight, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” this exchange at a wedding reception:

Livia: Listen to him with that ‘my darling.” I am nobody’s darling.”

Lorenzo: “This one here, she never disappoints, I’ll tell you that.”

Livia: “Are you still seeing your other women, Lorenzo?”

Carmella: “Come on, Ma. Let’s mingle.”

Tony: “Sorry, the older she gets the worse she gets.”

In that first line, note the specific use of “I am” as opposed to “I’m” to emphasize the point.

Nowhere but in New York and New Jersey would anyone ever structure a sentence this way: “This one here, she never disappoints, I’ll tell you that.”

See how that “accent” comes through without a single apostrophe or alternate spelling? In the case of “Ma,” that’s what Carmella actually said—it wasn’t my attempt at rendering her version of “Mom.”

Another example from The Sopranos, season 2, episode 10, “Bust Out”:

Richie: “Coolers are like scissors. Everybody wants one, nobody has any fucking idea what they cost. You put a Nigerian out on the street, have him sell these for a couple three bucks a piece, who’s not going to say, ‘Fuck it, gimme one.’ ”

The magic is here: “a couple three bucks.”

The f-bombs sprinkled in, bucks rather than “dollars,” my favorite: “a couple three” instead of two or three. Then I used “gimme,” which, like “Ma” in the previous example, is  almost as commonly seen as “give me” and would be confusing to no one, and not becuase he said, “give me” and it sounded like “gimme,” but he actually said “gimme.”

Crossing the pond to England and Ricky Gervais’s brilliant Derek:

“I loves babies, but they’re fragile, isn’t they. If I drops a vase or something like that, or sits in some apple crumble and custard, I’ll go ‘Oops, sorry,’ and everybody goes, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, Derek,’ but if I drops a baby or sits on it, ‘Oops, sorry’ isn’t enough, is it. So I sort of . . . I play it safe. I would like to hold one, though.”

What you read there are the actual words he said. It didn’t kind of sound like he said “drops” and “sits” when he was really saying “drop,” “sit,” or “sat,” he actually said the words “drops” and “sits.” There are no question marks after “isn’t they” and “is it” because his voice didn’t go up at the end—he wasn’t asking a question. These are just little colloquial tics.

And all of these examples sound right on the page, without me having to sort out the slight differences in the pronunciation of vowels and render it in gibberish.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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8 Responses to WRITING ACCENTS

  1. James says:

    Great advice, yet I feel an urge to fuss. Specifically I think “Gimme” really is the same thing, except it’s standard. That’s the point: Don’t make the reader sound things out, unless the point is that the character is hard to understand or the narrator is a bigot.

    I’ve got a lot of characters (fantasy monster men) who use “English” as a second language. Some of them even fake having an accent. I think I generally follow Philip Athan’s advice. Unfortunately, I have the bad habit of using made up, “untranslatable” words to depict their culture. It’s effective, but I think I lose some of my readership.

    Too bad I can’t find a word in English that says, “You have the character of a glassmaker, acting like it’s everybody’s duty to never place any demands on anybody or anything because you’ve been raised to depend on shoddy things rather than learn the truth about your junk.”

  2. I can see what you’re saying, better to keep it almost bare bones than go overboard.

  3. Thanks for the follow up!

  4. Clara says:

    Very comprehensive information..thanks

  5. Playing catch up on your posts tonight. This is perfect for my writing group. Thanks!

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