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Using Regional Speech in Your Story

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Style Choices

Quirky. Memorable. Personable. Don't you love it when dialogue is a little bit more exciting? Regional speech in fiction is no needle in a hay stack; many big names have jumped on with the style choice. J. K. Rowling utilised it for characters such as Hagrid, Madame Maxine, and a handful of Bulgarians to name but a few. Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett also choose to go down this route in certain works, and you can probably think of more that are tucked on your bookshelf. A quirky style choice, no doubt, but is regional speech something you should consider using in your story's dialogue? We would argue that, in most cases anyway, probably not. Why?



What Does It Really Achieve?


Let’s confront some unsettling evidence around the subject which goes a long way in demonstrating what it achieves. An article produced by Brown University highlights the main reasons an author typically uses regional speech:


1. To hammer home that a non-native speaker is talking. 2. To indicate a person is in some way not ‘mainstream’. Their English, for example, is not as normal as another’s. 3. To indicate a lack of education, etiquette, or intelligence


With those in mind, consider the following examples that have been taken from two novels publishing within the last 7 years:


Example 1:

An American author sets their story in the USA and includes a side character who is Japanese. The Japanese character's dialogue contains misspelt or phonetically-written words to highlight occasional incorrect pronunciation. This often irritates the other characters in the story, who sometimes comment on the speech though it has little to no impact on the direction of the plot.


Example 2:

An RP English author sets their tale in London’s West End. At one point, their protagonist runs into a character from the West Country. Their speech is riddled with missing letters at the start of words, their vocabulary is more limited compared to others yet they also have unique colloquial terms which are italicized on the page to draw attention to these 'foreign' words and phrases.



In both examples, the authors think of their audience as being much like themselves. They believe the speech alterations will be enjoyed as a humorous reference to something they are not guilty of: speaking differently. They see it as entertaining. Relatable. Unique. Rarely is this done to be mean-spirited, but going on the assumption all readers will feel the same way is a dangerous choice. How would a non-native English speaker feel seeing someone like them being isolated and pointed out as different, as demonstrated in the first example? Would they find it amusing, or mocking? I will admit that my Linguistics degree has often proved fairly useless, yet there is a lesson all linguistics students learn early on: there is no English dialect or accent in the world which fits written English perfectly. I would assume English is not alone in this. No matter where we are from, we all have our own speech characteristics that go by their own rules, dodging proper spellings in speech every now and then. And that’s great! Surely that means no one is safe from regional speech exposure? What are we doing when we write a character whose speech is visually different on the page? No writer would want to mock, dehumanise, belittle, or exclude a person based on where they are from, their social background or their intellect. At least, no writer should want to do that. Yet, by shining the speech spotlight on one character, we tend to exclude them from our perception of ‘normal’. We may unintentionally give our readers a certain opinion of them, or we might just make our readers feel targeted. This is not to say that characters must all be written perfectly and with the same spoken abilities. Speech patterns, vocabulary, and other such language variables should be considered when writing dialogue, and readers expect a good standard of realism as they read. For example, they don't expect the protagonist's four year old child to be conversing with the Queen of England as intellectual equals. Yet, diving into selective regional speech, opting to rely on unattractive, phonetically-written words or pointless dialogue errors that border on stereotype is a divisive writing choice. Is entertaining some worth alienating others and losing a little readership respect in the process? When we take on the mantle of 'a writer', we are quick to get carried away with the many, many wonders of what we can create with words. Yet, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Take care to respect your readers - no matter who they are or where they are from. We try to do it in our personal lives, why not in our stories?


Quirky. Memorable. Personable. Don't you love it when dialogue is a little bit more exciting? Regional speech in fiction is no needle in a hay stack; many big names have jumped on with the style choice. J. K. Rowling utilised it for characters such as Hagrid, Madame Maxine, and a handful of Bulgarians to name but a few. Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett also choose to go down this route in certain works, and you can probably think of more that are tucked on your bookshelf. A quirky style choice, no doubt, but is regional speech something you should consider using in your story's dialogue? We would argue that, in most cases anyway, probably not. Why?



What Does It Really Achieve?


Let’s confront some unsettling evidence around the subject which goes a long way in demonstrating what it achieves. An article produced by Brown University highlights the main reasons an author typically uses regional speech:


1. To hammer home that a non-native speaker is talking. 2. To indicate a person is in some way not ‘mainstream’. Their English, for example, is not as normal as another’s. 3. To indicate a lack of education, etiquette, or intelligence


With those in mind, consider the following examples that have been taken from two novels publishing within the last 7 years:


Example 1:

An American author sets their story in the USA and includes a side character who is Japanese. The Japanese character's dialogue contains misspelt or phonetically-written words to highlight occasional incorrect pronunciation. This often irritates the other characters in the story, who sometimes comment on the speech though it has little to no impact on the direction of the plot.


Example 2:

An RP English author sets their tale in London’s West End. At one point, their protagonist runs into a character from the West Country. Their speech is riddled with missing letters at the start of words, their vocabulary is more limited compared to others yet they also have unique colloquial terms which are italicized on the page to draw attention to these 'foreign' words and phrases.



In both examples, the authors think of their audience as being much like themselves. They believe the speech alterations will be enjoyed as a humorous reference to something they are not guilty of: speaking differently. They see it as entertaining. Relatable. Unique. Rarely is this done to be mean-spirited, but going on the assumption all readers will feel the same way is a dangerous choice. How would a non-native English speaker feel seeing someone like them being isolated and pointed out as different, as demonstrated in the first example? Would they find it amusing, or mocking? I will admit that my Linguistics degree has often proved fairly useless, yet there is a lesson all linguistics students learn early on: there is no English dialect or accent in the world which fits written English perfectly. I would assume English is not alone in this. No matter where we are from, we all have our own speech characteristics that go by their own rules, dodging proper spellings in speech every now and then. And that’s great! Surely that means no one is safe from regional speech exposure? What are we doing when we write a character whose speech is visually different on the page? No writer would want to mock, dehumanise, belittle, or exclude a person based on where they are from, their social background or their intellect. At least, no writer should want to do that. Yet, by shining the speech spotlight on one character, we tend to exclude them from our perception of ‘normal’. We may unintentionally give our readers a certain opinion of them, or we might just make our readers feel targeted. This is not to say that characters must all be written perfectly and with the same spoken abilities. Speech patterns, vocabulary, and other such language variables should be considered when writing dialogue, and readers expect a good standard of realism as they read. For example, they don't expect the protagonist's four year old child to be conversing with the Queen of England as intellectual equals. Yet, diving into selective regional speech, opting to rely on unattractive, phonetically-written words or pointless dialogue errors that border on stereotype is a divisive writing choice. Is entertaining some worth alienating others and losing a little readership respect in the process? When we take on the mantle of 'a writer', we are quick to get carried away with the many, many wonders of what we can create with words. Yet, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Take care to respect your readers - no matter who they are or where they are from. We try to do it in our personal lives, why not in our stories?


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