Thursday, August 6, 2015

So you're from New Yawk; I had no idear!

I just finished editing a YA novel set in the deep South. The author accomplished what many first-time authors struggle mightily with: a grammatically accurate representation of accent, dialect, and vernacular, that was clear and smooth to read. How did he do this, might you ask?

First of all, allow me to clarify the differences between the three terms. Accent is focused entirely on phonetics; a heavy New Jersey accent, for example, involves subtracting the "r" sound from within various words and then adding that "r" sound to other words ("idear"). When I write that word, though - "idear" - it doesn't convey the accent, really. Instead it looks like what it is - a misspelling.

So what about dialect? Dialect has more to do with the patterns of words, and the words themselves, than accent. Dialect is most often region-specific and might involve slang; for example, the English language's most notorious and glaring deficiency is a lack of a plural "you." Our "you" is supposed to suffice for both plural and singular, but that doesn't sound correct to us in speech. So, we've come up with various versions: "y'all" and "you guys" come to mind. The way we say "yes" is another - "yup," "yeah," and "uh-huh," are a few of the many. And what about whether it's "soda," "pop," or "Coke?"

Vernacular is very similar to dialect, but whereas dialect most often implies a regional commonality, vernacular is more often connected to things like income class, education, age, and subject matter. So, for example, doctors utilize a certain vernacular. Vernacular is generational, too; Boomers use words that have little to no meaning to Millennials, and the reverse is certainly true, as well.

With all of this in mind, how does an author effectively demonstrate all three of these things without distracting the reader (and driving this copy editor crazy)? The answer is, you use effective, acceptable dialect and vernacular, along with a description of the accent. The vocabulary used and the manner in which it is used will, when written well, imply a certain accent and/or tone. Be consistent in your use of "soda," or "pop," for example. Pick a word for "grandmother," and use it - Nana, Grammy, or something else.

If an author would like to further ensure a character's accent is "heard" clearly by the reader, the aforementioned description is essential. Find dynamic verbs that may convey an auditory sound or even a known cultural image, like "drawled," "goaded," "mumbled," and more. Describe the accent at the beginning or in the middle of a dialogue scene: "The harsh, staccato nature of her words left him feeling assaulted." "His speech introduced his southern peers to the New England law of r's - when it's removed from the middle of a word, it must be added to a different word."

What you should absolutely not do, in the interest of providing a smooth and enjoyable read, is attempt to apply phonetic spelling to words. Do not spell "idear." It is enough to tell me, the reader, that the person with the brusque New Jersey accent interjected, "Great idea."

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