When Can You Include Accent And Dialect In Your Dialogue?

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Some of the most famous characters in literature are written with a distinct mode of speech that ties them to a social class, ethnic group or even a specific region. Writing accents and dialects into your dialogue can give characters an authentic personality and presence. It can also render them incoherent.

Communicating an authentic voice can be difficult, so in this article, I’ll explore the ways you can write dialect and accent in your dialogue and the most appropriate times to do so.

What’s the difference?

The difference between dialect and accent can be confusing (in fact they overlap) but a simple way of framing the difference is:

Accent–A particular way of phrasing or approaching a language generally based on country.

Dialect–A particular way of phrasing or approaching a language based on region or social group.

Thus there can be a recognizable English accent which still contains the very different dialects of the Beatles (Liverpudlian) and Michael Caine (cockney).

There are two obstacles when adapting a character’s spoken voice to include accent or dialect. The first is whether you should.

Are you qualified?

The way a group talks is central to its identity and central to the way it’s understood by outsiders. Portraying a group’s mode of speech therefore involves taking a degree of ownership of their self-portrayal.

To miscommunicate an accent is to misrepresent someone from behind the mask of their own identity. This is common in many works which promote the idea of one group’s superiority over another.

Travel writers and journalists used dialect, as did novelists, for local color. To black intellectuals, the use of dialect had a detrimental impact on the African American community… [stressing] the quaint, the odd, the picturesque, the different.

Karen L. Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture

In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë writes Joseph the servant’s dialect in what is intended to be a strong Yorkshire accent:

‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’

‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.

‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’

Here’s the same passage in everyday English:

“What are you for?” he shouted. The master’s down in the fold [sheep enclose]. Go round the end of the barn if you want to speak to him.
“Is there nobody inside to open the door?” I hallooed, responsively.

“There’s nobody but the mistress, and she’ll not open if you make your frightening din all night.”

Brontë was born and lived in Yorkshire, however her social position was different to Joseph’s. Though aspects of Joseph’s speech are accurate – ‘what are you for?’ means ‘what do you want?’ and is an accurate representation of the Yorkshire dialect’s unique phrasing – Brontë writes him as bordering on the indecipherable.

Other Yorkshire characters of higher class are easily understood and so Joseph’s ‘faulty’ speech is linked to his low class. Here a financially comfortable writer presents the servant voice as unusual, even wrong.

Whether this manifests as a significant problem is debatable, Brontë shows in other ways that she doesn’t have such simplistic views of class, but the potential for misrepresentation is clear.

A hard and fast rule is that you should only attempt to write in accents and dialects in which you’re well versed. There is no perfect way of speaking and your version of how someone else sounds is a representation of their idiosyncrasies communicated via your own.

If, however, you feel the voice in which you want to write is something you can represent accurately then the second obstacle arises: how do you do it?

Phonetic speech

Phonetic writing involves writing speech to mimic the audible reality of accent and dialect. This can be as minor as changing ‘nothing’ to ‘nothin’ or as major as including sentences which only make sense to the initiated.

This device is very popular amongst Scottish writers, many of whom have made a point of establishing a written version of the Scottish accent. John Niven’s The Amateurs is written in a gentle, third person Scottish accent which is turned up a notch when the characters speak:

“Are yer clubs in the boot?” Ranta asked.
“Aye, da.”
“Bring us yer driver and some baws.”

Here’s the same passage in everyday English:

“Are your clubs in the boot?” Ranta asked.
“Aye [yes], dad.”
“Bring us your driver and some balls.”

This gentle application of phonetic speech allows the reader to immerse themselves in the ethnic and social identity of the characters.

In Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, a phonetic Scottish accent is used far more aggressively, to make the gangster Alistair Harper seem apart from the other characters and the reader:

Yur under arrest. Nah, am oany kidden… ad advise ye te get et home queck. Ef yur serrched av never seen ye in ma life… Mester Creedy! Luke, am no aware of havin done anytheng te upset ye.

Here’s the same passage in everyday English:

You’re under arrest. No, I’m only kidding… I’d advise you to get it home quick. If you’re searched I’ve never seen you in my life… Mister Creedy! Look, I’m not aware of having done anything to upset you.

By making his speech something the reader must work to understand, Moore purposefully distances the character from the reader, however this effect is easy to achieve accidentally if your phonetic writing makes the reader work too hard.

Think long and hard about the effect phonetic writing will have on your reader. Does it communicate the character’s voice or does it place a barrier between them and the reader?


Using slang is a double-edged sword: it’s a key factor of accurate dialect yet it’s incredibly dating. Common terminology today is ridiculous tomorrow.

You can’t use slang sparingly, when it does appear it’ll stick out like a sore thumb, and yet the places where slang would organically appear are obvious when skipped.

There are some slang terms so ubiquitous to accents and dialect that they can’t be ignored – Scottish writers uniformly use the term ‘ken’ meaning ‘know’ – but other than these it’s best to avoid them unless you know your chosen dialect inside out.

The same is true of dropping foreign words into a foreign character’s English speech. Unless you’re familiar enough with the language to know which words would be substituted naturally, it’ll just seem like you’ve referred to a phrase book a couple of times.

So if both phonetic spelling and slang are inadvisable, how can you communicate dialect and accent in your writing?

Sentence structure

Every dialect is packed with unique phrasing and approaches to speech. Communicating your character’s mode of speech through how they structure their sentences allows you to communicate their ethnic and social identity while keeping them relatable to the reader.

Everyone should be understandable. Trust your readers to infer accents and instead spend your time communicating how each character approaches speech and language. The music and rhythm of their voice is impossible to replicate and trying to do so is fraught with problems. The way they arrange their sentences is far more telling and doesn’t turn your character’s ethnic or social position into a barrier for the reader.

The two ideals

If you really know the accent you’re writing in then put slang where you know it fits, structure sentences as you know they’re structured and write as phonetically as you feel is necessary.

Irvine Welsh writes his novel Filth in a first person, Scottish accent. He uses words from the Scots language, elements of the Edinburgh dialect and rhyming slang to craft an accurate and authentic Scottish voice:

Nah, since ah split up wi Mhari ah’ve been daein a bit ay sniffin, but thir no bitin, Ray says, looking doleful…
Huv tae fix ye up wi ma sister-in-law again, eh Ray! I laugh.

Here’s the same passage in everyday English:

No, since I split up with Mary I’ve been doing a bit of sniffing, but they’re not biting, Ray says, looking doleful…
Have to fix you up with my sister-in-law again, eh Ray? I laugh.

Welsh is Scottish himself and familiar enough with the accent to write in a way that allows the reader to become accustomed to it and experience his novel through the character’s voice.

This kind of writing is nearly impossible for accents that aren’t your own, so communicating voice through sentence structure is almost always the better option.

In Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl communicates a working class English accent perfectly using sentence structure:

Many’s the night when I was a boy, Danny, I’ve gone into the kitchen and seen my old dad lying face down on the table and Mum standing over him digging the gunshot pellets out of his backside with a potato-knife.

The mid-sentence check with listener, the preference for present tense story telling signified by ‘I’ve gone’ and the use of ‘old’ as an affectionate premodifier are all common to the English working class voice.

Despite dealing with the same social and ethnic group as Brontë’s Joseph this is polar opposite writing. It welcomes the reader, guiding them into the speaker’s mind set and voice through subtle idiosyncrasies.

This should be the ultimate goal of any writer adopting and communicating an unfamiliar voice: to envelop the reader in the other rather than simply pointing it out.

For more tips on writing dialogue check out 6 Insanely Good Dialogue Tips From Your Future Literary Agent. Or for insight into getting your reader to identify with the speaker try Does the First Person Point of View Make People Care?

Do you have a particular favorite dialect or have you experienced your own being misrepresented? Either way I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


6 thoughts on “When Can You Include Accent And Dialect In Your Dialogue?”

  1. I expect usage is different in different places, but from what I understood the distinction between accent and dialect is more this:

    Accent is a regional variation in the way words are spoken – it’s what makes the southern belle say “Wah, Ah dew declayah” instead of “Why, I do declare”.

    Dialect is a regional variation in the choice of words themselves, either by using non-standard words, or by using standard words in a non-standard way. Saying “Howdy, partner” instead of “Hello, friend” is a dialect.

    Note that although linked, each is independent of the other – ask our Southern Belle to read out some Oscar Wilde and her *accent* will stay the same.

    It’s very unusual to see a dialect without its accompanying accent, by contrast – in fact it sounds rather bizarre, and is the joke in this sketch from 1990s British TV Show “The Fast Show”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPVDdqh3-wQ – the characters are using working-class Cockney words and phrases (dialect), but speaking it in an exaggeratedly upper-class way.

    Anyway, none of this is intended to criticise or invalidate what you’ve said in your excellent article, just thought it was a different perspective on accents and dialects that might be of interest in the field of writing believable dialogue.

  2. Is there an app, or course or website for doing research in dialects or converting a general speech into a specific dialect ?

    1. Hi Yvonne,

      Googling ‘convert to dialect’ will bring up a list of sites that offer this service, but they’re mostly for novelty, and lack the nuance to be dependable for authors. I’d suggest pairing them with an editor familiar with the dialect, if you decide to go this route.


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