Thursday, 3 June 2010

Local dialects – long live the difference

Do you have a regional accent, with words that are peculiar to where you live?

Do you enjoy reading a book with characters who have regional accents, or does it get in the way of the story?

There was a time when you could walk through Leicester market and every other stall holder would be saying ‘Ey up, me duck’ which roughly translated means ‘Good day, fine Sir.’ There are people who have taken exception to being called ‘me duck’ but I can assure any ruffled readers that no offence is ever intended. It’s just our local way of talking, or at least it was. I don’t hear the phrase anywhere near as much as I used to.

Dialect dictionariesWords fascinate me and dialects are just an addition to this fascination. Take the word for an alley. I walk Josh-the-dog down our local jitty when I’m going to the park but if I lived in York I’d go along a snickleway. In Hull I might cut through a ten-foot and then there’s a snicket, a ginnel, a jennel and they all mean the same. Good, isn’t it! I love regional accents too. When I was a child Liverpudlian was so unusual that it made me giggle and then the Beatles came along and turned it into the sexiest accent ever.

I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between characters in a novel. I’m hopeless at remembering names and so I need some other way of differentiating them. A book I read recently had all the characters speaking with the same voice. I’m guessing that this was the author’s voice too. Needless to say it wasn’t a riveting read. One way of bringing a character to life is to get them speaking with a local dialect. It has to be a mere sprinkling otherwise it would get in the way of the story, but it’s a useful addition to all those ‘creating your character’ prompts for writers.

I don’t think it’s my imagination that regional accents are far less pronounced these days (although I still can’t understand a Glaswegian when he’s talking at full tilt). I blame the TV. Yes, I know, I blame the TV for a lot of things but only the TV and radio has the power to destroy regional differences. Accents are so easy to pick up. Within months of my cousin moving to London she sounded like a Londoner. She didn’t even realise that her speech had changed. So if we’re listening to a certain sort of BBC English a lot of the time then we’re all at risk of sounding the same which would be a shame.

On the radio the other day they were talking about language in Singapore. English is encouraged as the language of business but there is a dialect called Singlish. This is spoken on the streets but banned by Singapore TV. I hope nothing like that would ever happen here. The BBC has relaxed its rules since the 1950s days of clipped Queen’s English but I can’t help feeling that there are subtle influences towards centralised uniformity. Here’s hoping that we can fight them off and retain local dialects and accents. They’re part of what’s good about being English. Long live the difference.

I just wondered: Accents can denote class as well as regional differences, less now than in the past, but there is still a certain upper-class way of talking. Is it the same in the US, or in Australia or New Zealand? Or is this just a UK characteristic?


  1. Australian regional dialects aren't as distinctive as English, or even London ones. But you can tell the difference between a Westie, a Vic and a QLDer. Subtle word choices, more than accent though.

    I love hearing all the diverse accents that the UK and the US have.

  2. Thanks, Merrilee. I can tell the difference between a lot of the US accents, although I doubt I'd be able to place them in the country, but I've never been able to hear different Australian accents and your comment has explained that to me.

  3. Hi Rosalind, and yes I love regional accents and local words and dialects. In Ireland (like UK)there is quite a difference from different parts of the country. Living in Dublin I think we are affected by media and it is often said that Dubliners (particularly from Southside of the city) speak with a kindof Mid Atlantic Drawl - influenced by American TV. We also have words and phrases that come directly from Irish. Anyway Vive La Difference!
    Thought provoking post!

  4. Hi Barbara. I have friends who were born in a village just outside Dublin and I love their accent. It's so gentle.

  5. I like characters to speak with their accent if this trait is described, but if it's very local, it can make it difficult for the reader to understand.
    As for accents with regards to classes, in Spain you'd probably distinguish people with a low standard of education, but not the opposite.

  6. I love regional accents. I do enjoy them when reading too. They add such flavour. Though I think the very localised dialect can be challenging.

  7. As a Canadian I'm often told I don't have an accent. My mom was born in Scotland and still has a bit of her accent - even though she moved here 50 years ago! People still have a hard time understanding some words over the phone. :)

    I love accents and words.

  8. Although I've lived in Australia for 15 years, I have a trace of an American accent that I can't get rid of. It often comes up in conversation, so it might be interesting to write an ex-patriot character someday.

    As for reading dialects, I love it, but only if it's done properly. Just a few words here and there is all it takes. I want a sense that it's Britain or France or the American South. Harry Potter wouldn't be the same to me without "manky". I love that word!

  9. Hi Sarah and Ann. Yes, accents can be hard to read but add flavour to dialogue. I guess the secret is to only add a few well chosen phrases.

    I wonder, Jemi, if I would think you had an accent. I don't think that I have an accent but my London family think I do. Fascinating concept, isn't it.

    Hi Lorel. To my ear a touch of American is very attractive. I'd never be able to create an ex-pat character as I don't know those all important nuances of language that would make them come alive. Sounds like you ought to give it a try.

  10. I loved this post, especially "ey up, me duck" my Dad came from Hinckley and I was always amazed how much the accent changed over a relatively short distance to Northampton where I grew up.

    When you think about all of the strong accents there are in such a small area of the country - from the town of my birth, we had the strong sing-song accent of Birmingham 50 miles in one direction, Leicester 30 miles in another and then London 60 miles in another.

    I have often wondered the same about class and accent etc. in other countries, so thanks for asking the questions.

    Nice post, glad to have found your blog. :-)

  11. Hi Susannah, You're right. We are in the middle of an array of thick accents here in the Midlands. It all adds richness to our creativity... hopefully.

  12. There are only slight differences in dialect in New Zealand and that's mainly between those living in the South Island who roll their r's and have a more Scottish influence than those in the North. There's nothing nearly as dramatic as in the UK. I don't think there is a relation between NZ dialects and class. I think that's probably more represented by the use of slang in NZ.

    I find it a really interesting topic too and love all the different regional phrases and words and learning where they came from.

  13. Thanks, Kerryn. This is fascinating. It's starting to look as if the UK is the only country where accent denotes social class as well as geographical differences.

  14. I've been quite surprised at how well the social class attitudes have survived through the years here in the UK. I didn't expect to notice it at all but it's definitely there.

  15. Update on accents denoting social class:

    From @fleming77 American regional accents also have hidden class signs - educated sound Boston, geeks San Francisco, civil servants Washington. Listen to the accent and you know the man - that's the Sherlock Holmes approach

    and from @PiaCCourtenay I think it happens in other countries too. I can do a 'peasant' dialect in Swedish or talk 'properly' like the king.

    Thanks Twitter mates.

  16. Great post!
    There definitely is a difference in Ireland, as Barbara says. In some parts of Dublin, people do speak with a mid-Atlantic accent, eg. instead of speaking Dart (which refers to the train) it's "Doirt."
    The great thing about Ireland is that there's a completely different accent for 32 counties, which is pretty cool.
    And there is a specific upper-class accent, it's a cross between a British, Irish & American accent. Strange, I know!

  17. Thanks for that information, Olive. The strangest aspect of this is that I wouldn't have picked up on any of what you've told me without a prompt. To my English ear I can hear the difference between a Belfast and a Dublin accent but that's it.

  18. I live in the Cajun region of south Louisiana. Cajun French words are peppered into conversation. Some Cajun French-isms have been carried over into English (Pass a good time, for example). Really interesting!

  19. Sadly I have a Canadian accent. I say 'sadly' because it's usually automatically assumed that I'm an American -- not that it's a bad thing, but I then need to go through the whole 'No, I'm Canadian, that's OK, don't worry' rigamorole!

    I do love the regional accents in England.

  20. I do enjoy regional accents in stories - it gives a definite sense of place without mentioning geography - but it has to be gentle or it makes reading the story too laboured.
    Although I was brought up in the Midlands (Leicester) no one ever guesses where I'm from as my accent appear to be nondescript - I've no idea why.
    Now that I'm the foreigner I'm often bunched up with other foreign accents and assumed, by Israelis, to be American and I have to admit to being guilty of of what Talli mentioned - I too confuse American and Canadian accents.
    When I first became an EFL teacher in Israel, I had to 'learn' the grammar rules, before I could teach them, and suddenly I understood why it always 'grated' when I heard a Mancunian say " I was sat at the table" - there's also a definite smattering of regional grammar as well as accents.

  21. Hi Caroline, thanks for telling me about Cajun French in Louisiana. I'm loving all these comments. Maybe I should consider studying linguistics.

    I'm afraid I too would have heard an American accent in your voice, Talli. Apologies for my ear being so untuned.

    Oh yes, Ann, isn't regional grammar another fascinating area! It certainly causes additional problems for teachers. I think it was a Gujurati child who couldn't understand the use of the verb 'to turn off' when talking about lights. He said that you 'offed the light'... and why not?!