Tuesday, 7 February 2017

On accents and stereotypes - Dawn Finch

This is going to be a difficult post because I want to be very careful that I do not express too much of my own personal opinion. I am writing this because I want to ask the opinion of the hive mind about the use of accents in children’s fiction.

As you can imagine, I read a lot of books for children and young people. A lot! Sometimes I am reading for pleasure, sometimes I am reading for another purpose such as a focus group or for a themed or targeted book project. In the last two months I have been reading (and re-reading) books for specific purposes, and I have particularly been looking at cultural appropriation, diversity and inclusion. I have a neat little pile of books that I think do it very well (and that list will be out in due course), and I also have a little pile of books that I feel do not, and another of books that make me frown.

It's the frown pile that I’d like to discuss today. On my frown pile are a number of books that feature characters from all around the world (which is a good thing) but my concerns and my frowns stem from how they speak.

I’ll give you some examples from one I have just finished reading. I won’t name the book, but this book has characters from all over the world, and they speak like this…

Character from France
“I am going to go to zee boat, is good no?”

Character from Germany…
“Ja, you is goot and dat is vy vee are friends with nosink to vorry about.”

Character from Italy…
“Is-a going to be a good-a day-a for us all-a, si?”

Character from Russia…
“Niet niet, now sleep, tomorrow mek many question.”

Okay, you get the idea. The phonetic-type words used in my examples have been taken directly from the text, but I have jiggled the sentences so that they can’t be googled.

It is worth mentioning that none of the characters that have English as a first language manifest any kind of regional accents. These all speak in RP, even though they are all American. In fact, some of the characters are from areas of America with very pronounced regional accents, but these are not written out in the same phonetic style. (There is one noticeable exception where heavily disguised characters seem to speak like Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars. I do not want to make any conclusions based on this as the characters remain physically disguised throughout.)

I don’t want to make sweeping statements, but in my experience this seems to occur more frequently in books written and published in America. If you are an American writer, do your editors feel that this is fitting in your books? I wonder if this is naivety on the part of the writer and/or editor, or simply a desire to demonstrate European accents?

What do you think? Does this make you uncomfortable? Which accents do you feel can be written phonetically, and which can’t? How do you feel about your accent being portrayed? Is this just clumsy stereotypical portrayal, and is it damaging?

Over to you!

Footnote – Katherine Langrish wrote a brilliant piece a while back about successfully using regional accents. I won’t repeat her wise advice on this blog, but please do read it. I refer to it often in my own work. You can find Katherine's article here

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer, librarian, and children's reading professional.


Janet Foxley said...

It's really trying to read and I would never write it. Imagine keeping it up for a whole book! Similarly,I hate hearing exageratedly foreign voice overs on TV programmes. I would write in normal spelling with maybe the odd familiar foreign word here and there and/or the occasional mention that they spoke with a slight/heavy/attractive acent.

Anne Cassidy said...

I don't think accents should be written phonetically. Just the odd hint of accent can be included to indicate something about the character (the odd double negative). JK Rowling does phonetic working class accents in her adult book (Casual Vacancy) but not for any other characters and this grates with me. I remember Steve Bell cartoons of the queen saying HICE for house and realised that we could all be represented in this way and what a difficult book that would be to read!

Emma Barnes said...

I'm writing (fiction) about a real-life character who clearly did (from letters, diaries and many third person accounts) speak english in a very idiosyncratic way, and with a very strong Russian accent. It's a dilemma. I don't want to lose her distinctive way of speaking - which apparently many people found extremely charming, if sometimes irritating. But put too much of it in, and she starts coming across as a comedy character - or rather, I feel even though the speech is probably fairly true to life, readers will feel I have simply invented an OTT comedy character. There's a balance to be found somewhere, but I don't want to lose her distinctive speech patterns either.

I wonder if some of the sensitivity about this is because so often dialects/accents are used as a way of mocking and putting down certain characters? It's not that depicting their accent is wrong in itself, but that so often an obvious accent is attached to a character who isn't very bright - and often not very bright and foreign/working-class? Perhaps this is why American readers are happier to accept accents - because they don't have the class connotations? (And maybe because it doesn't make them wince as they remember the not-very-bright French "mamzelles" in Enid Blyton.)

There are books that use accents brilliantly and which don't patronise their characters - e.g. e.g. the Barrytown trilogy or Trainspotting -so I don't see why children's books can't do the same. If you leave accents/local speech patterns out, then the result is going to be a blandness, and if you are writing something really rooted in a particular region, not very authentic. So, overall, I guess I'm going against the trend here and I'll say you can and should use accents...if you can do it well!