Accents and Dialects in Dialogue

Karin Cather - Editorial Services

By Karin Cather

Editor & Ghostwriter

Category: Writing

Published September 19, 2023

While creating interesting, captivating, memorable characters, It’s really tempting to give them accents or dialects. However, when this is good, it is really, really good, and when it is bad, it is horrid.

Here are some considerations and tips for how to create a character with an accent and why you might not want to do that in the first place.

What’s the Difference Between an Accent and a Dialect?

If I try to articulate the difference, I’ll probably get it wrong with bigger words. There are accents and dialects, and a language might also have mutually unintelligible dialects. How linguists decide when two mutually unintelligible dialects are actually two different languages is also outside my areas of expertise. I’m not a linguist, nor do I want to hazard any guesses on my blog. But for the purposes of this blog post, it doesn’t matter.

For brevity, I’m going to call them accents. Linguists: please don’t yell. When you read this post, you’ll be happy.

Preliminarily, because I only speak American English, I’m going to be discussing things in light of the English language, but people can speak, for example, German with a Turkish accent or Japanese with a French accent. Don’t get me started on German dialects, because I’ll only look stupid.

What’s Wrong With Accents?

They contain many fertile opportunities for disaster.

For starters, ask yourself if the purpose of the accent/dialect is to make your character sound ignorant, stupid, or in some other way inferior or if it is to make them sound evil, canny, quaint, or super-smart. If the answer is yes—don’t. When you use accents in this way, you’re not just stereotyping and objectifying that character, which would be bad enough, you’re also stereotyping and objectifying everyone with that accent. In other words, unintentionally or not, using dialect to show a character attribute is likely racist, antisemitic, classist, xenophobic—do I need to go on?

This caveat applies to speech or language difficulties too. If you write these accurately, you may be going for diversity. On the other hand, don’t use a character with a disability as a prop to display the virtue of another character, because it’s reprehensible. Don’t objectify people with disabilities. You want to show that your character is compassionate? Give that virtuous character an orphaned kitten to save instead.

Bottom line, using accent/dialect as a blunt instrument against a character is a terrible thing to do, even if you think it makes your character look good or—God help us all—authentic. Not only that, but readers will savage you in reviews.

But, okay, let’s assume you want the character to have an accent for all the right reasons.

Are You Choosing the Right Accent?

Where does your character come from? Forget giving them a “British accent” or a “US Southern accent.” It’s not good enough to pick a country or state. In fact, sometimes accents differ within the same city. Do you, for example, want the character to have a “Virginia accent”? There’s no such thing! Charlottesville, Reston, Portsmouth, Bristol, and Westmoreland County, for example, all have different accents, and you’ll find other different accents everywhere in the state. Where in Scotland does this character come from? Is the Israeli character Mizrahi, Ashkenazic, or Sephardic? Is the Arabic-speaking character from Egypt, Morocco, or the Levant?

And once you get the geography right, get the year right. Because accents change over time.

Do You Know the Accent Well Enough?

Don’t fake it. You won’t get away with it, and you’ll make your readers livid.

No, dropping the g in every word won’t give your character a credible “Southern accent.”

Similarly, if you try to give someone a “Jewish accent,” please research the concept of Ashkenormativity and understand that a bunch of oy veys won’t work. As proof, understand that Leonard Nimoy spoke fluent Yiddish and grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in a tenement in Boston—speaking of people in the same city’s not having the same accent.

Similarly, try not to use Dick Van Dyke as a model for a British accent. Dick’s British accent is to real British accents as imaginary flying umbrellas are to public transportation. (Put that in the SATs.) In related, I wish I hadn’t ever seen Mary Poppins, and I want those hours of my life back.

If you don’t have the accent you’re writing or have never heard it before, there are many good YouTube videos created by people with the accent you’re going for about that accent. There are also blog posts and articles. Do your research, and maybe even consider an authenticity/sensitivity reader.

In fact, if American English was your first language(s), I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

The Myth of Standard English

We all have accents.

For instance, do you know someone who says “Real-uh-tor,” “jewel-ery,” “ath-a-lete,” or “hampster”? They’re not being ignorant, it’s just that their accent is characterized by something called epenthesis. This means that people with that kind of accent add sounds to words in predictable ways having to do with how, physically, a word is pronounced.

What predictable ways? Well, that would involve the English International Phonetic Alphabet, and there’s the whole thing about my not being a linguist, so that’s a whole nother blog post by someone actually qualified to talk about it. And yeah, I’m using Wikipedia, because it’s a place to start, not because it’s the ultimate authority. All you have to know is that saying “Real-uh-tor” doesn’t make a person ignorant.

Moving along. There’s “caught” to rhyme with “cot,” which exists in some regions of the United States and not others. If you browse the internet, you can find more of these differences.

You’re going to be looking at pronunciation, vocabulary, and maybe grammar, but if you think that yours are “standard,” you’re wrong.

Do You Have an Example?

Sure. To understand how writing out accents verbatim can ruin an otherwise good book and to understand that “standard English” is an imaginary concept, I’m gonna share my accent. Why? Because, as a highly educated woman who grew up in the DC Metro area and was raised by highly educated parents, I should have what is considered a standard American English accent.

But, again, there is no such thing.

First, pill bug, water fountain, shopping cart, dinner (not supper), workout shoes, soda (not pop or coke), traffic circle, and KAR-m’l and not care-A-MEL for caramel. I don’t pronounce caught and cot the same.

If you think your flavor of English is totally unaccented “standard” English, take a step back, because no it isn’t—and that’s before we get to whether you say in line or on line; firefly or lightning bug; pop, soda, or coke; dinner or supper; or you all, y’all, youse, or yinz.

Also, I say, “Let me go with” and not “Let me go with you.” I make dinner, I don’t fix dinner. I do my hair, I don’t fix my hair. I go to the grocery store and not the supermarket. If you think I’m saying that my phrasings are right and the alternatives are wrong, you’re missing the point.

But what about actual pronunciation and not word choice?


“I’munna go ta TJ’s’n get s’m wine, b’cuz’ the selection’s great ’n the staff’z helpful, ‘nd also, the fruit there’s better.”

“I’m’n edidor.”

Well, that’s informal speech. How did I sound in open court and on the record?

“Yeronner, please mark thisis Commonwealth’szexibbit number four?”

“Yeronner, thisiz not being offer’d for the truth’vthematter asserted; it’s being offered t’show why th’witness did whud ’e did next.”

“That wuz twonny yearzago.”

On the other hand, if I’m being forceful, it’s

“Back off. Yore in my personal space.”

“He’s not going to ruhcover from this.”

“Give him some wadder now.”

No, I don’t come across as ignorant or folksy. In fact, a lot of that is that I speak fairly rapidly, which—in Arizona—causes people to ask me if I’m from the East Coast, which I am. Some people think I’m from New York even though I grew up in the DC Metro area, but there you are. Whatever, if you get a Northern Virginian, educated, Gen X character and you put all those apostrophes and elisions in there, the reader’s going to spend too much time trying to decipher in writing what is perfectly understandable in speech. The reader is, in fact, going to ask if you’ve taken leave of your senses.

As proof, write out your own accent/dialect verbatim, and see what happens.

So How do You Proceed?

Sparingly, and maybe even only in cadence and the occasional quirk. For example, you might line up some region-specific vocabulary choices, maybe throw in a couple of words, and call it good.

In fact, this might be the one time where telling beats showing by a parsec. You can tell the reader where the character is from. You can even have another character say something about another character’s accent/dialect—but carefully. Sensitivity and lack of bias are both imperative.

Or you can tread lightly:

High schooler: Hey, Mom, do you have a pen?

Mom: Here one is!

Or “I might could go to the store tomorrow,” “The campus is two mile that way,” “You think maybe I’m a cash register?” or “You should live so long.”

Bottom Line:

  • Avoid parody.
  • Avoid being offensive.
  • Avoid using accents/dialect as a blunt instrument against your character.
  • Don’t be racist, antisemitic, misogynistic, Islamophobic, etc.
  • Be accurate.
  • Depict it sparingly.
  • Ask yourself why the character needs to speak with an accent/in a dialect at all.

Further Reading, “Do You Speak American?” Major Regional Dialects. Accessed September 5, 2023.

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