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  • Writer's pictureNicole Arch

The 3 Dangers of Phonetic Dialogue You Need to Consider

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

You may have deeply pondered your character's voice and accent... but have you stopped to think about how their dialogue actually comes off to the reader? Many authors who attempt phonetic dialogue, or spelling out the sounds in speech to reflect pronunciation and dialect, intend to immerse the audience in the sound and voice of the character. However, these "eye accents" can actually have the opposite effect, breaking the reader's immersion and posing serious risk to your manuscript for three crucial reasons.


One girl saying "Howdya laik dem apples?" while another girl, looking confused, asks "Say WHAT?" Above them is written "The Dangers of "fuh-ne-tik" (Phonetic) Dialogue"

Why is Phonetic Dialogue So Dangerous?

Using phonetic dialogue poses serious risks to your manuscript, including…


1. Hurting Your Readability

I will never forget reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in highschool. It’s a staple of American literature; as Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Yet many of my classmates absolutely loathed reading that novel, primarily because they struggled to decipher what was being said. Consider this passage, in which Jim tells Huck about finding their missing raft:

“She was tore up a good deal–one en’ of her was; but dey warn’t no great harm done, on’y our traps was mos’ all los’. Ef we hadn’ dive’ so deep en swum so fur under water, en de night hadn’ ben so dark, en we warn’t so sk’yerd, en ben sich punkin-heads, as de sayin’ is, we’d a seed de raf’. But it’s jis’ as well we didn’t, ‘kase now she’s all fixed up agin mos’ as good as new, en we’s got a new lot o’ stuff, in de place o’ what ‘uz los’.”

Such phonetic dialogue is hard to process, and, even if you can piece it together at all, it slows the reader's pace much more than standardized spelling.

Readers come to books to lose themselves in the author’s world and story. Ideally, they become so immersed that they forget they’re reading at all! But if your audience can’t decipher what your characters are saying due to phonetic accents, then they won’t feel immersed. They’ll feel like they’re working. And if many readers will put down literary classics due to difficult-to-read phonetic dialogue and prominent accents, then it’s worth considering the risk phonetic dialogue poses to your own manuscript’s readability.


2. Othering the Speaker

When an author uses phonetic dialogue only for a specific subset of characters, rather than for every single one, it can “other” the speaker. Merriam Webster defines the verb of othering as treating a certain culture or individual like they are “fundamentally different from another class of individuals.” If you only have characters of one racial group, class, culture, or national origin use phonetic dialogue, while the characters outside that group use standardized spelling in their speech, then you’re marking those characters and their cultural group as fundamentally different. For example, consider this scene from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, in which Peter, an elderly black man and slave, shares his troubles with Scarlett.

“Dey talked in front of me lak Ah wuz a mule an’ couldn’ unnerstan’ dem—lak Ah wuz a Affikun an’ din’ know whut dey wuz talkin’ ’bout,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “An’ dey call me a nigger an’ Ah ain’ never been call a nigger by no w’ite folks, an’ dey call me a ole pet an’ say dat niggers ain’ ter be trus’ed! Me not ter be trus’ed! Why, w’en de ole Cunnel wuz dyin he say ter me, ‘You, Peter! You look affer mah chillun. Te’k keer of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ‘ cause she ain’ got no mo’ sense dan a hoppergrass.’ An’ Ah done tek keer of her good all dese yars.” “Nobody but the Angel Gabriel could have done better,” said Scarlett soothingly. “We just couldn’t have lived without you.”

Notice how Scarlett has Southern dialect but not phonetic dialogue, while Peter has almost nothing but phonetic spellings. This contrast serves to other Peter, implying a fundamental difference between his speech and the way these words are spelled—what Mitchell must consider the “proper” pronunciation. But that leaves the reader to wonder why this distinction is being made in the first place. Scarlett clearly has a Southern accent too… so the reader can only assume that Mitchell is othering Peter due to his race, education, social status, and/or economic background.

Tenured professor Rosina Lippi, pen name Sara Donati, illustrates the problematic nature of this passage by rewriting it as follows:

“They talked in front of me like I was a mule and couldn’t understand them — like I was an African and didn’t know what they was talking about,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “And they call me a nigger and I ain’t never been call a nigger by no white folks, and they call me a old pet and say that niggers ain’t to be trusted! Me not to be trusted! Why, when the old Colonel was dying he say to me, ‘You Peter! You look after my children. Take care of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ’cause she ain’t got no more sense than a hoppergrass.’ And I done take care of her good all these years.” “Nobody but the Angel Gabriel cudda done bettah” said Scarlett soothingly. “We jus’ couldn’t have lived without you.”

Note that the content of their conversation hasn’t changed at all--just the spellings! Lippi removes the phonetic dialogue from Peter's statement, saying that “If it’s important to portray his speech, then this passage does it by means of lexical, grammatical, and syntactic variations without resorting to spelling. Uncle Peter’s eloquence is still there.” In contrast, Lippi adds phonetic dialogue to Scarlett’s speech to approximate her pronunciation, noting how the result is "amusing and condescending—the misspellings seem to indicate something about her intelligence, or her illiteracy."

Clearly, phonetic dialogue can reveal author prejudice about cultural groups, othering any characters that fall into them. Whether this othering is intentional or not, as an author, it’s your responsibility to confront your bias when writing in dialects outside your own.


3. Putting character and story second

Your story should be about your characters--namely, what’s important to them. You don’t describe every detail of their morning routine every time they wake up, or wax poetic about every small nook and cranny of their apartment. You don’t focus on the thousands of little things that your protagonist has no reason to think about. Instead, you get in their mindset and hone in on the highlights, keeping their thought process centered around what’s relevant and natural in the present moment scene. Accents should be the same.

Think about it this way. When you first meet someone with a heavy accent, especially one that you’re not familiar with, you might need to focus on deciphering what’s being said. But the longer you know someone, the more you grow accustomed to the way they speak. You don’t think as much about how they’re talking so much as what they’re saying.

The same is true for characters. Sure, if your protagonist is meeting someone with an unfamiliar accent for the first time, she might focus almost exclusively on deciphering their pronunciation. If that’s the case, emphasizing the dialect through a bit of phonetic dialogue might make sense! But if your protagonist is speaking to her best friend, and he just happens to have a different accent or dialect from her own, then your character is likely more than accustomed to his manner of speech. When he speaks, she wouldn’t be focused on his pronunciation, but on the content of his words—whether that’s the latest school gossip or bad news about the war. Yet, if you use phonetic dialogue for the friend’s speech, you draw attention away from what he’s saying in favor of how he’s saying it, focusing on his dialect in a way that feels unnecessary and even unrealistic for your protagonist’s perspective. That’s not even considering whether your protagonist grew up in a busy port city, or say, the modern world (where people are very used to different accents thanks to the variety of audio media available)! If your character is accustomed to a wide variety of accents and encounters someone with a new dialect, she’s much more likely to just note the pronunciation briefly and then move on to more important matters.


Portraying Accents WITHOUT Phonetic Dialogue

Says Fiction Editor Beth Hill in “The Magic of Fiction”:

"All English speakers would spell the words in the sentence you’re reading the same way; they just might pronounce them differently. [...] Dialogue is a report of the words that are spoken, not a visual of how they’re spoken. Show the how through means other than odd or phonetic spellings."

So how do you show this “how,” apart from using phonetic dialogue?


Descriptions out of Dialogue

Instead of including phonetic dialogue to tell the reader what a character sounds like, try using dialogue tags, action beats, or internal monologue to describe what someone sounds like. For example, your protagonist might note his friend’s Southern lilt, the way he adds an “l” in “both,” or how he develops a bit of an accent when he speaks quickly. Just let your protagonist note this, and then move on. You can drop a reminder here or there to the reader, if the accent is heavy or somehow plot relevant, but remember to keep your focus on what feels organic and relevant in the moment!


Foreign Language

If you’re using phonetic dialogue for a nonnative speaker, another alternative is to instead include bits of their native language, providing your reader with context clues so that they can “hear” the accent without you needing to spell it out or describe it to them. For example, you can have this character slip a few foreign phrases into her dialogue, like terms of endearment or curses. You could even show her having a whole conversation in her native language! Just write the dialogue in English and use a tag to let the reader know what language she’s actually speaking in—and make sure it’s a language your point of view character understands too.

However, don’t assume that because you’re avoiding phonetic accents, your dialogue is in the clear. Beth Hill points out that “a woman just moving to a foreign country may speak the language of that country with difficulty. But a woman who’s lived there for twenty years will likely have learned the language, especially if she’s worked with the public or almost anywhere outside the home.” Hill also advises writers to “consider how a character learned the language he is speaking. Some characters may learn through textbooks, but many likely learned a second or third language… through hearing it spoken… The character would memorize [everyday] phrases, and they’d be spoken the way a native speaker would say them. The character wouldn’t have to think about grammar. She wouldn’t skip words.” In short, don’t forget to consider your character’s background, especially if you don’t come from the same one. You don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes or portray your character inauthentically!


Grammar, Syntax, and Lexicon in Dialogue

If reflecting a character’s accent in dialogue is important to you, consider how you might instead illustrate it through the content of the dialogue itself. For example, let’s try rewriting the previously mentioned passage from Huckleberry Finn without Jim’s phonetics:

“The raft was torn up a good deal–one end of her was; but there weren’t no great harm done, only our traps was most all lost. If we hadn’t dived so deep and swam so far under water, and the night hadn’t been so dark, and we weren’t so skyward, and been such pumpkin-heads, as the saying is, we’d have seen the raft. But it’s just as well we didn’t, ‘cause now she’s all fixed up again most as good as new, and we got a new lot of stuff, in the place of what was lost.”

As a reader, you can still hear the same accent from Jim’s original dialogue—even without the phonetics—because the original author chose the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary with a particular dialect in mind. However, while rewriting Gone with the Wind or Huckleberry Finn without phonetic dialogue would help improve readability, it wouldn’t eliminate the racist and stereotypical depictions of what Mark Twain dubbed “Missouri negro dialect.” So especially if you don’t come from the same background as your character, make sure you do your research in order to avoid stereotypes and portray dialects with authenticity.


Cultural Touchstones

Lastly, consider whether your character’s accent might instead be portrayed through a cultural touchstone. For example, whether a character orders a side of “chips” or “french fries” can tell you a lot about their background and accent! And don’t neglect the power of a local saying, idiom, or story. Fiction editor Louise Hornby gives the following example: “Some years ago I was in Oslo in winter. I was cold and commented on the woeful weather to my friend. He replied: ‘Here in Norway, we say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing’... For the novelist, those kinds of small details might be a more enriching way of conveying a person’s heritage than butchering the spelling of their dialogue.”


Final Thoughts

Yes, some authors successfully pull off phonetic dialogue… but many fail to do so, especially when they themselves don’t use the dialect they are phonetically depicting. So why risk hurting your manuscript’s readability, othering your speaker, and putting character second by spelling out accents? Instead, try showing your character’s dialect through description, foreign language, grammar, or cultural touchpoints. You may be surprised by how much voice you can show, and without ever resorting to the hassle of “fuh·ne·tiks.”


Still have questions?

Let me know! I'm always happy to answer comments, or you can reach out to me at my contact page.


Resources

Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell.

Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain.

The Magic of Fiction, 2nd edition. Beth Hill.

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