Ask Dayton 111 – Accent(uat)ing the Narrative
You’re a writer, and you’re a reader. Recently, I read a piece online (from no one you know, I’m sure), where a character had an accent. The accent was, to my mind, rendered crudely and incorrectly and, frankly, it was kind of insulting (N. B. I have family members by marriage who have this accent. They don’t talk the way this writer wrote).
In Trek, we have all manner of accents and dialects, from the Britishisms of Malcolm Reed and Julian Bashir, to Irish Miles O’Brien, to Trip Tucker‘s Florida Panhandle accent to Pavel Chekov‘s Russian inwentions to Scottish Montgomery Scott. Plus aliens speaking English (excuse me, Federation Standard) might or might not have accents if they are truly attempting to speak it without using a Universal Translator.
So my question is, how do you render accents? Does a Southerner always have dropped G’s? Do Bostonians such as myself always lose their R’s? Does Bashir say ‘blimey’ a lot? Or do you duck and avoid them?
Bonus question: are there any accents you’d like to see (well, hear) in Star Trek that we haven’t heard yet? Do you think Trek will be able to handle Romanians or even the Klingons of Long Island?
I think we may finally have reached “Peak Ask Dayton.”
Yes, we have a decent number of Star Trek characters who insist on talking funny. Or, maybe it’s that they’re the normal ones and everybody else is just boring. Whatever. From Montgomery Scott whining about his “wee bairns” to Chekov spreading the Russian on way too thick as he waxes historical about his country of origin’s contributions to anything and everything, and even to Trip Tucker twanging along as he tells people, “Keep yer sherrrt on, Lewwwwwtenant,” Trek’s definitely got its share of colorful accents and dialects. That’s all fine and dandy for the screen, but so far as writing goes? Yikes.
Of course, since you posed the question to me about my writing, I have to assume that you haven’t read anything I’ve written, or else you’d already have the answer to your query. So, while I work at coming to terms with this obvious snubbing of my alleged contributions to the published word, let’s ponder this.
There was a time when rendering accents and dialects in prose was “the thing” to do. It was a way to give different characters their own identity, but it’s a practice that nowadays has largely fallen favor. You might see it every so often, but it’s by no means “the norm,” and you’re likely to get back notes from your editor “politely” asking you to knock off that shit.
I mean, you’d think it sounds good in theory and maybe even fun, right? Maybe, but on the other hand it’s just as likely to be a distraction to the reader, and can be a definite mood killer depending on the scene. I mean, just imagine one of those steamy sequences from Fifty Shades of Grey, but the whole thing was written from the perspective of a redneck. What? You can’t quite picture that? Well, here: Let me help. I’m including an excerpt from Chapter 8, aka “The first time Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele get it on.” Why? Pretty much just so I can hear Nick read really shitty erotica while trying to emulate Larry the Cable Guy:
“Do yo’ haf enny idea how much ah’s hankerin’ yo’, Ana Steele?” he whispers. Mah breath hitches. ah cannot take mah eyes off his. He retches up an’ juntly runs his fingers down mah cheek t’mah chin, as enny fool kin plainly see.
“Do yo’ haf enny idea whut I’m a-gonna does to yo’?” he adds, caressin’ mah chin, as enny fool kin plainly see.
Th’ mooscles inside th’ deepest, darkess part of me clench in the dawgoned-est delicious fashion, as enny fool kin plainly see. Th’ pain is so sweet an’ sharp ah’s hankerin’ t’close mah eyes, but I’m hypnotized by his gray eyes starin’ fervently into mine. Leanin’ down, he kisses me. His lips is deman’in’, firm an’ slow, moldin’ mine. He starts unbuttonin’ mah shirt while he places feather-like kisses acrost mah jaw, mah chin, an’ th’ co’ners of mah mouth. Slowly he peels it off me an’ lets it fall t’th’ flore. He stan’s back an’ gazes at me. I’m in th’ pale blue lacy puffick-fit bra. Thank hevvins.
“Oh, Ana,” he breathes. “Yo’ haf the dawgoned-est right purdy hide, pale an’ flawless. ah’s hankerin’ t’kiss ev’ry sin’le inch of it.”
ah flush. Oh mah… Whuffo’ did he say he c’dn’t make love? ah will does ennythin’ he be hankerin’. He grasps mah hair tie, pulls it free, an’ gasps as mah hair cascades down aroun’ mah sh’ders.
Yeah. That leaves a pretty bitter aftertaste, right?
So, to avoid problems like this, and instead of writing dialogue in a way that overtly or directly evokes an accent, I tend to include references to the way a character talks. For example, Spock’s dialogue is always very formal, with few if any contractions. If there’s a word with two syllables and it has a synonym with four or more syllables, I’m almost always going for the bigger stick. And don’t forget that he tends to drag out explanations to even the simplest questions before somebody like McCoy tells him to get on with it.
If a character has an acknowledged accent or speaks with a distinctive dialect, I’ll refer to that in description rather than dialogue; something like, “Kirk listened over the open channel as Scott muttered to himself, his thick brogue becoming all but indecipherable as he grew more frustrated.” I also try to focus more on speech patterns or phrases, idioms, and/or slang they might employ. So, that means Scotty gets a lot “Aye” and “lad” and “lassie” peppered into his dialogue, and if I were to have Doctor Phlox ask Trip Tucker how he’s feeling, I might have the engineer reply, “I’m feeling as fine as frog’s hair split three ways, Doc.”
As far as accents I’d like to see (or is that “hear?”) in Star Trek, we’re sadly overdue for somebody from Boston’s south side, or maybe Jersey. Why? Because maybe then they can get Mike Sorrentino (aka “The Situation”) in a movie or TV episode as a redshirt.
What? You asked.
But, wait. There’s more.
He is the co-owner of Busy Little Beaver Productions and is the producer and co-host for G & T Show and Gates of Sto’vo’kor. He’s directed voice actors, and produced and edited audio podcasts and dramas because he doesn’t have the face for video. He plays well with others and is always on the look out for the next project, the next thing, the next next. If he wasn’t working on something with a half dozen other projects waiting in the wings, somebody please check to make sure he’s still breathing.
During the day, he’s a mild-mannered computer repair man who dabbles in web design in his small, rural, Central California community. He lives with his lovingly dysfunctional family and loyal canine companion and spends most of his time in the closet concocting some hair-brained scheme or another. He’s got an unhealthy obsession with Lego video games, Klingons, and Star Trek Online that borders on the neurotic.
Despite all this, he still finds the time to write the words. Find out what he's doing here.