Writing What You Hear – Dialect & Accents

There is a character in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, who is Mexican.  For a minor character, Lucia is one of my favorites.  She’s smart, classy, and in charge of all that goes on around her.  In short, she’s the perfect foil for her boss, the intelligent, elegant divorcée, Prudence Mayfield.

Prudence is nobody’s fool, but Lucia keeps her in check when needed. She pulls no punches with her employer and sometimes their conversation is quite spirited. My initial attempts at writing a Mexican dialect were hilarious and amateur. I needed to find a way to convey Lucia’s nationality without her dialog sounding cheesy or offensive.

Assistance came from a video on Howcast by voice and speech coach Andrea Caban. My mistake was that I never consider the posture of the mouth or the musicality of the dialect when writing for Lucia. The breathy S sound at the end of words, the hard R sound, and the nasally tone were exactly what I wanted for my character. How could I put that on paper without writing ridiculous phonetic spellings that would drive the reader insane?  By describing Lucia’s accent.

Originally, the only phonetic spelling I was going to use was jew for every time she said you.  I have since decided against this so I don’t offend potential readers.  Still, when I read Lucia’s comments out loud, I always do so in her accent. I’m confident the suggestions employed helped me to better express her dialect on the written page.  Please share your experience writing a foreign character’s dialect.

Recommended sites for writing dialect/accents:

How To Do a Mexican Accent

The Dos and Don’ts of Dialect

Andrea Caban – Dialect Coach

6 responses

  1. Well. Im sure its quite a dilemma for a writer to try to convey any accent to his reader without getting it wrong. Id recommend film as a reference. There are many notable roles by Mexican-Americans from the newly arrived to the established resident immigrant. The accent itself reflecting how long a person has been in a country. The ranges from the Mexican Bumble-Bee in the Simpsons to Colombian actress Sophia Vergara.

    As far as your ‘jew’ as a Mexican ‘you’. I see 2 problems. 1) the ‘jew’ sound is more associated with Cubans than with Mexicans. (see Scarface) Mexicans actually have no problem pronouncing the ‘y’ sound. Mexican spanish and Mexican ‘drawl’ is quite similar to Native American english in my opinion. It has the feeling of a person speaking with their teeth clenched, and only moving your lips. (try the exercise speaking like this yourself, it will definetely help you find your characters voice, because theres a feeling associated with the phonetic scale and physicality of it after that its how you spell it) If you notice when you speak in this way the ‘y’ sound is quite easy.

    I could go on for a bit. I hope some of this is of use to you. Im assuming of course that you want as authentic a character as possible, and of course even though it maybe a small part of the novel, the Devil is in the Details! =)


    • I love hearing from you, Lugo. Okay, so what about voice/speech coach Andrea Caban’s Howcast video on how to perform a Mexican accent? What you say contradicts what she says. (Let the debate begin!) Do me a small favor: Watch the video (the first link in my post) when it’s convenient for you and tell me what you think. BTW, what is the second of the two problems you saw with “jew” for “you?”


      • lol, of course! The fact that your using the actual word ‘jew’. In the English language this carries too much of a connotation dont you think? (thanks for reminding me!)
        Im gonna watch the video, im not a linguist mind you, I speak only from my experience and point of view.


  2. Ok. First of all, let me say that the size of this topic depends on how important it is to you as a writer to convey this linguistic ‘authenticity’. Only you know how important or not this ‘voice’ is. Accents of course are and can be generalized quite easily. Think of every horrible Chinese or Italian or Hispanic accent imitation, they’re pretty raw and sometimes vulgar, hardly ever accurate. (Did you read the comments section on the video? People get offended!) As far as Andrea Caban is concerned and from what I can tell from the 3 or so minutes of attention I gave her is that shes Thespian/actress etc, and that shes got quite a ‘buffet’ of accents. Thats really great, who doesn’t like that? I prided myself on my Crocodile Dundee when I was a kid. But as far as the Mexican accent is concerned, the one expressed by Ms. Caban in the video is Chicano/East LA Mexican. If your character is of this profile, well there you go. But, in real life not all Mexicans are from East LA or speak like that. Its a given that accents change from place to place (Boston as opposed to NY, etc) and are different in both men and women. Acting is one thing and writing quite another. Which of the two carries greater responsability on your opinion? I think the writers is a bigger burden. Now how deep you dive in the linguistics of your character is up to you. Like I said earlier, only you know how important or not it is.

    Basically what I think is that conveyance of an accent in writing is best helped as you know, by a description of the accent (how handy is that?!) and only subtly within the written words themselves. ‘jew’ seems to me, more trouble than its worth, and depending on the dialog there are probably better words and contexts in which to inject this Mexican flavor into your character.

    PS I dont think I was that THAT far off as far as the video is concerned! =)


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