Tuesday, June 4, 2013

To Read or Not To Read With an Accent

Do you read with accents?

A friend of mine woke me up this morning (why do you text me at nine in the morning on my day off?) with this question. She wanted to know if when reading a book where the character obviously has an accent, do I read the character with said accent. It caught me off guard. I read a lot of British literature, I just finished a book about two women living in the Caribbean, and I've made my way through stories like Huckleberry Finn where the dialogue is broken and should have a Southern drawl to it. Yet, I'm pretty sure that when I'm reading them, they all are American. It's the default setting to my brain. I read and unless a word or a phrase comes up that the author has intentionally used in order to denote ethnicity or culture, I don't even second guess it. Which, I kind of find horrible since this is not what the author intended. It reminds me too much of that idea of unless an author denotes skin color in a book, we tend to think of the character as white. Granted, accents aren't as harmful as the default setting of race but it is still interesting to take note of.

To prove my point to myself, I went and opened one of my Harry Potter books. We know these kids are British. We never thought otherwise. But, when reading the book itself, I had to concentrate to hear the accent. Is this just me? Do other people have this problem as well?

Now, this question was asked of me early this morning (early by my standards) and I've been thinking about it all day. I started to examine my own book and my own characters to see if they had different voices. It comes down to this.

Yes, they have a different voice when I think about it but it is not one that is discernible by accent. Their words have a different cadence to them. One of the boys speaks in short clipped tones while the other one tends to go into longer explanations. One of the girls has a tendency to rush her words while the other thinks about what she wants to say. One character has a teasing quality to her words while the other is taken seriously. So yes, while I can differentiate between their voices, it comes down to the fact that word choice and subtext is what defines them. Accent does not play into this. I live in Oregon. We have a Pacific Northwest voice. When I was in Europe, an Australian girl was able to pinpoint exactly where I lived by my accent. When I read, I'm sure all the characters I am enjoying have the same accent as I do and I just differentiate them through the tone of their words or by the authors indication of what they are feeling when they speak. But, now that I think about it, I have books that have been translated from a different language. Most of my literature is about people living in London, Chicago, New York, Italy... I highly doubt any of them have Pacific Northwest accents.

So, is this a good thing? Bad thing? Does it matter? Are we missing a point that the author is trying to make? We write in order to enhance and share cultures. Are we ignoring a vital part of this enhancement by not hearing these accents? Furthermore, is it right, like in cases such as Harry Potter, for two different versions to be released; one with British slang and nuances, and one without? Would this beloved tale really not have done as well with a British tongue that is not widely known in the States?

It's something to think about and I would love to hear opinions on the matter.


  1. I don't know...I think sometimes it is in putting our own spin and experience on what we read that enriches it for us. Of course sometimes it just makes us feel like dorks. For instance....my mother's name is Ione, pronounced "I own". So until the movie came out...how was I to know that "Her my own" was not nearly as dorky a name as I thought!

    1. Thinking you're a dork is one of the joys of reading!