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Accents, dialects, and different languages in comics

HippieVan at 12:00AM, Jan. 15, 2016

Accents, patterns of speech and the like can be a useful tool in introducing characters. In a film or tv show, a character's accent can immediately reveal the character's nationality or social background. And of course, we've all been conditioned by Hollywood movies to identify the bad guy by his sinister, vaguely Eastern European accent.

I've always been annoyed by books that attempt to replicate this effect by spelling things as if a character has an accent. (Zese crêpes, zey make me ‘appy!) It can be effective as well as humourous for short bits of dialogue, but when used repeatedly often seems to interrupt the flow of the text, forcing the reader to “sound out” the words in their head to determine their meaning, rather than sight reading as they normally would. Books have an easy shortcut, however, which is simply to introduce a character with a line like “so-and-so spoke with a heavy French accent,” afterwards proceeding to write the dialogue normally.

Comics are a bit stuck in this regard - it’s awkward to add in narration explaining that a character has an accent, so it generally has to be written into their speech. Most comics simply avoid the issue altogether, instead relying mostly on appearance to reveal character's identities. The comic I'm working on right now takes place on very diverse planet where numerous species of aliens live, so accents would be useful to me. But because written accents are such a pet peeve of mine, I've decided to distinguish between species mostly by skin colour and other physical features.

On the other hand, different languages are not too difficult to convey in comics. I often see artists who place non-English speech in brackets , or add an asterisk and translate it below like in a movie when it happens only rarely. Asterix uses different fonts (see above) which I really like, but which probably wouldn't be suitable for a more serious comic.

Have you ever needed to convey a different accent in your comic? Any tricks? And am I alone in hating written-out accents?

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PaulEberhardt at 4:39AM, Jan. 17, 2016

@Yan: Just what I said, and it is hilarious. In the English version they have them speak in some flowery mock-Victorian/Edwardian(?) way of talking. I say, old chap, you'll have a whale of a time reading it in said tongue. ;)

Yan Gevuld at 12:22AM, Jan. 17, 2016

Goscinny (the writer of Asterix) who is French even uses the English sentence built up when he lets Brits speak in the story "Asterix in Britain". It is hilarious in any other language (French, Dutch, ...) as the script is translated to these languages. I don't know how they translated this genius to the English version.

Z74 at 8:33PM, Jan. 16, 2016

I know how you feel, I have characters who are Russian,Australian,american,etc. and I am hesitant to write the dialogue for them as I do not want to offend anyone . So far I have used a few key words to elude to their nationalities like having the Scottish character use the word lass and the Australian use mate .

bravo1102 at 3:35PM, Jan. 16, 2016

It is really easy to exaggerate a dialect and ruin the dialogue. For me it's mostly grammar and a few obvious differenceso in pronunciation. Less can be more. Not everyone liked the dialect in Lil Abner and Snuffy Smith. It was really written to read aloud at the breakfast table.

bravo1102 at 3:30PM, Jan. 16, 2016

Sheepshead lookit all dem woids wood ya. Some can doos it gud n'sum o'Yas cain't. Unless you gots da eair don' doos it. If'n ya do, den have at it. But really all dem woids an not sayin' nuttin. Ya jus gots ta have an eore for it.

strixvanallen at 7:19AM, Jan. 16, 2016

I put the accent on the narrative by having others noting on it. Vlad, one of my main characters, had a thick Romanian accent when he arrived in England, but I didn't know how to write it phonetically (I'm not a native English speaker), so I made another character laugh at him because he "talked funny". Sometimes, I put a liiiitle phonetical indicative, so people can mentally add the rest, like I did with the German characters (some z's instead of th's did wonders xD), or my Dutch ones (F's instead of V's and T's instead of ending D's). British English and American English can be implied by using "typically" British and "typically" American words when needed. I've also seen people change the background of the speech bubble, like this:

PaulEberhardt at 4:34AM, Jan. 16, 2016

However, you can use that to effect too. I remember having done a Manga parody in Engrish years ago, where I tried to use this to effect; I wrote the dialogue in German, using unusual words where I could and then ran it through Google translate several times via Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Turkic and whatnot, and finally Japanese and from there finally to English. Interestingly the English turned out to be less incomprehensible than I expected and not all that funny, so I scrapped the whole thing, did some linguistic research and made up the Engrish dialogue the old-fashioned way. Still, it was worth a try.

PaulEberhardt at 4:33AM, Jan. 16, 2016

I'll second KAM on that you need a very proficient writer to pull off writing in an accent. One prime example is by the way the original version of Asterix in Britain, in which Goscinny French with English word order and grammar writes and directly the idioms translates. I try just now the effect to demonstrate by that I the same do with English words and German grammar, but actually show I only, that Goscinny that convincingly do could and I not. {\sillyaccent} I've always thought it an ingenious trick, but today, as some things seem to have changed a bit since the 1960s, it has the disadvantage that it may easily just look like some dork used Google translate and didn't check up on the outcome.

HippieVan at 8:13PM, Jan. 15, 2016

@Ironscarf: I'm not sure that I had placed that character's accent as Jamaican before you said so...but it's been a little bit since I last checked it (I'm a binge-reader) so I can't remember now. I do 'hear' it now. That's a tough accent to get across in writing, though. I think a lot of it is based on cadence rather than pronunciation. On the plus side, I don't find his speech at all irritating or flow-interrupting.

HippieVan at 8:08PM, Jan. 15, 2016

@PaulEberhartd: I love your images-in-speech-bubbles. They are absolutely endearing.

HippieVan at 8:06PM, Jan. 15, 2016

@Kam: A really interesting take on narration! I fear I may be one of those "idiots," haha. I think the overabundance of text-heavy webcomics has permanently turned me off of narration in comics. But I do know what you're talking about with older comics. I would love to see an example of a comic using an author's note to indicate an accent, though! I don't actually think I've seen it done so I'm skeptical that it could be done effectively.

HippieVan at 8:02PM, Jan. 15, 2016

@Amelius: I actually do kind of enjoy written-out mobster accents...I think maybe that one has been used often enough that it doesn't really interrupt the flow of reading the way other accents do. It definitely adds a humourous effect, though!

KAM at 4:31PM, Jan. 15, 2016

Different fonts is a nice visual way to indicate that someone sounds different so is perfect for comics which are a visual/written form of storytelling.

KAM at 4:29PM, Jan. 15, 2016

As for writing in dialect you really, really, really have to be good at it to pull it off and few writers are that good. It's one thing to have the occasional word written that way to hint at an accent, but unless not understanding what the character is saying is a part of the story full-on dialect should be avoided.

PaulEberhardt at 4:27PM, Jan. 15, 2016

I sometimes solve the problem by trying to draw the general drift of what certain characters say into their speech bubble (with me it's usually the only time I use speech bubbles at all but never mind). It adds to the fun and spares everyone concerned from loads and loads of boring stereotypical dialogue. Did that more often on my old pages but that doesn't mean I've given up on it. I can well imagine sprinkling a foreigner's speech bubble with typical items. It'll work only in specific situations, though: when it's basically clear what they're probably saying and when you want to stress that they're behaving in an especially stereotypical, fixed way.

KAM at 4:26PM, Jan. 15, 2016

It's not really awkward to indicate in narration that a character has an accent in comics. It only seems to be awkward because a lot of idiots want comics to be like movies & TV & eliminate things like captions, & author's/editor's notes. Older comics used these things to great effect and they worked.

Amelius at 4:21PM, Jan. 15, 2016

I actually really enjoy phonetic accents, it can add a bit of personality if the writer sticks to consistent rules and consider readability first and foremost. One of my most popular characters is Tony, who speaks with a German & 20's mobster accent. He has a proclivity for the word "youse" and lisps errant S's where they don't belong (like Toki Wartooth, though I did it first!) however, I have seen something similar done horribadly, so I guess I can understand the hostility toward it even if I don't agree at all.

bravo1102 at 10:51AM, Jan. 15, 2016

Stilt the word choice and grammar and leave the pronunciation to the reader's imagination rather than forcing them to sound out every word. Listening is one thing reading is quite another.

bravo1102 at 10:48AM, Jan. 15, 2016

Or have an ear for dialect and fool native speakers. But tis a haird roo ta hoe.

KimLuster at 9:12AM, Jan. 15, 2016

I agree about the annoyance... I wrote a long story a few years back, where I had characters with what I thought were 'Redneck' accents, 'Gangsta Homey' accents, 'Irish' accents,... and after rereading them I cringed (especially on the Irish ones) and vowed that no one who might really have one of those accents would ever read this story!! I think, if you're gonna actually try to write an accent, you better do your research (or live in such a culture)!!

Ironscarf at 6:50AM, Jan. 15, 2016

My solution is to add just enough and take enough away to get the feel of the character without distracting from the text, introducing unintentional comedy or creating offence. It's a difficult balancing act and I really don't know if I'm getting it right or not.

Ironscarf at 6:45AM, Jan. 15, 2016

Pointed brackets are a standard device in comics to denote a foreign language or alien tongue and are understood by most. Written out accents are a whole other can of worms! They can be comical, or confusing, or downright offensive -sometimes all at once. As a kid I remember trying to read a strip in The Scottish Daily Record called The Big Yin. It was about Billy Connolly, created before he became known outside Scotland and was written entirely in Glaswegian Dialect (The Big Yin = The Big One). At the time I couldn't understand a single word. I can now, but that irritating experience prevents me from attempting something similar. I have one character from Jamaica in my common. His accent is based on someone I knew, so I can hear his phrasing and specific word choices, but I can't write them down. I'd be doing him a disservice and it just wouldn't translate to the reader. You wouldn't get his personality.

HippieVan at 12:54AM, Jan. 15, 2016

The image that I refer to in my post will be up in the morning!

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