Portraying accents in writing can help you bring certain characters to life. As a writer, you may have characters who are from various areas, or who may speak differently when compared to most. So how can you show that in your books, rather than telling the reader? By portraying accents in writing. This post will address portraying Southern accents. Other accents will be covered in future posts, because this one has grown like a weed over a septic tank, and I don’t want it to be too long.
Portraying Southern accents in writing
(Regardless of what any style guide says, I capitalize this, as anyone who has lived in the South does.)
One way to show that a character is Southern is to use Southern words, phrases, and sayings. Here are a few to get you started:
Y’all This means “you all” (some say “all y’all” for the plural). Y’all is used in most situations, whether formal or informal (perhaps not in court), but is especially used in informal situations, such as dialogue between friends. In some areas, the accepted spelling is ya’ll (short for “ya all”).
Bless your heart This can be sincere—a truly caring thing to say—or it can mean the speaker thinks the recipient is an idiot. “You really think we can do anything about what our government is doing? Aw, bless your heart.”
Jerk a knot in your tail is a threat to spank a child or physically harm someone deemed to be inferior to the speaker.
Gonna and gunta are both slang for “going to.” An example would be, “I’m gonna read this book and then go to bed.”
Fixin’ ta means “preparing to do something.” I’m fixin’ ta jerk a knot in your tail.
My dogs are barkin’ means “My feet hurt,” usually from a long day of standing, such as while working or shopping.
That burns my biscuits or That burns me up is a way of saying something angers you.
That person doesn’t (often said with “don’t”) have the sense God gave a ___ (rock, chicken, gnat, polecat). This one is probably pretty clear, but just in case: the speaker is saying that the person doesn’t have any common sense or ability to think things through properly. “He held the chainsaw between his legs and, well, whaddaya expect from him? He don’t have the sense God gave a rock.”
Too big for your britches means behaving or speaking in a manner that is arrogant or disrespectful, especially of someone in authority; or trying to do something that is beyond the person’s authority or right to do. Parents often use this one with children to let children know that they are overstepping boundaries. “Oh, you’re gonna tell me how things are gonna go around here, are ya? You’re gettin’ too big for your britches!”
The phrase an’ ’em means “and them.” A typical use would be in asking about family, “How’s your mom an’ ’em?” According to my friend Roland John Ford, this could also be written “Mominem” and can be used to refer to a person’s mother and her group of friends, as opposed to family.
Yonder and a piece mean “some distance away from here.” An example of use is “Tom lives over yonder, down the road a piece.”
Change your tune means to change your mind about something, usually after being “schooled” and thinking more wisely about it.
Purt near means “nearly.” He purt near put out my eye with that peashooter.
Could argue with a fence post means the person is contrary, disagreeing for the sake of being a pain. A similar saying is “He could fight in an empty house.”
Aside from using Southern words, phrases, and sayings, you can add the letter R to words where there shouldn’t actually be one, or otherwise alter the pronunciation of a word to sound like it’s being spoken by someone with a Southern accent. Your editor should know (tell her) what you’re going for, so she doesn’t correct errors that aren’t actually errors. Examples:
awall or awhall (awhile)
Removing the letter G from the end of a word ending in “ing” is also very Southern and can portray an accent.
Hidin’ swimmin’ eatin’ cookin’ readin’ walkin’ talkin’ lovin’
Thanks go to the following friends for contributing some of these “Suthun” sayings:
Tony Wotkiewicz, Andrea Hultman, Debbie Robinson, Debby Colgan, Laura Lee, Malinda Walker, Andy Poole, Scott Cuzzo, Dotty Young, Misty Taylor Byrd, Jennifer McCoy, Joy Roach, Roland John Ford, and Maryann Fitzpatrick.
What’s yer favorite Southern saying?