Thursday, 9 November 2017

Ee, by gum! by Ros Bayes

Dialects of English in UK and Ireland
Maunus at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

My current WIP is a novel set in this country. The action moves between Hull (specifically the area around Marfleet Lane) and Camborne and Truro in Cornwall. I know both these areas reasonably well – my grandparents lived in Brigham Grove just off Marfleet Lane when I was a child and I visited them regularly throughout my childhood. My husband came from a Cornish family who still live in various parts of the county. I know Truro particularly well as we stayed frequently with his family there right from when we first began going out until nearly the end of his life, and our children spent many happy holidays in his aunt’s home.

The story involves characters from both of these locations, and this has given me something of a writing dilemma. How do I convey the diverse accents from these different locations in my story? I can hear now the way in which my grandparents and their neighbours spoke – the east side of Hull close to the Humber has a quite broad and somewhat harsh accent. A much softer and more lilting inflection belongs to Cornwall, especially the area around Truro. When my children wanted to mimic their Cornish relatives they usually did it by exclaiming in a Truro accent, “My dear life!”, a favourite utterance of their great aunt whenever anything shocked her (which was relatively often). Maybe to a more experienced writer this would not be a dilemma. Maybe there is writing advice out there if I search for it. However, for the moment these are my thoughts about it.

Some authors have tried to transcribe accents in their writing. Think of Dickon in France Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. She has conveyed his conversation by writing speeches such as, “There's naught as nice as th' smell o' good clean earth, except th' smell o' fresh growin' things when th' rain falls on 'em.” Thomas Hardy does something similar in places. The Wessex woman observing Michael Henchard’s auction of his wife and child in The Mayor of Casterbridge exclaims, “Behave yerself moral, good man, for Heaven’s love! Ah what a cruelty is the poor soul married to! Bed and board is dear at some figures, ‘pon my ‘vation ‘tis!”

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I don’t necessarily find that this type of writing adds to my insight into the characters and their world. After a while I start to find it a bit tedious to read. So in my current writing I’m trying to use the kind of vocabulary that my characters would be likely to use (in Hull they "mash" the tea; in Cornwall burning the toast creates a "smeech"), but without specifically trying to replicate their pronunciation in writing. I hope my choice of language will be easy for the reader to imagine in the appropriate dialect without having to do the mental gymnastics that go with trying to wade through a transcription of an accent.

This set me off thinking – I wonder what regional accents Jesus and his disciples had? We know that Peter’s was a distinctive Galilee twang (Matthew 26.73: “After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.’”) However, this will all have been lost on the earliest readers, because of course all the conversations they had in Aramaic were only written down in Koine Greek!

Ros Bayes has 10 published and 4 self-published books, as well as some 3 dozen magazine articles. She is the mother of 3 daughters, one of whom has multiple complex disabilities, and she currently works for Through the Roof ( as their Training Resources Developer, and loves getting paid to write about disability all day. You can find her blog at and her author page at Follow her on Twitter: @rosbwriting.


  1. Interesting post Ros. Speaking as a reader, I'm glad you're going for the odd colloquial word for your characters rather than replicating accented speech. I love the general story of Huck Finn by Mark Twain but am always put off by having to wade through all Jim's patois. I much prefer what you are doing. Looking forward to hearing more x

  2. Jane Brocklehurst9 November 2017 at 16:32

    I agree that transcribing dialect is tedious to read. Some authors get it just right; I love Mary Webb's "Precious Bane" where she uses local expressions like "a gledy fire" plus the odd transcribed pronunciation as in mun for must. Flavour is what counts here.

  3. I think I have my work cut out striking the right note with it!

  4. Fascinating post! And I agree with you re accents. When reading, the choice of vocab has more impact than spelling differences. Very thought provoking...

  5. They say (whoever 'they' are) that if you throw in one or two clues about accent and dialect here and there, rather than trying to replicate it exactly, the readers will soon pick it up and do the work in their heads themselves. Like the others, I think vocab is the key, but you could also describe sounds (eg I think I've written in my book about a broad Scottish accent: 'In her tongue, Scot rhymed with thought.' Something like that anyway!)