A powerful tool in creating distinctive characters is their language, using accent, dialogue and even foreign language. In the real world, everyone speaks in a way that is slightly different from everyone else. In sociolinguistics, this is called an idiolect. (from Greek idiōma ‘private property, peculiar phraseology’, and idios ‘own, private’)
A few years ago I had a student who kept repeating a word I had never heard before, until I realised he was concatenating two familiar words into something quite bizarre. I am aware that I do something similar, when I bunch together the phrases “you know” and “I mean” into “ya-meen”. I don’t know anyone else who does this, so I’m proud of my idiolect.
In movie dialogue, we distinguish characters among other things by their native language, dialect, and idiolect. And even though you rarely need to specify all this in the screenplay, it is good to have an understanding.
So, let’s look at a few ways of dealing with accents and foreign language, without hampering the read.
Leave it to the story
In Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges – one of the scripts we studied in Immersion – the characters each speak with their respective accents, but it’s never mentioned in the script. We assume that Ray and Ken are British from a line in the opening monologue “Get the fuck out of London.”
The lead characters ended up being played by Irish actors, but McDonagh has said that this was a happy coincidence more than anything else. When Ralph Fiennes’ character of Harry enters the film with his thick Cockney accent, you’ll find that this is not mentioned in the script, either.
By far the easiest way to set up how a character speaks, is in their first introduction.
If PAUL (28) is a pudgy Liverpudlian, we may assume this comes with the appropriate accent. You can specify whether the accent is slight or thick.
This technique avoids any possible annoyance with the reader, as nobody likes reading accent quirks throughout an entire script.
Sometime characters change language in the course of a story. In this case, a SCENE NOTE right after the slug may indicate that “The entire scene is in Russian, subtitled in English”, or “During the flashbacks, everyone except our hero will speak Klingon.”
This avoids having to write a whole bunch of parentheticals. Speaking of which —
Choice Of Words
The characters in the world of the Coen brothers often speak in quirky ways. This never hampers the ease of reading their dialogue, as the accent is usually only apparent in the choice of words. A good example is Marge from Fargo.
MARGE [on the phone]: Oh my. Where? Yeah? Aw geez. Okay, there in a jif. Real good, then.
When a single line, or a few lines are spoken in a different language, you have two options: either you want the audience to understand it, or you don’t.
If you do, the foreign language lines will be subtitled in the film; and if you don’t, they won’t.
Write the lines in English with a parenthetical, e.g. (in Italian) to show they need subtitles. In this way, the reader has the same experience as the audience: it’s a foreign language but they understand what is being said.
If you’re using a simple word or short phrase (ciao, nyet, or ‘dio mio’) and you trust your audience will understand it, just print it verbatim.
Sometimes the language is foreign to the main character, and we want the audience to feel just as confused as them, by not translating. In this case, you write the dialogue in the script in the original foreign language – without parenthetical.
This means there won’t be any subtitles, keeping the audience in the hero’s POV.
Do you know of any other ways of dealing with accents, dialect or foreign language? Or do you have great script examples to prove or disprove any of the above, please tell us in the comments.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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2 thoughts on “FORMATTING TIP: Accent, dialect and foreign language in dialogue”
I addressed this issue with one of my characters, as you said, up front. I stated that his reply to another character had a distinct Cailfornian timbre, that belied his heritage.
I also happily add slang terms as the nature of the character dictates. In one script, I leaned heavily into the Strine dialect, with a view to including subtitles for American audiences. That was where Working Dog fell over with ‘The Castle’, when they redubbed it for the U.S. market.
In general, I find that dialogue needs to be ‘heightened’. The better version of what we normally say in conversation, without the ums, ahs and trail offs. Naturally, of course, characters always have that sharp, witty retort up their sleeve, instead of hours later…
Your point about Strine is interesting. How do you signal that it should be subtitled? Written on the page it may seem perfectly clear…