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Whitna raffle wur geen and gottin wursels intae noo

My last post was about –

Well, I can’t remember, because the thing that dominated your reactions afterwards was my use of y’all. In particular, I had people writing to me from Scotland, Northern Ireland & Australia telling me that I didn’t have to raid the American South to come with a perfectly good you-plural, when I could use a perfectly good Scottish/Irish/Aussie youse.

And youse feels just right. I’m going to use it more often from now on.

But that brings us on to the matter of which version of English we should respect as authoritative.

Standard British English (SBE), because the Queen speaks it? Standard American English (SAE), because Donald Trump speaks it (kinda)? Or maybe some other kind of English, because both those Englishes have had their turn in the sun?

The answer, of course, is that it’s a stupid question. No particular English is more authoritative or appropriate than another. You speak with (and write with) whatever’s right for the job at hand.

Now most of you, I expect, write in SBE or SAE, and I’m sure you do that proficiently enough. But what when you have a character who doesn’t speak one of those Englishes? Perhaps that character speaks (for example) African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)? Or perhaps they’re someone who speaks English, imperfectly, as a second language?

So how do you represent their dialogue on the page? How do you, in printed form, capture the way they speak?

Either way, you don’t necessarily want to stuff your SAE / SBE into the mouth of that character. That might show a kind of disrespect to the character and the language they speak. (Which would be stupid, not least because those other Englishes are quite often more expressive. Did you know, for example, that AAVE has a full four versions of the past tense: I been bought it, I done buy it, I did buy it, I do buy it? Sweet, huh? AAVE has three versions of the future too.)

So you’re determined to honour the status and expressive power of those other Englishes. But how?

Let’s say, for example, that you have a Yorkshireman as a character in your MS. (Yorkshire is a large and self-confident county in the North of England.) Let’s say your novel is set in the London advertising world. Most of your characters don’t talk Yorkshire. This particular one – we’ll call him Geoffrey – does. You want to mark the way he speaks as being different; that’s part of what makes him who he is. It’s part of the richness of your characters and the dialogues they get into.

Well, we could have our Geoffrey speak like this:

Ear all, see all, say nowt;
Eat all, sup all, pay nowt;
And if ivver tha does owt fer nowt –
 Allus do it fer thissen.

(That’s the ‘Yorkshire motto’ and translates as: Hear all, see all, say nothing. Eat all, drink all, pay nothing.  And if ever you do something for nothing – always do it for yourself.)

But doesn’t that look unbelievably patronising? We have our book full of London ad-world types, then in walks Geoffrey sounding like something dragged from the rougher end of one of the Bronte novels. It would be hard to have Geoffrey speak like that on the page and not somehow create the idea that he was comical, or stupid, or boorish, or ignorant.

The solution, of course, is precision. (Most things in writing are.)

Take a look at that motto again. Some of the words are exactly the same as Standard British English, but just rendered phonetically – ear for hear, ivver for ever. But why do that? We don’t generally write phonetically. When I talk, I’ll seldom pronounce the last g in going, though some English speakers would. So if you were writing a character like me in a novel, would you write goin’ for going? Surely not.

So rule 1 is: You don’t describe accents phonetically. Doing so just looks patronising and clumsy.

But that rams you straight into the second issue, which is: what do you do when you encounter a word (like the Yorkshire nowt) that just doesn’t exist in SAE or SBE?

And the answer there is equally obvious: nowt is a perfectly legitimate word. It just happens to be a Yorkshire one, not an SAE / SBE one.

So rule 2 is: You include non-standard words / phrases / grammar in exactly the way that your character would use them.

So we’d rewrite our Yorkshire motto as follows:

Hear all, see all, say nowt;
Eat all, sup all, pay nowt;
And if ever tha does owt for nowt
 Allus do it for thissen.

That removes the patronising phonetics, but honours the separateness of Yorkshire-ese by including its words and phrases in full. You haven’t lost a jot of local character. All you’ve lost is a metropolitan sneer towards non-SAE/SBE speakers.

If you wanted to tone this down a bit (and I would), I’d use always for allus, and maybe yourself for thissen. I’d probably also swap in you for tha, just because you want to nudge the reader about a character’s voice and accent. You don’t need to bellow.

And –

You can have fun. I once created a character who stemmed from the Orkney Islands, off the north Coast of Scotland. Even by Scottish standards, Orkney is remote – so much so that it spoke Norn (a version of Norse, the language of the Vikings) until a couple of hundred years ago. Since then, that Norn has softened out into Orcadian, which is a sister language to Scots, which is a sister language to English.

But –

It’s a strange and beautiful thing. The language is sort of comprehensible to a regular English speaker, but only just.

So on the one hand, my Orcadian character (Caff) says things like this:

‘Ye’r a guid peedie lassie. Th’ wurst damn cook a’m ever seen, but a guid lassie fur a’ that.’

You might not know what peedie means (small), but the rest of it is straightforward.

On the other hand, Caff also says things like this:

‘Thoo dohnt wahnt tae be skelp while turning,’ he says, as his hands show a big wave hitting the ship side-on as it turns. ‘If tha’ happens, we’ll hae oor bahookie in th’ sky in twa shakes o’ a hoor’s fud.’

And this:

‘Whitna raffle wur geen and gottin wursels intae noo, eh? A right roo o’ shite.’

I wouldn’t say that those are totally incomprehensible – roo of shite means roughly what you think it might – but you wouldn’t especially want to be tested on the detail.

When writing that kind of thing, you want to dance your reader along a line of comprehension / bafflement. I reckoned that readers wouldn’t know what skelp meant, so I added half a line of explanatory text about waves hitting ships to make it clear. But whitna raffle, roo of shite, bahookie in th’ sky and the rest of it – well, I just wanted to dangle those lovely, strange phrases in front of my readers’ noses, so we could enjoy their Nordic, sea-green beauty without comment.

My character’s reactions to this dialogue were much as yours or mine would be. She understood some of what she was being told, but not all of it. Her own ripples of confusion added a layer of enjoyment to the interactions.

Oh, and if you’re sitting there quietly impressed by my mastery of Orcadian … well, I did what I could using a dictionary that I bought online. Then I sent the relevant chunks of my draft to the editor of The Orcadian newspaper, and he was kind enough to correct my text where it needed it.

That’s all from me. Youse have a good weekend.

But tell me what strange and beautiful accents do you incorporate in your work? And how do you represent them on the page? Do you have especial bugbears? Or things you love. Or bits of dialogue that you use as a model. Drop in a comment below and let's all have a Heated Debate.

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Comments (17)
  • Going back to Harry's original post:

    I have a Scottish (probably Edinburgh) cop speaking with a "soft, Scottish burr." I have had input from a Scot on authentic speech, which includes extensive dropping of the final "g" from gerunds. This creates a style problem - 

    'Nothin' but a bit of pushin' and shovin'.' Note the double use of speech marks at the end of the sentence, which looks clumsy.

    Any thoughts?

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    • Wouldn't that be the same as Harry's goin'/going example (see rule 1)? If I've interpreted his points correctly, I think he's saying drop the phonetic stuff and go for the bigger word differences, so drop in some Scottish vocab here and there but don't aprostrophise the gerunds.


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      • Yep! I agree!

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        • So are you suggesting that I should make do without the apostrophies (so pushin and shovin), or spell the words properly (so pushing and shoving) which, according to my Scottish friend, is very unauthentic?

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        • 'Tis an interesting debate.

          I agree that if as a reader I have to work TOO hard to understand the basic dialogue, I give up very quickly. I wrote a short story a while ago with some Welsh-isms in (not Welsh language, just Welsh words that have crept into their English usage) and my husband told me to tone it down a bit because it was too distracting from the story - and it was MUCH milder than any of the examples above.

          Out of interest (and to give another real-life published example), I just looked back at The Fire Eaters by David Almond which I've read recently (MG fiction): it's set up North (Newcastle area) and he has a character called McNulty whose speech reflects his northern background more than the others. He indeed doesn't do the phonetic thing (rule 1) but DOES frequently use northern dialect (rule 2), eg. nowt, bairn, bonny, mebbes, and some grammar peculiarisms, eg. not see nowt, some of the tricks is just disgusting, I been eating seaweed. I think Almond got the balance of dialect right because I noticed it, it changed the feel, but it wasn't too distracting or challenging.

          Full marks to Harry ;-)


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          • Thanks for all the comments. Certainly 'elps me 😍

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            • I agree with the points Sarita is making. If there are too many regional words and I soon get lost and put the book down. That's partly to do with expectations, of course, and what I want to get out of it. When I read a book, I generally expect and want to understand what I'm reading ;-)
              I tend to look at it from the reader's perspective:
              If I happened to be familiar with the particular regional type of spoken English used in the story, then I'd have fun with it, like Harry suggests. If not, it's like reading a foreign language. I might as well decipher a book written in Dutch or Danish – or any other European language in which I'm not fluent – if the story is set in Zeeland or the Faroe Islands. If I look at the sentences long enough I might figure out half of what the character is saying...

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              • That's a really useful article, Harry (I've come to it a bit late). I've been thinking about this from the POV of my main character, who is 16th century German but then comes to live in England in a region where the accent is very different from the Queen's English (if there even was such a thing back then). So it goes in stages; first she is in Germany (except it wasn't called that then either!) with other German speaking people, travels through Belgium and France, but still in the company of the German speakers, arrives in London where she starts to learn English, and then goes to live in Cumbria, where her English has to adapt and improve over several decades. So far I'm writing the conversations between Germans in ordinary English, with just the odd word in German where there isn't a good equivalent in English. Then when she is in an English speaking world her attempts at English will improve as time goes on but her vocabulary will start off very limited and likewise grammar structures. And word order, I think, should be German at first and gradually improve. Then the other half of that is how she understand things, or not, which I want to convey too. This is based on my own experience of learning and living in a foreign language. Sometimes I wonder if I'm making too big a thing of it, but this is an immigration story as well as historical fiction, so I can't just ignore the challenges she and her family would have had with language.

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