Well some of us do. The simple fact is that for a small island Great Britain has a huge range of accents. Some are aggressive-sounding—e.g. the guttural Glaswegian or Belfast accents—others melodious, like Welsh or Orcadian. And, of course, to complicate matters there’s also the small matter of regional dialects. Maybe we should start with a few definitions:
- Language: a system for acquiring and using complex systems of communication
- Dialect: a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers
- Accent: a manner of pronunciation peculiar to a particular individual, location, or nation
My wife’s an American and when she first came over here she struggled to understand people. One time we were in a bookshop where two older men from Govan were having a conversation about Scottish author William McIlvanney. I couldn’t resist joining in. She admitted afterwards that she hadn’t understood a word the men said until I joined in and gave her context. Our humour too was mostly lost on her. Sixteen years on she’s acclimatised. To my ear she still has a profound American twang to her speech but her family often comment how much she’s changed and not simply because she occasionally says ‘tomahto’. That said she still can’t quite get ‘Edinburgh’ right.
In my latest book, a collection of short stories entitled Making Sense, I include four stories in dialect—two in Glaswegian, one in Cockney and one in New Yorkese—and they were hard work to write. I also realise that they won’t be the easiest stories in the book to read. So why do it, why make my readers’ lives difficult? There are so many books out there that will be easier to read than mine that many readers will have made up their mind at this point that the book’s not for them without knowing anything more about it. And that’s fine. They probably wouldn’t’ve enjoyed the book that much if they’re put off so easily.
When I look at sites online offering advice—and there’re a lot of people out there willing to chip in their tuppenceworth—one of the things I keep coming across is the concept of ease: How can we make life easy for our readers? Short words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. Short stories. I read a short story this morning by Stephen Leacock. I’d never heard of him before which is a shame because he used to be very well known. This story was called ‘The New Food’—you can read it here if you like—and in it he uses that popular science fiction trope, the meal in a pill. It got me thinking. Chewing is hard work. Why bother if we can get all the nourishment we need from a pill or a drink? We use the expression to describe a knotty problem: You’ve given me something to chew on. Chewing can be satisfying.
There will be very few people who’ll be able to read all four of my dialect stories and get them after a single read. Most will need to consult the glossary at the back of the book and if you’ve ever tried to read A Clockwork Orange you’ll know what that feels like. But there was a good reason Burgess wrote the story that way. Yes, he’s asking his readers to up their game—he’s given them something to chew on—but I personally found it worth the effort. Effort is the antonym of ease. Ease can turn quickly into laze. And once you get to that stage you might as well just wait for the TV adaptation. Or not. It’s not as if we’re desperate for something to watch.
My story ‘Funny Strange’ is narrated by an old comedian. He’s based loosely on the comic actor Tony Hancock but I chose to give my narrator an East End accent more like Hancock’s onetime sidekick Sid James despite the fact Sid was actually born in South Africa. The specific accent wasn’t important—there’re stand-up comics the world over—but the kind of accent was. It had to be the voice of the common people. I can imagine Louis CK standing up on stage and coming out with my lines. And Louis is anything but posh. There are posh comics but they’re rare and we tend to laugh at them rather than with them. Most comedians speak with the voice of the people. They’re speaking to the people, as one of the people and so it’s only right they should speak the same voice.
Dialects, though, are dying. Language has become homogenised. The world’s becoming a smaller and smaller place. Why try to preserve them? Same reason we hang onto everything. Why do we stick old Latin expressions into our sentences? Everyone knows that carpe diem means ‘seize the day’ so why not just say that? Culture’s important. The past’s important. It makes a difference who’s talking. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Rodney King (whose infamous beating and subsequent trial of four LA police officers may have prompted the riots) appeared on television and offered his famous plea, “Can we all get along?” Would we remember those words nearly as well if they’d been uttered by the local major or some police chief? Probably not. But an African-American construction worker? Hell, yeah. That’s why the father in my story ‘Zeitgeist’ has a thick Scottish accent; he’s a relic of a bygone era. He doesn’t understand what’s happening to the world. It’s also why the girl in ‘Sub Rosa’ doesn’t have an accent despite working in Glasgow city centre; she’s a part of a new generation who just don’t talk like that anymore. They’ve grown up on a steady diet of American TV. It’s a miracle they don’t all have American accents or at least mid-Atlantic. Give it time I suppose.
Have you ever tried writing a story in a dialect? If so, how did it go? If not, do you think you might be tempted in the future?
You can read two of the stories from the collection here. ‘Disintegration’ is written in dialect, ‘Jewelweed’ is not.