“Look!” he said. “The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!” – Genesis 11:9
Where will it all end? Well, at the end of The Forever War Joe Haldeman envisioned an Earth where mankind has been distilled down to its essence: Man, a single version of humanity who reproduces by means of cloning. This is how Haldeman describes these future humans:
After the air cycled and we'd popped our suits, a beautiful young woman came in with a cartload of tunics and told us, in perfectly-accented English, to get dressed and go to the lecture hall at the end of the corridor to our left.
We sat for a minute and a man, clothed in the same kind of unadorned tunic the woman and we were wearing, walked across the stage with a stack of thick notebooks under each arm.
The man riffled through one of the notebooks and cleared his throat. "These books are for your convenience," he said, also with perfect accent, "and you don't have to read them if you don't want to. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do, because you're free men and women. The war is over."
When I read this book the first time many years ago I was too engrossed in the story to pick up on the fact that these two spoke with perfect English accents. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Now it jumps out at me. The collective known as Man are of one mind as one might expect since they speak one tongue because language and thought are inextricably connected.
In another vision of the future of language, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government sets about to restrict human thought and its chosen weapon against inappropriate thought is language, Newspeak, their aim being groupthink. The word isn’t used in the book—it was coined in 1952 and the nod to Orwell is obvious—but the mentality is endorsed as explained by O’Brien:
By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like "freedom is slavery" when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
In an essay 'The Future of Language', poet Saul Williams notes that “a Latin transcription of the word 'person' is 'being of sound'.” Even when I’m not talking out loud I can still ‘hear’ words in my head and often I can’t get to sleep because of them. Words are hugely important to me as a writer but I suspect that they’re also far more important to most people than they probably appreciate. Because they’re around us and within us all the time it’s too easy to take them for granted. There is a scene in the film Lenny (a biopic of the comedian Lenny Bruce) where, after the cops have taken away his cabaret card and the high cost of lawyers has driven Lenny into bankruptcy, he disastrously represented himself in court. In one scene, he pitifully begs the judge, “Don’t take away my words. Please don’t take away my words!” The words he was referring to were swearwords (often called, rather sweetly, ‘colourful language’) because, as the real Bruce himself this time put it: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government’.”
Language these days feels a lot safer than it used to be unless you live in a country with odd ideas about freedom of speech. New words are created every year and others fall into disuse—language is, and always will be, a fluid thing—and I can’t imagine even in the dim and distant future new things not needing names but I wonder about how colourful those names will be. Brannon Braga, one of the producer/writers behind Star Trek on television, said in 2001 as they wrapped up Star Trek: Voyager, "I don't think I could have written another line of dialogue for Voyager. I really had just about had it with the 24th Century." Why? Because the language was so controlled. Data says, “Shit,” once in Star Trek: Generations but I think that was about it as far as colourful language goes.
No doubt, like me, sometime during your childhood you got sat down with a tin of paints and left to entertain yourself. At first you use the colours one at a time taking care to clean the brush before moving onto another colour. Later perhaps it dawns on you to mix two or three colours in the tin’s lid but the more colours you mix the less interesting the result is until all you have is a pool of sludge. Why that should come as a surprise I don’t get because that’s always the colour of the water when we’re done.
In films and television shows when they want to distinguish between the past and the present they often switch between black and white and colour. It’s an effective technique and I’ve got nothing against it other than the fact that, in some respects, they’ve got it back to front; the past should be in colour and the present in black and white. Perhaps it was simply me being a kid but the older I get the blander the world seems. Walk down the chocolate and sweets aisle in Tesco and ask yourself where are all the packs of Old English Spangles have gone, the Cabanas, the Treets, the Aztec Bars, the Pacers, the Bar Sixes (and the Bar Noirs), the Nutty Bars, Secrets, Golden Cups, Five Boys, Mint Cracknells or the Amazin Raisin Bars… No, it’s just the same old ones, the Mars Bars, the Flakes, the Dairy Milks. Dull, dull, dull.
Which brings me to my new book which I’m hoping very few people will think is dull, dull, dull. It’s called Making Sense and consists of nineteen thematically-linked stories, four of which I want to talk about today. ‘Zeitgeist’, ‘Disintegration’, ‘Funny Strange’ and ‘Monsters’ are all written in dialect: two—‘Zeitgeist’ and ‘Disintegration’—are in Glaswegian, ‘Funny Strange’ is in Cockney and ‘Monsters’ is in New Yorkese.
[W]hat is the difference between a dialect and a language? Perhaps the most obvious categorisation is size. Dialects are viewed as smaller subcategories of larger languages. So, Italian is made up of the standard version, along with Lombard, Bergamasque, Ennese, Messinese etc. Of course not all of these dialects meet the criteria to be considered a language but when a dialect varies so much from the language to which it is linked, should it not be given a language status? Dialects in many countries bear no resemblance to the language they supposedly stem from, whilst in others it is clear that there are only minor differences.
Take Lombard for example, it is considered by official standards to be an Italian dialect but in the Ethnologue publication it is listed as a language. It is the same for the majority of dialects in Italy, despite the fact that many of them are not immediately recognisable as being related to Italian – ‘The difference between a dialect and a language’, Veritas
I like the Yiddish expression: A language is a dialect with an army and navy. Hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it?
Ethnologue defines Scots as a language but to be honest most of the people I know speak a version of Scottish English and the simple fact is that nowadays in Scotland it’s not so much the words people use—their dialect—that identifies where they’re from but the way they pronounce them—i.e. their accents. Compare in your head Billy Connolly and Sean Connery and you get a pretty good impression of the east/west divide; there’s a north/middle/south divide too.
A rare video featuring both men
There are still some hangers-on—in Glasgow children are still being called ‘weans’ and I imagine in Edinburgh they’re still being called ‘bairns’—but little by little many of the expressions I was familiar with as a child are dying out; the occasional Scotticism creeps into my writing and I generally let it stand not so much out of a sense of nostalgia but because these are good words and they deserve to be preserved. So when I started writing my story ‘Zeitgeist’ which is about a man out of time it felt only right to give him a strong regional accent. Here’s how the story opens:
Ma wife sez Ah’m too serious.
“Whit d’ye mean, wumman, too serious?”
“Ah dunno, Ben, jist too serious.”
“World’s a serious place, hen.”
“Don’t Ah know it, but do yoo need tae be so serious?”
“Listen, hen, Ah’m ower forty noo. Ah ’hink it’s time Ah goat a wee bit serious noo an’ again.”
“Suit yersel’. Jist don’t come mopin’ t’ me aboot the meanin’ o’ life. Ah’m too busy gettin’ oan wi’ mine t’ worry aboot yoors.”
She had a point, Ah’ll gie her that but Ah doubt we wis keepin’ score that night.
Regular readers of my blog will have seen this kind of thing before in my occasional ‘Aggie and Shuggie’ posts which I used as a way of telling people about new reviews. I know a few people struggled with them at first and it’s perfectly understandable. It looks like I’ve forgotten how to spell. The simple fact is that a great amount of care and attention went into the writing of these four stories to ensure that a line was drawn between accuracy and intelligibility. The first thing I had to do was set down some rules for myself. Let’s look at one: the treatment of the digraph ‘th’ which consists of two different phonemes: the voiced dental fricative (as in this) and the voiceless dental fricative (thing). Let me introduce you to three expressions:
- th-debuccalisation (‘’hing’ instead of ‘thing’) – Glasgow
- th-fronting (‘fing’ instead of ‘thing’, ‘bruvva’ instead of ‘brother’, ‘troof’ instead of ‘truth’) – London
- th-stopping (‘dis’ instead of ‘this’, ‘ting’ instead of ‘thing’) – New York
Of course a Jamaican and an Irishman would say ‘dis ting’ too but with completely different accents and it’s impossible to find adequate spellings to convey the subtleties between one city (or even parts of one city) and another; there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet which is why dictionaries include all those funny symbols to tell you how to pronounce things. If you’re not careful what you end up writing becomes unintelligible. Take a simple term like ‘The Beatles’. In many British dialects we have something called t-glottalisation. This would mean that ‘Beatles’ would get pronounced as ‘Bee-uls’ with the tiniest of pauses inserted where the ‘t’ should be and when you think of how many t’s there are in words you start to see just how messy this all could get.
Another thing you have to bear in mind is grammar. In English you would say, “I was going, we were going” but a Glaswegian would say, “We wis goin’” whereas a Yorkshireman would say, “Ah were goin’.”
Of course I use the term ‘Glaswegian’ as if there is such a thing. The fact is that it’s a composite term just as ‘English’ covers a broad range of dialects and accents; they speak English in Birmingham, England and Wellington, New Zealand but the difference is striking. (I knew a Kiwi briefly—she was a temp in our office—and I said to her one day, “Seriously, do you have to try and use every vowel in every word?”) When I set down the rules for Ben, what I was deciding was how he spoke, not how all Scots should speak. The fact is his accent was based originally on a man from Kilmarnock, not Glasgow, but as I’ve not lived out west for many years I decided to stick with what I was more comfortable with. The differences aren’t huge but you’d never catch a Glaswegian saying, “Ah dinnae ken.”
Cockney—or really more Estuary English these days since strictly the term ‘Cockney’ refers to anyone born within "the sound of Bow bells"—is an accent I’m familiar with only from watching TV; it’s the one Americans usually use as their default in sitcoms, the one that sounds like Dick Van Dyke’s ridiculous accent in Mary Poppins. Odd that with a whole country to pick from they’d jump at an area the size of a few city blocks. The Beatles are known the world over but I’ve yet to hear anyone rush to try to replicate the Liverpool accent. When you think of an east end of London accent probably the first person to jump to mind would be Michael Caine, although, and he admits this himself, his accent has been watered down over the years; compare how he speaks to, say, Ray Winstone and you’ll see the difference. Here’s a paragraph from ‘Funny Strange’:
Y’know wot’s wrong wiv the country? Plenty. There’s plenty wrong wiv the country but there’s one fing especially: it’s lost its sense of ’umour. We went frew two world wars an’ we could still laugh at ourselves but not anymore. Oh, I know there’re still stand-up comics out there, people callin’ ’emselves comedians at any rate—fird-rate jokemongers oo should still be workin’ the clubs—but they’re not funny, not proper like. They fink they’re a riot ’cos people laugh at ’em but that ain’t the same. I listen to ’em an’ I pity their audiences ’cos they’re anyfing but. They’re laughin’ at nuffin ’cos there’s nuffin to laugh at. They’ve all forgotten wot funny is.
The thing that distinguished this accent is h-dropping which is why ‘humour’ becomes ‘’umour’ but the fact is that it’d be pronounced more like ‘yoomah’. There are comics up and down the country and this text would’ve worked perfectly with a northern accent (north, as in the north of England) or a Scottish one but when I started writing it I saw him as an east end comic (someone like Tommy Trinder or Sid James (although he was actually born and raised in South Africa)) and so I stuck with it even though the character was based on Tony Hancock who was a Brummie by birth.
The narrator in ‘Monsters’ is something else entirely. In this story I decided to let the omniscient narrator get involved in the storytelling process and to ensure my readers didn’t assume when I used ‘I’ I wasn’t talking about myself I decided to give him a personality and a rather bolshie one too. I imagined him as a New York mobster circa 1930. That, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the story; it’s not set in the past and there are no mobsters but it made sense to me and, remember, that’s the title of this collection and its central theme.
Now, I’ve never been to New York and even if I had things are very different these days accent-wise. Some of it is due to the natural evolution of language—there’s a fascinating article here about that—but others are seemingly going out of their way to deliberately change how they speak:
The online Yellow Pages includes more than a dozen listings for “New York accent reduction” specialists, and searching “New York accent” and reduction or elimination on Google generates about 4,000 hits. The process typically takes at least several months, with as many as three sessions a week, and can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. – Sam Roberts, ‘Unlearning to Tawk Like a New Yorker’, The New York Times, 19 November 2010
This isn’t a problem. I’ve seen a lot of films and television programs featuring New Yorkers with profound accents. The accent I had in mind, although I’d never heard him speak when I wrote the story, was Steve Van Zandt’s, at least the one he uses in The Sopranos. I met him in a wonderful little show called Lilyhammer in which he plays much the same character as he did in The Sopranos only this time with a lighter touch. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Monsters’:
Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let’s you and me get a few tings straight: I’m yer narratah; my name’s nonna yer goddamn business, but whad I say goes. We ain’t friends. Capeesh? I don’t do dialogue unless I’m in da mood—which, frankly, is rare—and if der’s a plot, well whoopee-fuckin’-do! (And if yer lookin’ faw a subplot... fuggedaboutit.) And as fah as conflict goes… I’ll give ya conflict. I calls it like I sees it. Bein’ da omniscient kinda narratah I’m da only one dat getsta see da bigga picture so if I’m in da moodta share just tank yer lucky stars and pay attention; sit on yer ass, keep schtum and read.
New Yorkese and Glaswegian in particular share something in common. They both contain a high percentage of Slurvian expressions. When the comedian Stanley Baxter recorded his Parliamo Glasgow! sketches in the seventies he regularly used ‘words’ like ‘noohossferra’ or ‘cudgiegoa’ as in ‘now who is for a’ and ‘could you go a’. It was all done for fun but the fact is that Glaswegians do slur their words and so do New Yorkers which is why the text above contains the expression ‘fuggedaboutit’ because it’s become a word in its own right meaning fat chance.
Writing in a dialect is hard. Of all the stories I’ve ever written these four have been redrafted the most. Essentially you’re creating an eye dialect for the page since there is no such thing as a Standard Cockney, Glaswegian or New Yorkese Dictionary to look up. Plenty of writers have had a crack at writing in dialect before me and some are more extreme than others. Here’s a poem by Tom Leonard who I’ve written about before, here.
helluva hard tay read theez init
if yi canny unnirston thim jiss clear aff then
get tay fuck ootma road
ahmaz goodiz thi lota yiz so ah um
ah no whit ahm dayn
jiss try enny a yir fly patir wi me
stick thi bootnyi good style
so ah wull
I have to admit that the first time I read him, which was in my teens, I wondered what on earth he was on about. He’s reduced language to sounds—there’s hardly a Standard English word in the poem—and yet, if you’re willing to persist it’s actually quite a profound wee piece. The key line is “ahmaz goodiz thi lota yiz so ah um” (I’m as good as the lot of you so I am). “Humans speak Language, and all are equal in that fact. The rest is status,” so says Leonard in his review of Language and Power. It’s true. The three dialects I’ve chosen to use are all the vernacular of the common people: Alf Garnett was from the East End of London, his American counterpart Archie Bunker from Queens and I suppose the Scottish equivalent—he’s certainly opinionated enough—would be Rab C Nesbitt from Govan.
No accent is intrinsically good or bad, but it has to be recognized that the way we perceive accents does play a role in our attitude to others. Different people have differing perceptions. So there are significant numbers of young people who see Estuary English as modern, up-front, high on 'street cred' and ideal for image-conscious trendsetters. Others regard it as projecting an approachable, informal and flexible image. Whereas RP, Queen's English, Oxford English and Sloane Ranger English are all increasingly perceived as exclusive and formal. —Paul Coggle, Do you speak Estuary?
These days writing in dialects has gone out of fashion. Readers find it distracting; it slows them down; they frequently have to reread stuff. Often they’ll pack it in and move onto something easier. Books written in dialect can and do sell. Case in point? The Help by Kathryn Stockett in which a Southern-born white author attempts to render black maids’ voices in thick, dated dialect. Reviews were mixed and her decision to attempt to write in dialogue questioned but I suspect that was more to do with the fact she was white and she was leaving herself wide open to claims of racism at worst and stereotyping at best.
Here are a few others:
- Londonstani by Gautam Malkani: its narration consisted in a total absorption of a particular kind of street slang that mixed Punjabi with English and Americanisms from MTV and hip hop. The first chapter is called 'Paki' and began with the words: "Serve him right he got his muthafuckin face fuck'd, shudn't be callin me a Paki, innit."
I’m not sure anyone’s going to be stalking me for taking the mickey out of New York mobsters and the simple fact is I was aiming at not only a stereotypical accent but a slightly caricatured one; he’s not real. Ben, on the other hand, in ‘Zeitgeist’ and the nameless woman in ‘Disintegration’ are very real and I think their accents humanise them, for me at least. In other stories it could be me talking, there’s so little of the character on the page; these other stories balance that out.
Irvine Welsh, who wrote Trainspotting, said
The classic assumption of such fiction holds true: working-class people speak funny so are in fiction only for the purposes of humour. They do not have an internal life, therefore you traditionally do not have a Renton or a Begbie or a Spud expressing themselves in the narrative of a book.” – Gerard Seenan, ‘Welsh accuses the middle classes of cultural bias’, The Herald, 30th March 1996
None of my characters are there for comic relief, not even the comedian. There’s humour in every story but there’s humour in every one of these nineteen stories; I like humour. Yes, they may be a bit of a challenge but here’s some advice from a student called Délaissé. She’s talking about how to read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:
I read the words, and that's a start. I read them out loud in my best Irish accent, and there is one thing I can tell you with certainty: if you want to get into it, do that. Really.
I know some people have tried that with my ‘Aggie and Shuggies’ and it’s helped and the guy who helped me edit ‘Monsters’ (he’s from New York) did that. Reading should be fun. It can be challenging too and, for me, the fun is in meeting the challenge. I see reading a text in an unfamiliar dialect as no different to sitting down and eating a meal in a strange restaurant. The first time I tried Indian and Chinese food it was unusual but now I’m used to them and enjoy them and I would hope readers of my stories come to enjoy them too.
One last Tom Leonard poem to finish with:
. in the beginning was the word .
in thi beginning was thi wurd
in thi beginnin was thi wurd
in thi biginnin was thi wurd
in thi biginnin wuz thi wurd
n thi biginnin wuz thiwurd
nthi biginnin wuzthiwurd
. in the beginning was the sound .
Here’s a nice wee video where Leonard reads this poem and also talks about high- and low-status languages. He also reads and talks about his famous poem ‘Unrelated Incidents - No.3’, better known as ‘The Six O’clock News’.