Sunday, 2 August 2009

Spikkin right

Another aside on the question of language. ‘Hell is other people’. Of course it is. And that’s not me being existential (although I subscribe totally to that view of the world and especially that interpretation of identity and social interaction), it’s just me stating the obvious. We’re judged by how we look and what we wear. And I’m not just bemoaning the fact that, as a decrepit male, I can’t be photographed standing naked behind a pile of my books and hope it’ll create a sudden boost in sales. Anyway, perhaps most of all, we're judged by how we speak.

(As an aside to this aside, I should add that writers are also judged by their books. After reading a passage from my first book where my detective sits at traffic lights watching schoolgirls cross the road and reflecting on how they look, my wife said ‘Oh. So you fancy schoolgirls then, do you?’)

No, as a writer of both novels and plays, it’s the speaking bit of the equation that interests me. Without wishing to offend anyone, I’d suggest that if you have a character saying ‘The proliferation of epistolary exegesis prohibits the development of arcane terminology to a devastating extent’, he won’t be carrying a hod on a building site. Nor will he be sharing a pint with someone who says ‘Oi, wanker! Shift your arse.’ But, again, that’s self-evident.

No, the real problems arise when you want to convey accents. If someone has a strong regional accent of any sort, that’s part of who they are. Take the accent away from them and they cease to be the same person. The trouble for the writer is that he/she needs to convey the accent in such a way that the reader doesn’t have to stop to ask ‘WTF’s that all about?’

I encountered this with that same first book. It’s set where I live, in Aberdeen. I come originally from Plymouth, which is at the opposite corner of the UK, so you can imagine the disparity between the accents I heard when I was growing up and those I hear nowadays. In a pub in Plymouth (and I know because I lived in one) you’ll hear ‘Wobbe gwain ev?’ The same question in an Aberdeen pub might be ‘Fitchy for?’ Both are asking you what you want to drink. In ‘correct’ English, the first is ‘What are you going to have?’ and the second is ‘What are you for?’

So when, naturally enough, I made some of my fictional local coppers speak with an Aberdeen accent, my editor in London put me straight right away. ‘Fa ye spikkin till?’ (To whom are you speaking?) and ‘Fa’s 'e loon?’ (Who is that boy?) would mean nothing at all to anyone south of Stonehaven and her suggestion was that I should restrict myself to letting the characters say ‘Aye’ to indicate that they were Scots. In the end, there had to be a compromise, so they weren’t incomprehensible, but they did retain some of their accents.

The annoying thing then was that, in an otherwise very enthusiastic review of my second book, the local paper wrote ‘Some of the Scots dialogue is a little suspect and inconsistent’.

See what I mean? Hell really is other people.


  1. for the avoidance o' doot, you should huv hud them sayin', och aye the noo. Cos ah don't ken a Scot who diznae hae that as a verbal tic.

    Aye right.

  2. In fact, Michael, what I should have done really is commission a native speaker, such as yourself, to translate for me. Trouble is, I don't understand a word you say.

  3. BTW Michael, I should add that I've made a note of 'Och aye the noo' and will be using it for ALL my characters in future.

  4. I'd love to read some genuine Scottish brogue, if one of the characters translates the meaning in his thoughts. I think your editor is a bit restrictive in not allowing you to use some native tongue. :)

  5. Jean, part of the problem is tha the 'brogue' you crave varies according to where you are. The accents in Aberdeen city, for example, are different from those in Aberdeenshire. I'm sure it must be the same in the USA. (For example, I find Holly Hunter's accent, when she's doing the full-on Southern thing, impenetrable.)
    As for it being restrictive - well, yes, in a way - but if readers don't understand what a character is saying, the latter has little chance of becoming real for them. I had interesting exchanges with the US editor of my historical novel over words such as 'didna' (didn't), 'disna' (doesn't) and 'ken' (know).