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Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Writing in tongues

I’ve recently been playing around with writing a piece of flash-fiction in the Scottish vernacular, and it’s made me think about regional accents and speech patterns in general writing.

Surely it can’t just come down to throwing in an off-spelt word, or quant phrase, into the mix here and there, although I have seen this done in various books to invoke a ‘local character.’ Think about it. How many times have you come across this?

One of the main things I’ve been told when writing character’s speech is ‘don’t over complicate it’ and ‘don’t put too much accents and colloquialisms into one sentence.’ I can see where this advice comes from. If you make colloquial speech too difficult for people to understand it will break the story flow, and may even serve to alienate the reader by breaking their suspension of disbelief, something you never want to do. But I think getting the language and speech patterns right can go a long way to making an interesting and well rounded character. You can insinuate a lot of perceived background and behavioural traits based entirely on a characters speech.

But how much is too much? I’ve read some books where local slang and colloquialisms have been used to good effect, and have enhanced the story for me. On the other hand, during the research for my short story I read some Scottish-tongue writing based in the area where I grew up, and some of this was very hard to get through. There were a few words that even I didn’t recognise in there, but for the most part I did understand the prose, but I still found it very difficult to read.
So why was that?

This brought up a lot of questions whilst writing this story. Should it be authentic at the expense of clarity? How far can you change the spelling of words, and still get away with it? How far can you change, or play with, the readers’ expectations of a character; after initially setting up that character based largely on their accent and speech patterns?

Perhaps this does all come down to the audience. The market for the books I was reading is niche at best, and people are buying these books with certain expectations, as are the mainstream audience, when they buy the latest blockbuster.
Obviously the direct speech in the latter shouldn’t be taxing to the average reader, where the whole text may be all but indecipherable to a non-Scots speaker in first case. These types of books are, by and large, by people who ‘want ti stop the auld tongue fi dein oot,’ for people who ‘want to stop the old language from dying out,’ and that’s fine.  

But it still doesn’t answer my question: ‘How must slang dialogue should you put in direct speech, in a standard-language book?’
Is this really just a ‘how long is a piece of string,’ question?
Or is there a really definitive answer?


  1. "Should it be authentic at the expense of clarity?"

    One thing I do find coming to mind is that even non-dialect dialog isn't truly authentic. That is to say, dialog that reads well on a page often doesn't really reflect how people actually talk (which always makes the advice 'listen to conversations around you when considering dialog' seem dubious to me).

    This would suggest, in my mind, there is a lot more wiggle room at the 'authenticity' end of things with dialect as well. Though, yeah, it's going to be excruciatingly difficult balance at times.

    I dealt with a related issue in early drafts of a Georgian England-era work I was writing. It didn't have a huge amount of period slang (I slipped it in there on occasion when the meaning by context was really,really obvious), but I was trying really hard to match the syntax, word choice, et cetera of the period (for mostly upper-middle class English country types). I read period letters, books, et cetera before writing my book to better match the language patterns.

    I rather liked it and the authenticity I thought it brought my story, but my feedback from that mostly was negative, and in this case we're not even talking dense slang or something but just slightly older syntax and word choice.

    Though, in the end, I'm unsure if there is a good answer to this question unless you are targeting a niche audience.

  2. I've seen dialogue effectively suggest a dialect by showing one or two key words or phrases. Maybe the character always says "oot" instead of "out" or "boot" instead of boat. But "fi dein oot" in my opinion is too much.

  3. Thanks for the helpful comments.

    I am initially targeting a nich-market with this. If it fails I may think about re-writing for the general flash-fic market.

    The main problem with this is that the market I’m looking out is for the entire prose to be written in ‘dialect’ not just the dialogue.
    I agree there are various tricks you can use to give the overall feel in dialogue without going overboard with the slang.

    In this instance: 'It’s a-aboot goin ower-board wi the local havirn.'