Spikkin right - by Bill Kirton

I have no shame. If I thought being photographed standing naked behind a pile of my books would create a sudden boost in sales, I’d willingly disrobe. My aesthetic sense, however, is sufficiently developed to persuade me that it would have the opposite effect. We’re judged by how we look, what we wear and, more importantly for the sake of this post, by how we speak.

(As an 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?’)

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 in your analysis anticipates the deplorable development of arcane terminology which is merely adventitious’, 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. (Also, I know which one I’d rather spend time with.)

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 win’in?’ (The apostrophe in the middle of the final word is meant to represent a glottal stop. If anyone has a better way of representing one, please let me know.) Anyway, both these expressions 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 wanting?’

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. I rewrote their conversations in a way that retained some aspects of their accents but didn’t baffle the reader. As I did so, though, I was aware that I was taking away some of their ‘truth’.

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’.

Now rearrange these words to form a sentence I say and write far too often: ‘Other Hell is people’.


Mari Biella said…
This is a thorny problem all right, Bill. I’m currently writing a story with a Welsh character. If I tried to reproduce her speech exactly as I imagine it, the results would be irritating if not incomprehensible, at least to anyone who isn’t Welsh. I have to tone it down, then; but if I tone it down too far, how much of that character gets lost in the process? I think it is possible to strike a balance, though. Thomas Hardy, for example, managed to convey the distinctive speech patterns of his Wessex characters without it becoming annoying or disruptive.
julia jones said…
I suppose a little can be done with describing the way s/he speaks rather than attempting to replicate it in words - then roll on the happy day when some skilled narrator bring it to life on audio (cf Debbie's post yesterday). If you think about there's so LITTLE we can really do to recreate certain aspects of our characters - movement, for instance. It's a wonder they come alive as they do - and thank heavens for readers' willingness to fill in the gaps from their own experience and imagination. We're in the world of the symbolic, not the actual. And with the actual in mind, Bill, I'm so glad you're going to be standing BEHIND the pile of books when you take your clothes off. Is the idea that eager readers queue up to purchase volumes one by one -- thus gradually diminishing the pile to revelationary levels?
AliB said…
I've been thinking about this too, Bill and recently read a Scottish detective novel in which the accents were transliterated throughout and although I understood all of it it still struck me as awkward and reminiscent of those old Sunday Post favourites The Broons - okay in a comic strip (maybe!) but not a whole novel. I know of one writer who recommends the '10%' rule'for dialect which strikes me as about right- of course we still have to decide which 10%! In the end I suppose we have to develop voices for our characters that ring true to us and hope that others will latch on.
Bill Kirton said…
Mari, I taught in a school in Dorset for 3 years and loved having conversations with the groundsman there because of his gorgeous, rounded accent but also because some of the expressions he used were straight out of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Julia, I seem to remember that there used to be cards in pubs on which hung rows of packets of peanuts. By buying packets, customers gradually revealed the charms of the smiling lady behind them. I fear, though, that if I adopted that same strategy customers would probably buy other books and add them to the pile.

Alib, I agree completely. But it's not just getting the Scottish accent right, it's also conveying the fact that it's an Edinburgh, Aberdeen, or Glasgow variation of it. Most of us are used to Glaswegian but I was fascinated when I first started reading Irvine Welsh to find myself 'hearing' Embra-speak.
Lydia Bennet said…
this is an ongoing debate Bill, thank you for sharing your experiences (and do post pix of your naked book selling experiment I look forward to your next blog post too). I write books and plays set in my native north east/northumberland. I have one character who speaks with a strong accent so I let her do it, even so it's not entirely transliterated - it's mostly in the rhythm and patterns of speech anyway. I've found even US readers have rarely been put off, except occasionally by her swearing! To my ear, the accents within the north east are very different but it would be hard to show that in dialogue without being too dense to read comfortably. A scattering of dialect words is probs enough.
Kathleen Jones said…
I, too, look forward to the poster pics! Read this with interest since I'm writing something at the moment set in Italy, but with a bunch of expats who speak English, French, Greek, Wolof, Arabic etc etc - you get the problem? Wrestling with the problem of indicating accents, differing levels of competence in English and Italian as well as representing character. OOOOOf. Should never have started!
This is something I've had to deal with in radio plays as well - and I agree about the propensity of London based editors and producers to think that anything from anywhere outside the boundaries of that city is incomprehensible. I also thought about it a lot with The Physic Garden, where the story is told in a voice which is (and had to be) very definitely early nineteenth century Scots. But writing for radio certainly taught me that you can indicate regional accent, voice etc with the cadence and pattern of speech as much as anything else - and of course the use of the odd Scots word where appropriate. I've seen novels with glossaries but we decided against it with TPG. We thought that if the sense wasn't obvious from the context something wasn't working! In my opinion, Stevenson got it right in Kidnapped and Catriona. They are undoubtedly Scottish, the Highlanders could be nothing else, and yet it is never incomprehensible or even difficult. I like to think that dramatising those novels in ten episodes gave me a head start when it came to writing Scots dialogue at least!
Dennis Hamley said…
Like Val, I think the secret lies mainly in the speech rhythms. The odd regional phrase perhaps, but to me each regional accent has a distinctive rhythmic feel unique to it quite apart from actual vocabulary or expression. To me, the absolutely transparent 'Shut t'bloody door' is a far better way of conveying a West Riding Yorkshire voice than the dialect expression for the same action which, when I lived there, people used to use to either tease or annoy me, I never knew quite which, 'Put wood in t'hoile.'

In my first novel, set in medieval Yorkshire, I really tried to reproduce the dialect with the odd medieval phrase thrown in. The hardback was OK: nobody questioned it. It's been published twice in the US by different publishers and unquestioned there too. But when it went into Puffin, Kaye Webb, no less, made me rewrite all the Yorkshire dialogue. It ended up as a weirdly slightly eccentric version of RP, which I thought was awful but it seemed to satisfy them. I look on the book with some embarrassment now.
glitter noir said…
Good one, Bill. I faced the same dilemma in my Boss MacTavin mysteries--Boss being an Edinburgh Scot who had the South beat into him...and ended up with a weird accent which I called Southern Scotch. In the first two books I stuck mainly to "Aye", "wee", "y'all" , etc. Just enough to give the flavor. But in the third book I wanted Boss to go undercover, got up as an elderly Edinburgh thug. With Cally's help I rendered about a half-dozen lines, all told, in pure Edinburgh dialect, for a meeting with a crooked cop. But since the cop can't understand a word of the dialect, Boss is allowed to bring a translator. Even so, not to overdo the joke, I put some of the dialect in summary mode: My lips were getting tired. It wouldn't do, I told him, for us not to settle the matter right now. "You're goddamned right, you old coot," he replied. Etc.

Whatever I do from here this score, the goal will remain to suggest the flavor without making readers work too hard.
Nick Green said…
"Be gaaarn yee cwoi'lint grimmit naargh!" as Joseph of Wuthering Heights would say - and I think all of us gathered here today would concur with his fine sentiments.
Bill Kirton said…
Lydia, you’ve highlighted an important aspect of dialogue (and writing generally) which I think rarely gets enough attention – rhythm. I agree that if you get that right, it’s much easier to ‘hear’ the accent. My dad was from Sunderland so I’m familiar with the subtle differences you hear in a relatively small area of your part of the world.

Kathleen, you’ve taken it to a pretty drastic extreme. Good luck. (BTW, I’ll be auditioning body doubles for the shoot.)

Catherine, first, respect for those adaptations. Crucial to get the accents right there. Next, one of my early radio plays was set in Plymouth but, thanks to the (again, London-centric) BBC’s attitude to the regions, the accents the actors produced could have placed the action anywhere from Bristol to Penzance. You’ll have heard the word ‘Mummerset’ to describe it, no doubt. It produced the same reaction in me then as some attempts at a Scottish accent do now.

Dennis, picking up on rhythms again, you’re right, they don’t just flag up an accent, they can alter the power of a sentence. ‘You haven’t got a chance’ is feeble compared with ‘Ye’ve got nae chance’.
And your point about specific expressions makes me wonder whether anywhere else uses the verb ‘bock’ as they used to (and probably still do), in Plymouth. ‘Dawn bock me ‘air’ means ‘Don’t spoil my hair’. The dictionary says bock is a variant of boke – i.e. vomit.

Good choice, Reb. I remember how Boss’s Scottish persona got him into and out of trouble. And I do like the idea that speaking Scots dialect makes your lips tired.
Bill Kirton said…
Nick, I'll take your word for it.
Dennis Hamley said…
Bill, that's right. Look at the incredible difference in force, energy and point between such simple statements as 'No it isn't' and 'No it's not.'
Dennis Hamley said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dennis Hamley said…
Bill, that's right. Look at the incredible difference in force, energy and point between such simple statements as 'No it isn't' and 'No it's not.'
Bill Paterson said…
Excuse me if someone has said something like this - I did not read all the comments. But what about the possibility of glosses, or maybe even small under-text glossing (with the words in English appearing under the Scots words)? Also, what about filling information in about what is being said via context or commentary. For instance:

‘Fa ye spikkin till?’ might followed by, "...he said, suspecting he already knew who she was talking to / inquiring who she was speaking to"

or, ‘Fa’s 'e loon?’ might be followed by, "...he said, inquiring about the youth's identity," or perhaps commenting that he thought the boy looked familiar, or had a strange aspect, etc.

I realize that essentially interpreting for the reader could become very cumbersome if there is a lot needing the treatment, but surely the reader would begin to pick up the characteristic elements such as the f-interrogatives, especially if there were a glossary (ideally in my opinion the under-text glossing mentioned above).
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks for the comment, Bill. I welcome any suggestions aimed at helping to retain the authenticity of the characters. Of the two you make, the glossary appeals more. I think the second suggestion, your ingenious way of explicating an impenetrable bit of dialogue, might make the text a bit heavy, and readers who didn't need the 'translation' might be put off by the tautology.
The much lamented Terry Pratchett made playful and hilarious use of footnotes (which I take it is the form the glossary might take), but personally, I find having to step out of the text for enlightenment then back in again spoils the flow.
I think the solution is to accept the need to compromise but maybe gradually 'educate' the reader to accept and understand at least some of the variations.
Bill Paterson said…
Thanks for the response, Bill. Yes, I can see how too much explanation could quickly get in the way. I will be very interested to know if you manage to publish English works with Scots mixed in, and how you do it.

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee