Monday, 16 March 2015

Authentic Language v Reader's Understanding by Wendy H. Jones




I've started the post today with a photo of Glamis Castle. This is the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and is situated near Dundee in Scotland. Castles are something that we Scots seem to do extremely well. The other is using a language which sounds very bonnie indeed. There's nothing like the sound of a Scot in full flow, be it with the lilt of the Highlands and Islands or the strong accents of Glasgow or Dundee. However, these melodic sounds are accompanied by words which may mean nothing to a reader outside the area. 

For example, I have a bonnie wee burn at the end of my garden. A burn would be called a stream anywhere else in the UK. In the middle of Dundee, we have a hill called the Law. Law is an old Scots word for hill. Therefore, the proper name is The Law. As I write crime books this could be somewhat confusing if I said "there's been a body found on The Law". So I have to say the Law Hill. I am sure you are getting my drift here. It's affy confusing as they say around these parts. For the non Scots amongst us, this means it is awfully confusing. 

These are just a couple of examples and there are many more. I am sure you could provide a whole host from your own geographical area. Words which to us are commonplace can be confusing for readers even just a few miles up the road. So,
 how, on earth do we as authors ensure dialogue is authentic, without being so thick with local words that the reader is lost? My solution is to use the occassional Scottish word where the meaning is clear within the structure of the sentence. Any more than this and the need to translate will pull the reader out of the story.

I am interested to know what others do to ensure authenticity. Please share in the comments so we can all learn from each other.

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16 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

I began to write a comment, then realised I'd written a blog about it myself, Wendy. My focus was Aberdeen and the issue you highlight in your final paragraph. It's at
http://authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/spikkin-right-by-bill-kirton.html

Wendy Jones said...

Whoops Bill, I didn't realise you had already covered this very topic. Didn't mean to repeat a post

Bill Kirton said...

Sorry, Wendy. That wasn't my intention. I was just being lazy (as usual) about writing a comment.

Dennis Hamley said...

I think your formula is about right, Wendy. At least, it's what I do. But what I also do is to try to catch the rhythms and constructions of particular dialects. For example, Yorkshire dialects seem to move in a different way from many others and has, like most others, peculiar constructions as well as unique words which give which give it its flavour. But I use them sparingly. I don't want to risk being accuse of being patronising. You're dead right though. It's catching the 'melodic flow' that's important.

Dennis Hamley said...

Sorry for foolish error in giving plural 'dialects' singular verbs. I deserve horsewhipping.

Nick Green said...

In 'The Storm Bottle' I had to decide how to render dialogue between bottlenose dolphins. I chose to use artistic license.

Lydia Bennet said...

We in Northumberland and Tyneside have many of the same dialect words as in Scotland, Wendy! I've often written in my native dialect but in novels, sparingly, as you say aiming at the flow, the pattern of speech, with some dialect words - though nowadays most people use fewer of their own dialect terms and more from other regions of the world anyway, due to media/online saturation. In my plays set in the past I have to make the dialect in the dialogue clear to the actors who can then flesh it out. I don't normally use phonetics but I do in the case of my 'charva' character Stacey in the crime novels. don't worry about repeating a blog post theme, these are ongoing issues for writers and worth bringing up many times.

Wendy Jones said...

Thank you for your comments everyone. It is good to see that we are all on the right track. I know some publications in the North of Scotland accept submissions in Doric, which to me would limit there market. saying that, it is good for people to be able to read stories in their own choice of vernacular

Yvonne Hertzberger said...

I had two well resoected authors read a bit of my writing ti critique it. Both told me I ought to use colloquial, current dialogue. My books are Fantasy, set in early medieval times in a culture akin to the British Isles. I use slightly archaic dialogue, even making up a slightly different form for the lower class. It would have been completely wrong for me to have heeded that advice of these men.

Wendy Jones said...

You raise a really good point here Yvonne. language also has to be appropriate for time as well as place. In my first book I had to use the language of the 1980's as well as today. It is also necessary to use language that is age appropriate as teenagers will use different words from the elderly. Thanks for this

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Oddly enough, my blog, coming up on Wednesday, touches on this a bit. Since I'm writing about Jean Armour, it's very much in and on my mind. When I wrote the Physic Garden which is told in the voice of a Scotsman living in very early nineteenth century Glasgow, I did include quite a lot of Scots words and certainly had a very distinct Scottish voice in my mind when I was telling the story. We thought about a glossary but I didn't like the idea much and my publisher didn't think it was necessary either - so I tried to make sure that things would be understood from the context. I've just spent many hours trawling through 200 years worth of papers of the Montgomerie family here in Ayrshire (didn't find what I was looking for mind you!) and was intrigued by the changing language in the letters. I studied this at university, but never had I come across such a graphic illustration of how the lowland Scots language had changed completely over time. Mostly because I was scanning letters from 1600 until the early 1800s and the change was immense!

Susan Price said...

It's a hard one. Yvonne, I think there's times when you use 21st Century colloquial in a historic novel - and time when it's right to use something a bit more archaic. It's always an artistic choice - and I agree, it's always one you have to make for yourself.
For a very effective use of modern slang in a historic story, see Garner's 'Red Shift' - Roman Legionairres talking like Vietnam Vets. Making the point that the Romans would have been speaking, to them, modern colloquial 'street' language.

Dennis Hamley said...

Yes, Sue, you're right. No matter in what age, contemporary speech always sounds modern. I had the same problem in my Joslin de lay series. How to be medieval without really pissing the reader off and yet just now and again reminding the reader this was all six hundred years ago. You're dead right about Garner's Romans. An inspired solution. Catherine, you know that I regard the language of The Physic Garden as an absolute tour de force - clarity and Scottishness brought together perfectly - and anyone wanting to find out how to do it should study the first person narrative very very closely.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thank-you, Dennis!

Reb MacRath said...

Perfect timing here, Wendy, since I'm 70% through your novel--and your handling of this challenge is one of the things I've really enjoyed. I'd also add that you strengthen the Scottish 'feel' of the book with well-placed observations on Dundee and Dundonians.

Wendy Jones said...

Thank you Reb. It was a difficult one. I wanted to get the flavour of the Dundonain language without overwhelming or confusing the reader. Being new to his it is difficult to work out the correct balance