I’ve recently finished reading The Commitments by Roddy Doyle and A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. The former is set in Dublin, the latter in an unnamed British mining town that resembles the author’s home town of Barnsley in South Yorkshire. The characters’ spoken words are written in the unique dialect of their geography. So the Irish brogue looks like “Is she anny good at the oul’ singin’?” and peppered liberally with swear words and the occasional ‘eejit’ and ‘jaysis’. The Yorkshire vernacular becomes “Gi’o’er, Jud, tha breaking my arm!” and “I’ll tell t’farmer on thi if tha does.” These are not fictional languages or created dialects like that found in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange but phonetic representations of existing speech.
Written dialect is a potential barrier for a reader, who may have to work hard to understand the text by sounding out words, just as they did when they were a child learning to speak and read. For example, in the sentence above, ‘Gi’o’er’ has crashed together ‘give’ and ‘over’ and replaced the missing letters with apostrophes. That this actually is a contraction of ‘give over’ is only revealed when attempting to say the word out loud. An online Yorkshire dictionary removes the apostrophes and spells it ‘geeoer’, meaning ‘to stop’. Using dialect however, adds an authenticity to the text that gives the reader greater access to the character once the barrier is removed.
The reader clearly has an advantage if they are already familiar with the accent. It would be a brave author (and editor) who writes in a dialect of which they do not have a working knowledge. George Bernard Shaw made dialect a central conceit in his 1914 play Pygmalion and attempted to replicate a Cockney accent in the text. But he had to admit some difficulty in an early stage note,
“The Flower Girl. Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y’ de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel’s flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f’them? [Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London].”
The authenticity of Hines’ Yorkshire accent comes shining through in his novel, but there is an incident during the protagonist’s school day that highlights an interesting phenomenon. Billy Casper, who appears to be about fourteen or fifteen years old, has to write a short fictional story for his English teacher. It begins,
“One day I wolke up and my muther said to me heer Billy theres your brecfast in bed for you there was backen and egg and bred and butter and a big pot of tea when I had my brekfast the sun was shining out side and I got drest and whent down stairs we lived in a big hous up moor edge and we add carpits on the stairs and in the all and sentrall eeting.”
The effort to replicate poor literacy does not seem to be as successful as replicating a Yorkshire accent; the spelling and punctuation appear forced and exaggerated. The difference is that we cannot remember a time when we couldn’t spell or read, but we can remember, with effort, when or how we spoke with an accent.
In 1919 a short novel titled The Young Visiters [sic] was published. It had been written in 1890 by nine year old Daisy Ashford and quickly became very popular for its humour and gentle storytelling. The opening sentence is,
“Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him. He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue. Mr Salteena had dark short hair and mustache and wiskers which were very black and twisty. He was middle sized and he had very pale blue eyes.”
Although young Daisy Ashford is hardly illiterate the spelling and structure of her writing have understandable errors of spelling unlike Hines’ illogical illiteracy. Interestingly, various editions of The Young Visiters have tidied up the text over the years, including correcting spelling errors to make them consistently incorrect, in an effort to make it easier to follow.
For writers and editors, ensuring the authenticity of a character’s voice by thoughtful use of appropriate language is an important aspect of engaging the reader in the narrative.
Ashford, Daisy. (1919) 1984. The Young Visiters. London: Chatto & Windus
Burgess, Anthony. 1962. A Clockwork Orange. London: Heinemann
Doyle, Roddy. 1988. The Commitments. London: Heinemann
Hines, Barry. 1968. A Kestrel for a Knave. London: Penguin
Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion, Act 1 lines 33-35