29 June 2012

lexical logic

We've been having a discussion of late in our writing group about slang and accents and regional dialects and whether it interferes with a reader's comprehension. How authentic do we dare draw our characters? With the internet offering a world of readers access to our work through various websites,novels that are written from a local perspective are reviewed and judged by outsiders with often limited, or less, experience of the people from a particular area. So for example, jargon and ways of speaking that most people in England would recognize as coming from this or that part of the country, are being scrutinized by non-British reviewers who question what it all means and if it's really necessary, or maybe the author just can't write and doesn't know proper grammar. So if someone writes a character straight out of the Queensland bush, should they subtitle the dialogue a la Guy Ritchie's “Snatch” character?

As this discussion has been unfolding,I just happen to be reading “As I Lay Dying,” by William Faulkner. Here's a guy who has never stopped winning accolades for nailing authenticity in his regional characters. Here's a sample:

Durn that road . . . A-laying there,right up to my door, where every bad luck that comes and goes is bound to find it. I told Addie it want any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman, “Get up and move, then.” But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord put roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. And so He never aimed for folks to live on a road, because which gets there first, I say, the road or the house? Did you ever know Him to set a road down by a house? I says. No you never, I says, because it's always men cant rest till they gets the house set where everybody that passes in a wagon can spit in the doorway, keeping the folks restless and wanting to get up and go somewheres else when He aimed for them to stay put like a tree or a stand of corn. Because if He'd a aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewheres else,wouldn't He a put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason He would.


  1. Hi

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  2. I remember having a conversation with an American about the film Rogue Trader once. In case you don't know it, it's about the true story of one Nick Leeson, a derivatives trader who bankrupted the bank. Oddly enough, the lead is played by Ewan McGregor, a Scot who puts on a London/Essex accent to take the character.
    The American had been (and I was amazed to discover he wasn't kidding) positively offended by the fact that all of these characters used so much 'Brit-speak', that he hadn't been able to understand the film. For my money, it was more a case of him not being willing to try. The real world doesn't all express itself in a mid-western accent (which this bloke should have realised, being an English teacher in the UAE) and requires you to make the effort. He did actually believe that the film-makers should have stuffed authenticity for his convenience.
    Mine was the writing that actually inspired some of this debate and I have mixed feelings about it. I'm a Brit, so some things about dialects are so obvious to me that I don't see them. I was initially confused by the woman who thought my writing grammatically innacurate and couldn't think what she was talking about. It was a while before I realised and found myself emailing her to say that I could make characters like Meganwy grammatically correct or Welsh, but not both.
    I was a little put out that she hadn't seen that the innacuracies varied according to character and were consistent - I worked hard at giving each person their own voice and énough readers have told me that the voices 'work' for me to think that I succeeded.
    I can accept that it is harder for someone who doesn't have the sort of familiarity that being a local gives. I've lived in Yorkshire and with both Scots and the Welsh, enough to be able to reproduce some bits of their speech, but there are surely enough fake Scots in films (Star Trek and Shrek)that a North American would have some awareness.
    In the end, I supose it's a question of the perceived audience of a book. It would be possible to write for a non-Brit audience by making everyone speak like characters in Harry Potter. For me, someone with a love of dialect and regional accent, that isn't what I really want to do. My characters are unappologetic about the way they speak and where they are from and that's the way I want them to be. The best defense of this that I've ever heard is by the folk group Show of Hands. If you look up their song, Roots, on Youtube, you'll get a rant on Englishmen in baseball caps (among other things) that speaks of identity and pride in it.
    All that being said, if an agent came by and said they'd take me on if everyone wound down a notch, I'd probably look hard at what I'd written to see where I could smooth some bits off. They'd still have to be distinctive in the way they speak though, or they wouldn't be such different people.

  3. it's a bit like reading shakespeare or going to a performance, isn't it? early on it's all garbly-goop, but i get it all now. it helped going to performances where actors were able to enunciate the words such that the old style of english was comprehensible (i expect the translations aren't true middle english). and with the reading, i guess i matured as a reader. in movies it's much the same with Scotty speaking just clear enough that he's understandable but still has a bit of the twang about him.

    i was once left alone with a cowboy from queensland and i was petrified because i couldn't understand a word he was saying and i knew i would eventually have to answer him. if you wrote exactly as he speaks, i doubt people encountering the accent for the first time would get him at all.

    even with "As I Lay Dying" i found myself having to reread a bit to get it.