Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Another aside on the question of language, partly inspired by the sacking of Cheryl Cole from an American TV program because her accent was said to be incomprehensible to US audiences. (Note to self – remember never to watch another movie with Holly Hunter doing her southern accent unless accompanied by an interpreter.)
‘Hell is other people’. Of course it is. They judge us by how we look and what we wear, and there’s nothing much we can do to alter their hastily formed opinions. I’m not just bemoaning the fact that, as a decrepit male, I can’t be photographed standing naked behind a pile of my books and hope it’ll create a sudden boost in sales. No, I think it’s a self-evident truth. We’re judged by how we look and, perhaps most of all, by how we speak.
(As an aside to this 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 prohibits the development of arcane terminology to a devastating extent”, he won’t be carrying a hod on a construction site.
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 wintin?’ Both 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 policemen 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 the border between Scotland and England 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, so they weren’t incomprehensible, but they did retain some of their accents.
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”.
See what I mean? Hell really is other people.