Monday, December 13, 2010

Speaking in Foreign Tongues

"It's a braw, bricht moonlit nicht."

Just thought it would be relevant to start off this post with a line from a song called "Wee Deoch and Doris", a song written by Scottish entertainer Sir Harry Lauder. Its translation? It's a beautiful, bright moonlit night (more or less). The Queen's English (or King's English, in Sir Harry's era) can be a wonderful thing when you put a wee Scottish spin on it. Also somewhat entertaining as I've noticed that the Scottish accent is used quite a bit for comedic advertising.

A couple of people mentioned that they liked the use of my dad's Scottish accent in a post from a few days ago. Funny thing is...I don't hear an accent when my parents talk. I suppose any child with parents who speak with an accent will tell you that after so many years of hearing that accent you no longer perceive it when they talk. When I was a child I would occasionally bring friends over after school. They would listen to my parents, smiling and nodding in response to what was being said to them. Later, my friends would ask me what it was they were saying.

I'd like to think that whenever I use a Scottish accent in my writing it's fairly accurate. So my knowledge of the accent comes from listening to them. And, of course, from listening to that great Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. I'll attach a link to a 7 min. video here, but it's 18+ for mature subject matter and more than a few 'sweary words.' My Auntie Pat back in Scotland used to mail me out the annual 'Broons' or 'Oor Wullie' at Christmas. These were compilations of the comics carried in the Sunday Post newspaper each week. I have included a Christmas themed comic of the Broons from 1993. It won't be easy to read and I'm hoping that you can click on the picture to enlarge it. It will give you a good example of the Scottish speech written as it is spoken.

*Crap* f*%$ing technology. I tried clicking on the comic strip after posting and it won't enlarge. Story of my life. If anyone desperately wants to read the Broons comic email me and I'll send you the one that I scanned.

My creative writing instructor, Ed Kavanagh always told us that we should be careful when using local dialects in writing. It's often best to not even attempt it unless you do it well. Below is a short excerpt from his novel "The Confessions of Nipper Mooney" published by Killick Press in 2001. I think it gives a flavour of the Newfoundland accent without being over the top.

"How you findin' the teachers?"

"Okay, I s'pose."

"Well, I'd watch them, too--especially the Brothers. A couple of the fellas I works with on the dockyard went to school with the Brothers. They told me all about 'em. Some of the friggers sounds like real nut cases." He glanced at Nipper. "Want my advice?"


"Blend in," Bobby said. "Don't go doin' nothin' to draw attention to yourself. Then the Townies will leave you alone. And the Brothers, well, as long as you don't piss 'em off, they probably won't look twice--unless you comes from some rich la-di-da family. Or unless you're right smart--you know, winning scholarships and stuff like that. That's what the fellas I works with said, anyway."

"No need to worry about that," Nipper said.

What's your thoughts on using accents in dialogue? Do you try it very often? Are you confident in using a certain accent or dialect? Enquiring minds want to know...

I'll finish here with links to a couple of articles I stumbled across. The Use of Foreign phrases in Creative Writing by Laurence O'Sullivan and How to Write Dialogue with a Foreign Accent by Polina Skibinskaya both seem to have useful information.


Linda said...

Interesting post. I love Scottish accents (I love Scotland). I use little dialect in my own writing, probably because most of my characters are pretty mainstream American. But I listen to people talk all the time on the subway and on the Baltimore streets, and I've lifted that language for several short pieces. A little bit goes a long way, so I think of using dialect/accents like using cayenne pepper. Peace...

Natalie L. Sin said...

I avoid it, but I'm happy to go with colloquialisms and what not. Or I write in standard English, but make it known that my characters are speaking in their native language. Some things simply don't translate, unless you want to read stuff like that:

Character 1: Solid or fluid?

Character 2: Guy falling down in the street! I would not embezzle while transporting raw sewage.

Character 1: Go fuck your mother.

Bukowski's Basement said...

strip looks funny, alan...

a tip. Use Firefox and in HTML mode, you can enlarge the photo manually. That might help.

Cathy Webster (Olliffe) said...

I'm pretty sure I couldn't stomach an entire book written in accented language but it's fun to see it sprinkled in an otherwise 'standard' story, like the way you used it in that piece about your father. It makes the character stand out. Makes him instantly funny. I think Linda's cayenne pepper comment is perfect.

Michael Solender said...

Lilt with a the brogue on my ear. Much more difficult as your instructor points out to execute on the page, though done well here.Nice post.

Laura Eno said...

I loved reading your father's brogue in your recent post. The words you picked made it easy to understand, which I think is the secret to successfully using a dialect.

kathryn said...

You're freaking me out a little bit with this post, Alan. I was thinking about my favorite expressions here in Blogville on the commute home tonight.

Okay, so it's not exactly the same with me here.

It can be fun to add dialect to our posts...but you're right when you say it's not easy. Wit dat said, I wanna know...are you talkin' to ME?

Patricia Stoltey said...

It's hard to write dialect well, that's for sure. There are American writers who can capture the lilt and phrasing of the American Indian, for instance, but when I've tried to write it, it comes out all wrong. I think it's a very special talent to do it well without driving the reader crazy.

Entre Nous said...

Reminds me of my father's Irish Brogue thing he had going, but he never spoke enough to have it heard in full swing!

Katey said...

That's really good advice on the dialect. I was terrified writing Scripped because some of the characters are genuine Mountain People. Like, I'm from WV. I know people who talk like that. *I* can talk like that. But over the top... so bad.

Good example!

Funny how accents disappear after a while, innit?

Alan W. Davidson said...

Linda- Very true, likening the use of dialect to sprinkling cayanne pepper. I like that.

Natalie- Yeah, you see that a lot in novels...Wang talked to Fan Duck in the mountain Cantonese dialect of their youth...

Yep, those sorts of mistranslations can be a bit awkward.

Ant- Thanks for the tip, man. I'll read up on that when I get a bit of time.

Cathy- True, every little bit you can make your characters stand out the better.

MIchael- Thank you sir. He kept to his rule and used the accents sparingly in his novel.

Laura- Thank you too. I enjoy throwing that around once in a while. It's great for adding comedic effect. The Scottish seem to bring a lot of laughter on themselves.

Kathryn- I'll bet that you're the queen of New Yawk accents. Nice DeNiro, by the way...nect time, try it with a mohawk.

Patricia- I couldn't begin to imagine how to write an American indian voice (or First Nations person, as we say to the north). I haven't read a lot of westerns, I must admit.

Joni- I'll bet it does. Probably 80% of the population here in Newfoundland are decended from Irish immigrants.

Katey- So are you saying you've been around the West Virginia accents so much you don't notice them any more? Imagine putting that voice to an effete, turn-of-the-century vampire.

J. M. Strother said...

It's hard to pull off, a pleasure when it works and a nightmare when it doesn't. Even when it works well it takes more effort on the part of the reader, so they need to get comfortable with it quickly or you'll lose them. I had a little trouble getting into The Help due to dialect at the get go, but it was done so well that by the time I reached the end of chapter one it was no longer an issue.

Me, I'm the type who will turn on English subtitles when I'm watching a BBC murder mystery. Can't tell what the hell they're saying half the time otherwise. :p