Northern wit

A pet hate of mine, or rather a regular cause of exasperated fuming, is the bizarre and unnecessary rendering of accents into written form. I first encountered this as a child, reading the James Herriot vet books after I’d seen some episodes of All Creatures Great and Small on TV. I read the books in a Yorkshire accent, at that age I doubt I could have read them in any other, but there were always speeches I couldn’t understand, strange spellings and a confusing trait of putting t’ before most words. When it was eventually pointed out to me that this t’ was supposed to represent the swallowed “the” that I’d naturally been using since I first learned to speak, I was puzzled: reading “t’kitchen” made me say something in my head that sounded like “to kitchen”, hence the confusion. And I wasn’t convinced anyone from outside Yorkshire would say it right from that rendering, as it’s a hard one to learn. Why not just write “the kitchen”, so everyone understands what’s meant, and if they want to (or have to) say it in the Yorkshire accent they know the character has, that’s an added bonus?

The trigger for my fumes today was one of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels, the first one I’ve read, though I watched a couple of TV episodes a while ago. The novel as a whole was well worth it, more subtly and engagingly written than a lot of detective stories, but gripping throughout, despite being easily four times the length of an Agatha Christie or a Raymond Chandler. The slight niggle for me was the occasional and inconsistent rendering of accents. The book’s set in Yorkshire, and let’s face it it’s still my native tongue (a thicker accent and a lot more dialect gets used in my head than would ever emerge from my over-educated mouth these days) so I was reading all the characters (t’characters?) in Yorkshire anyway, except the ones introduced from the start as from London, Wales, Scotland, Manchester. Actually I probably read the ones from London and Manchester that way too. But then we get to Dalziel.

Andy Dalziel is rough, crude, working class, full of choice phrases you wouldn’t want your maiden aunt to overhear. Fine, but why make him almost the only character to be entirely written in mangled English? For a native, some of the spelling and phrasing results in ludicrous sentences, and that is the main problem – writing phonetically means you have a particular readers’ accent in mind. Surely the whole point you’re making is that people with different accents pronounce the same words differently – why should that change if you write “luv” rather than “love”? (Both of which I pronounce the same anyway)

Back when I was younger and less jaded, and was more prepared to read a novel for its plot when the writing wasn’t that great, I read quite a few of Ben Elton’s. He’s particularly fond of denoting differences in background (because when it comes down to it, accent and class are still solidly linked – the stronger the one, the lower the other, so the assumption goes) by the spelling of a popular swear-word (I can’t be bothered to find out if wordpress has filters…). So northerners say “fook”, southerners say “fack”, and posh southerners say “fark”. Now, that might work in Ben Elton’s accent, I couldn’t say, but for me (and indeed Geordie OneMonkey), “fook” for whatever reason rhymes with Pook from the phrase “Puck of Pook’s Hill”, whereas I think the intention was a word that rhymes with Puck. Even among northerners there’s no uniformity in pronunciation of that double-o; some Lancashire accents rhyme “look” with how I’d say “Luke”, whereas OneMonkey and I rhyme it with “luck”, for me, “book” and “cook” have the same sound as “look”, but OneMonkey rhymes “book” with something closer to “Luke” than “look” while not being either (I asked him how he said “cook” and he replied with a straight face “make my dinner”. But in a Geordie accent, obviously.) Is Ben Elton assuming that his readership will all have middle-class middle-England non-accents to start with? Or that we might need a bit of a hint on how people speak, beyond “she was from Manchester”? Presumably this is related to the London-centricity of the media, which no doubt I’ll get back to some other time.

If it wasn’t for Reginald Hill (Cumbrian by birth I believe) I’d wonder if it was all a way of poking fun at the common little northerners; Ben Elton’s facking and farking notwithstanding, it’s usually northern accents (including Scottish varieties) that produce the mangled English. Even in the Dalziel and Pascoe novel, a Welsh character was written in standard English but we were told she had a distinctive Celtic lilt, whereas a Scot was given similar treatment to Dalziel himself. Is that just because we’re used to northern accents being rendered this way, whereas there are no standard spellings for the pronunciation of English in South Wales?

When I write, and I haven’t specified a different origin (not that I do that very often. I tried a Geordie character once, foolishly thinking that ten years of close contact had given me an ear for patterns of speech; it made OneMonkey’s hair stand on end), my natural baseline is what I think of as “well-spoken Yorkshire”. Noticeably northern, but consciously or unconsciously modified by the character into a form less likely to make other people assume they’re stupid. It’s partly laziness on my part, and partly a desire to make the dialogue sound natural. I like to think that any reader could read it in their own default accent and not notice any difference; of course that’s not going to be universally true but it’s a nice aim. If I wrote that a Scottish character said they were from “Glasgae” (as so often happens in books), I’d read that back as (and here I write phonetically for well-spoken Yorkshire) Glaz-gay, whereas someone further south may well read it as Glars-geh. Whereas if I just said the man was from Glasgow and had a reasonably strong accent, everyone would get the right idea. Does it even matter if they read the dialogue in the right accent?

OneMonkey commented earlier that if you wrote “I’m going home” in a book, a Geordie would probably read those words in standard English but with an accent, whereas if they were to announce in person that they were going home, they may well use a phrase that I would have to render for the well-spoken Yorkshireman as “gan’n yem”. Which begs the question: where does accent end and dialect begin? But I think that might have to be answered another day.

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7 comments

  1. If you’ve got a good ear for it, writing dialogue with an accent can enhance the story by giving a sense of location or by indicating if a character is at home or out of place in his surroundings. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good ear for accents or dialogue, so I tend to avoid using them in my fiction. I do feel though that sometimes my stories are missing something when all the characters speak in standard English.
    Recently I’ve started writing down snatches of overheard conversation so that I have a data bank of dialect phrases to work into my stories. It’s amazing the things that people talk about on the bus when they think that no one is listening! I’ve come up with a few interesting plot ideas that way as well.

  2. Oh buses are fantastic – I think of it as being in Alan Bennett mode when I sit there trying to scribble in my notebook as we jolt round corners. I’m hoping to go back to commuting by train soon though, which I prefer for many reasons, but I wonder if it’s quite the same store of material. I might have to start taking bus trips as research at weekends.

  3. I do have one story where accents are employed, however it’s the structure of the sentence that is changed, not the spelling itself. With accents where they sound a certain way…I’ll just say what accent they have and move on.

    Just my two cents, however.

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