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Thursday, 19 November 2009

English in its underwear


Scots is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that. - William McIlvanney

McIlvanney has pointed out more than once that the lower down the social ladder you get, the more metaphorical, the more idiomatic, and quite simply, the more poetic the language gets. His books deal with people across the whole social strata but he will be best remembered for his Laidlaw crime novels and Docherty, a story about a working-class miner. What is particularly distinctive about his style is that when people speak McIlvanney writes what they actually say and doesn't try to Anglify the text. A short example:

'Ah'm gonny kill 'im.'

'You dae. An' Ah kill you. No question.'

My background is not that dissimilar to McIlvanney’s. We both come from working class families, we both received better educations than our fathers and we both had fathers who didn't quite get us. Neither could see the point in reading fiction, “summat someone’s jist made up oot o’ their heed,” but both did read non-fiction. We both started off as poets before we became novelists (him, successful, me, not so much) – in spite of, or because of, all the Burns we had to read growing up (it’s hard to be sure) – but neither of us could leave the poetry alone; like a toddler, it gets into everything.

My own writing is quite different to McIlvanney’s – I never felt the need try and emulate his style even in the couple of short stories I’ve written in dialect – but the simple fact is he was the first writer I ever met in the flesh and got to talk to and, do you know what? He was just a bloke: no airs and graces and certainly no pretensions, as if being a writer was no different from being a miner or a teacher or the guy whose job it was to lock up the swings at night, something maybe I could be.

A number of Scottish writers have chosen on occasion to write in dialect rather than plain old English. This can cause problems for some readers so why bother? I'll come back to that but first a question: what's the difference between an accent and a dialect?

When you listen to someone like Billy Connolly talking nowadays no one would doubt that he was Scottish. He has a Scottish accent. Wrong. The thing is there is no such a thing as a 'Scottish' accent just as there is no such a thing as a 'Southern' accent – I'm talking about south of the Mason-Dixon Line here. Someone in Aberdeen sounds quite different to someone from Glasgow just as someone from Belfast sounds quite different from someone from Dublin. It's even imprecise to say that Connolly has a Glaswegian accent because someone from Kelvinside sounds completely different to someone from Partick where Connolly grew up; Connolly describes the Kelvinside accent as talking "wi jawries in yer gob" (marbles in ones mouth). But if we gave representatives from all the above a copy of the Sermon on the Mount to read we'd know in seconds where each of them was from. That's an accent, speaking your country's dominant language with a regional twang.

Billy Connolly on visiting Scotland

A dialect is another thing completely. It's not a language in its own right – Scottish isn't a language – but it is local variant of a language although there are those who would strenuously argue to the contrary (see here). I had a friend once who hailed from Stranraer in south-west Scotland, She talked about '"the bairns' meaning children, whereas in Glasgow the term is 'weans' (pronounced 'wains'); also she often used the expression 'ye ken' – which non-Scots assume we all say all the time (along with 'och aye the noo') – but that's not something you'd hear in Glasgow.

Dialects have rules. Let's take the word 'not'. In Glasgow we use 'no' most of the time. For example: "I'm not doing that" would become "Ah'm no daein that" however it all depends on where the word comes in a sentence, because "It was not me" would be rendered as "It wisne me". Likewise the difference between 'was' and 'were' – "I was there" becomes "Ah were there" and "We were there" becomes "We wis there." And, yes, I know that's the wrong way round but it's consistently that way.

Wherever you go in the world you'll encounter dialects and those dialects have rules. For example:

Speakers of African American English add the word 'be' before a verb to indicate that the action is habitual or ongoing. The sentence 'He be sleeping on the couch' means 'he sleeps on the couch on a regular basis', while 'He sleeping on the couch' mean 'he's sleeping on the couch now.' - Writing Accents and Dialects, Grammar Girl

For many kids, the English they learn at school is for all intents and purposes a foreign language.

Contrary to any still prevalent notions among academicians and educators that nonstandard dialects are simply sloppy, slovenly or careless usage, "broken English" or "bad grammar", scholars from various academic disciplines have been studying these dialects and have revealed them to be highly systematic and socially viable, with their own valid, linguistically describable rules of phonology, morphology and syntax. Indeed the very systematicity of such nonstandard dialects as American Black English Vernacular and its Caribbean Creole cousins suggests one reason for their persistence among students we are confronting in our inner-city classrooms. – Writing: Variation in writing, functional and linguistic-cultural, p142

Although attitudes to non-standard accents have become more tolerant in recent years – just look at the BBC announcers these days – non-standard syntax is still widely stigmatised.

Talking about the BBC, the first writer I ran across who wrote in dialect wasn't actually McIlvanney, although they were writing at the same time, it was the poet Tom Leonard. I bought his collection Intimate Voices – it was more than likely the first poetry collection I bought. In it we find probably his most (in)famous poem:



this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
thi trooth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.


A reading of ‘The 6 O’Clock News’

Now I know a few of you struggle with my 'Aggie and Shuggie' sketches when they appear so why do I do it to you? It's because I hate pretension. I use this family to poke fun at myself and even at the good people who do the reviews I'm hoping you'll read. It's far better than a post every few days pleading with people to buy my books. Am I poking fun at working class Scots. Yes. But then I've been a working class Scot all my life and we're more than happy to poke fun at ourselves. Aggie and Shuggie are my proxies. But I could be accused of writing in dialect simply because people who talk that way sound funny. Correction, that’s how people talk around here. It's all of yous that sound funny (no, 'yous' is not a typo).

Is Tom Leonard poking fun at Scottish people? No. He's poking the finger at the pretentious twats at the BBC who used to read the news in Received Pronunciation, that strangled version of English they insisted on broadcasting in for decades, as if the truth was only valid if spoken in BBC English. The fact is that no one has a monopoly on truth.

Leonard doesn't write all his poetry like that. In fact as far as I'm aware he's not written any poetry like that since 1979. It wasn't a fad though. He had a point to make and that was the best way to make it. Leonard's urban phonetic poetry is hard to read. When McIlvanney chose to use more realistic dialogue in his books he decided that a middle ground would be the best place for him. Consider this paragraph from the short story 'How Many Miles to Babylon?':

'Christ we're everywhere,' Benny said, raising his beercan in a toast to the empty room. 'We are the people. Open an alligator's gub in the Congo an' a Scotsman'll nod oot at ye. We're everywhere. Australia, Canada, America, South America, Asia.' He paused, running out of places. 'Russia. There was always Scotsmen in Russia. An' all over Europe. For centuries. India. A lotta Scottish graves in India.' He started to sing. 'There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier. We are the people. Scotsmen can go anywhere. An' why no' me? Why not Benny Mullen? Ye can go anywhere. Ye could even go –' His mind eddied with the drink and he waited to find what exotic flotsam it would throw up. 'To Babylon.' The word shimmered in his head. 'Babylon.' He laughed and drained his can. 'Correct. Ye could even go to Babylon. How many miles wid that be?'

Just on its own this is a wonderful character study and we learn to so much in this single paragraph. The use of dialect isn't intrusive and, once you realise it's a Scot talking, don't you find that a Scots accent appears too?

Hawd yer hosses! Whit's tha aboot a Scoats accent?

Sorry, Shuggie. He's perfectly right. There is no such a thing as a Scots accent. We've already established that but just like I have a 'Southern accent' in my head when I read Tennessee Williams so I appreciate that non-Scots will do their best to approximate the right accent so I imagine a few of you had Aggie and Shuggie talking like Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons or even (perish the thought) Shrek. My wife can tell the difference between a Louisiana accent and a Georgia accent but it all blurs into one in my head. But then unless you're familiar with all of McIlvanney's characters you won't know if the paragraph above is set in Graithnock (where he would have an Ayrshire twang like McIlvanney himself) or Glasgow. To be totally honest I can't remember but I tend to hear all his books in his voice when I read them irrespective of where they're set.

William McIlvanney in a TV advert

If we have a closer look at the dialogue here we have to admit that (and this is also true of the writer James Kelman) McIlvanney uses language that is neither "standard" nor "dialect," but trades on both in pursuit of specific literary ends. Let's just consider this wee bit from that last paragraph:

'There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier. We are the people."[1]

There's nothing inherently Scottish in those sentences but because we know a Scot is saying – well singing in first sentence and chanting the second – we 'hear' the accent. In reality what he’d say would be more like:

[sings] 'Thur wis a soja, a Scoattish soja. [shouts] We arra peep-puuul!'

The fact is that only the first sentence is part of the song, the opening line of 'The Green Hills of Tyrol'. The second is basically a war cry, part of a football chant.[2] There is no way someone who isn't very familiar with Scotland is going to get the cultural references here.

On the east coast of Scotland lies Edinburgh. It also has its own accents and dialects. Just as Glasgow's posh speak with a Kelvinside accent, Edinburgh's affluent speak with a Morningside accent – both are variations on Standard Scottish English. You would immediately recognise them as Scottish but the amount of Scotticisms would be limited to the occasional 'aye' or 'wee'. It could, of course, be argued that these are social dialects rather than geographical ones.

I've written about the relationship between Glasgow and Edinburgh before but Edinburgh is not without its deprived areas and common folk. We get to meet some of them in the work of Irvine Welsh. Here's a wee taster of his style. Renton, the hero of Trainspotting (his best known work) muses on the Scottish identity:

Ah hate cunts like that. Cunts like Begbie. Cunts that are intae baseball-batting every fucker that’s different; pakis, poofs, n what huv ye. Fuckin failures in a country ay failures. It’s nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat. Ah hate the Scots.

Irvine Welsh interviewed

The language is coarse. Of course the language is coarse. This is the same Scot's voice that Tom Leonard uses in the poem I quoted above. You could just imagine Groundskeeper Willie spouting off like that. The fact is Willie is quite unrealistic – he should swear like a trooper.

Okay, we've had monologues so far, but the best place to get the feel of what Scots are all about is to look at a bit of dialogue like this between two co-workers in a chicken processing plant from Mark McNay's Fresh:


        Aye pal?

        Ye'll no believe this.


        Ah've just counted sixty-seven seconds between two chickens.


        Aye sixty-fuckin-seven.

        Is that a record for ye the day?

        Fuckin right it is.

Albert picked a chicken off the belt and hung it on a hook.

        D'ye think it'll stay a record?

        Course it will. Sixty-seven seconds. Put that in yer pipe and smoke it.

        Ah would but smoking shite gies me a soar throat.

        Jealous eh?

        Of course Ah am. Sixty-seven seconds is a great achievement.

        Fuck off ya sarky old cunt.

Albert laughed.

        Ah'm messin with ye. Sixty-seven's no a bad score.

Sean held a chicken up like a trophy and shook it by the wings.

        No bad? It's pure fuckin champion.

        It's no quite champion son.

        How d'ye mean?

Albert pushed his cheek out with his tongue.

        It's no as good as seventy-three.

        When did ye get seventy-three?

Ah got that between two Sunday roasters before we went for breakfast.

        Aye right.

        Ah'm serious.

        What really?

Albert breathed on his hand and rubbed it on his shoulder.

        Aye. Seventy-three.

        Bet ye counted fast.

Albert pointed at Sean.

        No as fast as you ya wee cunt.

        Ah count slow ya old bastard.

        Yer too tight to count slow.

        Ah used my watch.

Albert turned his back.


        Aye. Ah know ye are.

Bear in mind that these two men are friends. This is friendly banter, two workmates passing the time of day. Derision is a part of Glaswegian humour. That whole conversation could have been the prelude to a fight, the exact same words, but you'd have to hear the tone to determine whether these two were squaring up for a fight. If the next line involved Sean grabbing a hold of Albert and knocking him to the ground then you'd know. And as soon as the other men saw what was happening someone would shout out "Square go!" and they'd probably all gather round until someone decided it had gone too far. Chickens aside the above is a playground conversation.

But why write like this? Is realism so damn important?

I think it is. And clearly a lot of my fellow Scots think it is too. So where are all the novels in a Newcastle dialect or a Birmingham dialect? Or what about other countries? I'm just reading a novel by a New Zealand writer at the moment and it's set in Watford, England. But even if it hadn't been I doubt he would have gone to the same extent as someone like Irvine Welsh to capture the flavour of the place. And why not? Surely Scotland is not the only country with such a strong national identity. This is what Irvine Welsh had to say about the subject:

"There's a big fuss about the language in some of my books … [b]ut it's like the book is the only cultural artefact now that has all these walls. ... Why is it only in the novel — the English novel — that everyone's got the same narrative voice? They're still stuck in these kind of standard poems. Every other medium has exorcised it. People just don't talk like that anymore. They don't talk in standard English anymore. So why present [novel dialogue] in it?"

He goes on to answer his own question:

"Because if you're a novelist in Britain, you're almost seen as a custodian or something, like a curator, and that's just stupid. Then you get all this angst about death of the novel, and why people aren't reading the novel. Well, no duh. You know, right? It's like the standard English, the Queen's English, is an imperialist language set for us to control our knowledge. Therefore, it's not very interesting. It's an administrative language. It's not got many beats, it's not got any rhythm. It's terrible to write with." – interview with Benjamin Arnold in Flakmag

Which bring us to Lallans. I'm not going to talk about Gaelic because that is another language but there are terms kicking around to try and describe the Scots' tongue: Lallans and Doric are the two best known. Lallans is a variant of the Scots word 'lawlands' meaning the lowlands of Scotland. There's no specific geographic area that you could call 'the lowlands'. In simplistic terms, however, the lowlands are everywhere in Scotland that aren't the highlands. So, broadly speaking, Lallans refers to the dialects of south and central Scotland and Doric refers to the dialects spoken in the north east of Scotland.

Robert Burns' poetry is written in Lallans. To illustrate:

They took nae pains their speech to balance,
Or rules to gie;
But spak their thoughts in plain, braid lallans,
Like you or me.

from 'Epistle To William Simson'

I think of it as the Scottish equivalent to Shakespearian English only less intelligible and you'd think we were done with it. But no.

The term Lallans was also used during the Scottish Renaissance of the early 20th century to refer to what Hugh MacDiarmid called synthetic Scots, i.e., a synthesis integrating, blending, and combining various forms of the Scots language, both vernacular and archaic. This was intended as a classical, standard Scots for a world-class literature, although it was more often than not Scots words grafted on to a standard English grammatical structure somewhat removed from traditional spoken Scots, its main practitioners not being habitual Lowland Scots speakers themselves. – Wikipedia

I'm not sure I personally approve of this trend. I can't see the point of a language that exists as a purely literary form. Writing poems and songs in Gaelic is another matter entirely because Gaelic is still alive although not very well and the same goes for Welsh; pockets of resistance against the English invaders. MacDiarmid's detractors often referred to it as plastic Scots – a play on synthetic as in synthetic plastics – to underline its artificiality.

A short documentary about the poet especially interesting because it includes an old BBC radio broadcast in Received Pronunciation

But is Aggie-and-Shuggie-speak not artificial since you don't talk that way?

Good point. I think that my sketches would be better if I didn't have to translate what I want to say into an approximation of Govan-speak but they're just a bit of fun. What I decided quite early on was to provide all my characters with an idiolect, basically a family dialect, and try and stick to it, e.g. when Shuggie means 'never' he says 'neffer' and instead on 'review' we get 'refyoo'. I'd take the whole process a lot more seriously if I was trying to get them published. I have written stories in dialect. You can find two of them in an early edition of Ranfurly Review. Here's an excerpt from 'Just Thinking':


Should Ah stay or should Ah go? That’s a song isn’t it? Who the hell did that now? Some punk outfit. The Skids Ah think. OK, ten reasons to stay. Ah can do that. Wan: she’s got huge tits, two: she laughed at your jokes, three: she’s OK in bed, four: she’ll fill the gap till you bump into Little Miss Right at the dancin, five: it’s been far too long since you had a real girlfriend, six: she hasne got nuthin pierced – Ah hate body piercin, seven: she likes you – that’s important – I think she likes you, eight: she disne punce me out the door as soon as we’d done the business – another plus, nine: her pal went off wi Mikey so Ah’d better no drap her till Ah see whit the score is wi the two of them an ten: sod it, Ah’ll give her tits two points – they fuckin deserve it.

Ah guess that means Ah’m stayin put.

Looking back over it I can see places where I'd change it. It really is an impossible task trying to get it right and it's hard to know where to draw the line. Take 'nothing' for example – I've written 'nuthin' above but when I read it I hear 'nuhin' in my head because that's how it would be said . . . probably, depending on who was talking, because we all put our own twists on language. One of the first things my wife commented on was how I pronounce the word 'poem' – apparently I say 'poyem'. So there you go.

I have no doubt where you live people have their own unique way of talking. As a writer do you embrace the local speech idiosyncrasies and incorporate them into your work or smooth out the rough edges? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say.

There are examples to be found all over the world, like the opening lines of this one from the Trinidadian poet, Miguel Browne:



Trinidadians are a special people of dat there is no doubt,
Doh care what odders say of how dey run dey mouth.
But of all de special talents dat we Trinis possess,
Is de way we talk dat ranks us among de best.
At de street corners, in de shop or at work on any given day,
Is to hear us speak and carry on in our own special way.
De colourful words, de antics and de accent all combine,
To create a whole language dat has stood de test of time.


But I suspect the problem has its roots in our education systems. There is prevalent opinion that people who can't express themselves in the official language of a country are somehow stupid. Here's what a teacher in the Caribbean wrote:

I interviewed each of my Caribbean students one by one. They shared with me that they had never written in their vernacular because they were not allowed to in their school systems. One student said she had been told by her teachers that the dialect she spoke was "broken English" and not worthy of being written. Another told me it was hard for her to write in patois because she had never been taught how to do it.

Elsasser and Irvine found in their work with Caribbean students:

. . . their reluctance to write (was) directly attributable to the denigration of their native language and to their conviction that they do not, in fact, possess a true language but speak a bastardized version of English. It is difficult if not impossible to write without a language, and it is emotionally draining to attempt to develop voice and fluency in an education system that has historically denigrated one's own language. (1985, 406)[3]

My students who spoke vernacular Englishes seemed to suffer from the stigmatization that Elsasser and Irvine described. Their dialect had been devalued and banned from the classroom. [4]

We then have an excerpt from a student:

I definate hate writing. Takes too much time when you can talk about what you want. Writing is a bore and a process we can live without. Writing is a very difficult process that involves a lot of thinking especially if you don't have a command of the English grammar . . . In my country, we spoke `Patois,' as a result, is sometimes confuses my tenses and my punctuation. Everytime I tried to write exceptionally well, thinking that my grammar is intact, the end result is always watch your grammar. I really feel down at times when I have to write.

I think this is an important issue. A lot can be lost by trying to get people to confirm to the 'Newspeak' of the day be it Hindi (the official language of India) or English (the official language of too many places to list). When a 13-year-old Scottish girl handed in an essay written in Textese, she explained to her flabbergasted teacher that it was easier than Standard English. Part of me is appalled at this but that's just because I'm old and struggle with texting. It's not my lingua franca but it is fast becoming many people's. Should we cling to English as it stands just now or let it evolve naturally just like Scots did and is continuing to do? Good question. There is room for all kinds of speech. As Thoreau put it:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. – Walden; or, Life in the Woods


This wee article’s drifted away from Glasgow where we started off so I’d like to bring us back there with a song written and performed by Billy Connolly, a serious one and one that reduced me to tears listening to it again and not for the first time:




Scots Language Centre

Scots Language Society

Dictionary of the Scots Language

Phonetic Description Of Scottish Language And Dialects

Sounds Familiar: very useful, with sound files of ordinary people from different parts of not only Scotland but the whole of the UK

The Functions of Non-Standard Dialect in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting

An interview with James Kelman



[1] Since the early twentieth century, Glasgow Rangers has been viewed as the most powerful and successful club within Scotland. Indeed, because of its Protestant history and identity and its frequent dominant periods in Scottish football, Rangers can be viewed as the team of the establishment. The club has also been perceived as a bastion of Scottish Protestantism due to, among other things, the notable unionist popular identity that formed part of its early character and its historical refusal to sign players of the Roman Catholic faith. Although this "policy" changed in 1989, Rangers and their supporters retain the label of being a club of and for Protestants. For many Rangers supporters, the chant that "we are the people," is both an indication of the dominance that the club has periodically enjoyed as well as other cultural aspects that surround it. – Joseph M. Bradley, Orangeism in Scotland: Unionism, Politics, Identity, and Football


We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)

Rangers Loyal Supporter Songs

[3] Elsasser, N. and Irvine, P. 1985. "English and Creole: The Dialects of Choice in a College Writing Program." Harvard Educational Review (55) 4, 399-415.

[4] Eileen Kennedy, The Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2


Titus said...

Only skimmed this so far, but I'll be back for a much closer look. A topic that really interests me.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to hear that, Titus. I'm looking forward to hearing what you think of the piece once you've had a chance to spend more time on it.

Kass said...

" a toddler, it gets into everything." to describe your flair for poetry - great stuff.
The Scottish do have a way with words. NOBODY says 'FAaaart' better than Billy Connelly. Hopefully, you've heard his routine about the person next to him on an airplane 'f---ing farting' the whole way. I tried to find it on YouTube, but couldn't.
..and how fortunate that they put subtitles in 'Trainspotting' when I saw it.
Glad we're not all toadstools. Great piece.

Elisabeth said...

I'm listening to Billy Connelly wish he were in Glasgow as I write this. No wonder it brings a tear to your eyes.

This is a fantastic post, Jim. Accents, language dialect - all enthralling stuff.

Whenever I try to write dialogue as it comes from my mother I struggle to get it right. My mother has a thick Dutch accent. She twists sentences in ways that make my attempts to reproduce it on the page look as though I don't know how to speak properly.

For instance my mother says things like, 'do as if nothing is wrong', one of her favourite mantras. 'I got so hopping mad', 'he hurts most those he loves the most'

My mother's English is excellent but she still alters the structure of her sentences, which I'd love to be able to emulate on the page but it never looks right.

Thanks for this posing. It's been such a treat listening to Billy Connolly and hearing too about your struggle with dialect and words.

I wonder what an Australian accent would look like on the page. It's hard to reproduce tone, except to write phonetically and that can be awfully hard to reproduce, and hard on the reader.

When I learned in my professional writing and editing diploma about writing with an accent we were urged to use only a few words to indicate the nationality of the speaker and the reader would do the rest. As you suggest this assumes that the reader is familiar with the dialect in question.

Language is fascinating. I prefer these texts to be read out loud.

Dutch is my mother tongue but my parents stopped using it when I was small. As a consequence I can understand it, but I cannot speak it. The words refuse to come to me when I want them. I can read Dutch reasonably well, but only if I read it out loud and very slowly to get the sounds working. On the page without reading it out aloud, Dutch to me looks like gibberish.

Jim Murdoch said...

Kass, there's not much by Billy Connolly I haven't seen at some point in time and I've owned quite a bit too over the years. I can't think of the particular routine you mention but he's never been shy when it comes to talking about bodily functions.

I know that Trainspotting did go out with subtitles but what gets me is that I've never seen any other film in an English dialect subtitled.

I first brought this matter up a couple of months after I started blogging and I tried then to find a nation or even a state where they were as passionate about language as the Scots and I couldn't. I had imagined that I would find someone from the southern states of the USA who was writing in dialect but nope. I would be really interested to see who else out there is doing this bar the Scots.

And, Elisabeth, I can see how it would be hard to write in an Australian accent. Basically what we Scots have done is modify the English just enough so that with a little work it's intelligible to all. There's a fine line. Even I find Irvine Welsh's stuff hard going whereas writers like James Kelman don't really do far enough. You can suggest an accent easily enough but if you're not careful your Australian would end up going, "G'Day, ya pommie bastard. Hang on while I sling another shrimp on the barbie," and other such clichés which I'm sure none of you say any more that we Scots say, "Och aye the noo. It's a braw bricht moonlit nicht the nicht." It's where to draw the line.

Getting the grammar right helps and the fact is that there are rules to how grammar works in dialects. Scots say, "We was" and "I were" rather than "We were" and "I was" but that's done consistently. Getting details like that helps a lot. What's hard is getting that right when you're not being exposed to the dialect on a daily basis. When I was teaching in Drumchapel my wife noticed that I started saying "no" instead of "not" although I don’t any more except in fun. And language should be fun. I like to play with language all the time, puns especially, but when I talk to the bird I'll also do his answers back using his own unique take on the English language.

Rachel Fenton said...

I enjoyed this - it resonates with me a lot right now, too. I never could get my own dialect down on paper, or in speech it seems (South Yorks, UK), and I am fascinated by the accents and dialects I've encountered here (NZ). When I was in Duunedin (NZ, South Island) recently I really smiled at the "Scots" twang in the accent down there - I know, there's no such thing, but really, in NZ, there is!

Anyway, where should I start looking for an idea of how to write Greenock dialect?

iODyne said...

Brilliant post thanks Jim.
I'm just glad I had the Prep course of Hamish Macbeth to help me understand Taggart characters beyond their saying "mudderr"
Elisabeth's wondering about writing an Australian accent made me think of C. J. Dennis whose 'Sentimental Bloke' is etched on all my age-group of Australian born people; but it was 1915 and our patois has evolved (or devolved) further since then.
I am presently fascinated by the frequency I get a response prefaced by "Yeah, no."

Anonymous said...

Jim - when Billy Connolly tried to pronounce 'linoleum' in Scots I laughed like hell - - twice- - once at just how funny he is and a second time at the coincidence of that nutty lino ec ad that was running on your blog yesterday.

As new yorkers having visited Scotland a few times, I can tell you that we have never pronounced a place-name correctly or to the satisfaction of a single Scot. No one seemed to hold it against us - even as my wife and I attempted two different pronunciations of the same word. Louisiana too - I never pronounced a word right there either.

Your question. . . Surely Scotland is not the only country with a strong national identity. . . I am certainly no expert but I do agree that it is the one English speaking country that I've visited, whose identity seems so strongly related to its language. Perhaps because you're so close, geographically, to, you know, that country directly to the south. While the rest of us are more out of sight, out of mind. We have oceans of distance to begin to define our differences. I also wonder if all the emigration from Scotland, voluntary and otherwise has meant using language to successfully maintain the sense of nationhood.

Our little town here is a mix of about 50% European, 20% African, 20% Central American and 10% Asian immigrant families. . . one, two or three generations from having arrived here. It's a wonder. As I think about it, we probably use our cars to define ourselves - The Lexus GX770Xs and the Honda Civics and the Chevy El Caminos.

Thanks so much for writing - great stuff.


Dave King said...

Ok, so Billy Conolly has a Scottish accent! (Couldn't resist that one.)
The point about the language becoming more more metaphorical and poetic as you go down the social orders could be replicated in many languages, I think. It is certainly true of English. It is quite noticeable, the way the languagebecomes more colourful, more graphic when used by what for want of a better phrase we call the lower social orders - thoughI'm not sure in what ways they are lower.
All-in-all the most fascinating post I have read for a long while, an impressive work of scholarship I might say - using the word in its true sense.

Jim Murdoch said...

The best example I can provide you with for the Greenock accent/dialect, Rachel, is the film Sweet Sixteen which was shot in Greenock and surrounding area and starred an actor who was born and who had lived his whole life there. Here's a link to the trailer. The whole film has been uploaded if you're interested and here's a link to part one.

I was never one for Hamish Macbeth, Marshall, but my wife and I watch Taggart regularly looking out for places we've been. Once they even filmed part of an episode in my wife's old work. I've only once actually seen the film crew out and about, a short scene on Argyle Street under the railway bridge.

Interesting poem. When I first started reading it I immediately took it for a London accent (London's east end to be precise). I don't think the subject matter helped. After a couple of verses I scrolled down and there it was … "Read more Australian poetry ..." … so I went back and reread it with an Australian accent in my head. And it works. So I guess the most important thing is knowing up front where the speaker is from. Of course I read 'name' as 'noyme'.

Koe, my wife has been over here for twelve years and she's only just got to the stage where she's saying 'tomahto' instead of 'tomayto' without thinking about it and she can just about slur her way through 'Edinburgh' (Edin-burruh) (she actually says Embra) instead of 'Edinberg' or 'Edinburrow'.

Your theory about proximity is an interesting one although expats are usually far more nationalistic than the citizens of the country from which they hail. What I find interesting is that Americans make such a big deal about their heritage bringing it out as a kind of badge whereas you'd never get a Scot going on about his Viking ancestors.

And, yes, Dave, Billy Connolly has a Partick accent although it has become a bit refined over the years. Oh, the way I've just discovered his piece 'Scottish accents' on YouTube – wish I'd thought to include it in the article proper.

You're right of course, McIlvanney may have been talking about Scotland but I have no doubt his observation could be true the world over.

Seriously though, Dave, this was no work of scholarship. I simply looked a few things up on Google and strung them together to make a bit of an article. This is a massive topic and I really will see what I can find out about non-Scottish dialect poetry for a future post.

iODyne said...

I was thrilled to read your response to my comment that you actually followed the link and read the works. Australia was only really populated after the goldrush of 1850, and where I live, the main emigrants were from Scotland, although in general we all stem from The United Kingdoms.

When C.J.Dennis wrote the beloved Sentimental Bloke in 1915,
(anybody my age knows the reference "er nayme's Doreeen" )
this country was only 5 minutes old, and had just sent all the men to get killed in France.
The survivors of that war must have then bought a bit of parlez-vous patois back with them and melded it into the way we all speak.
Post WW2 our deluge of migrants from Greece and Italy has added to it, and our main culture of American TV finished us off.
There was a brief moment of ABC newsreaders attempt at 'perceived English', but now we have Chinese and Indian newsreaders, so that's gone way out west too.

I was in the USA once when a guy said to me
"yew shur doo tok funny. Ah kid lissen to yu tok fer owers"

and I don't even have an 'Okker' accent - which is what we call the accent of Australians who speak in a slovenly manner.
(Now that I have written that I wonder if the term is derived from 'och aye' - must research).
When I was a child, and many people referred to the UK as 'home' in those days, the film 'Geordie' enjoyed success here, possibly due to the accents.

Elisabeth said...

Great stuff, Marshall Stacks, also known as AnnoDyne, I think.

C J Dennis also wrote a poem that I have always enjoyed called, 'The Music of your Voice'. It's included in a book of C J Dennis's so called poetry for kids...'A Book for Kids'.

The poem follows, one verse will suffice:
A vase upon the mantelpiece,
A ship upon the sea,
A goat upon a mountain top
Are much the same to me;
But when you mention melon jam,
Or picnics by the creek,
Or apple pies, or pantomimes,
I love to hear you speak.

I interpreted the poem as coming from an adult remembering as a child the sound and experience of his mother's voice, but it could be anyone, a friend, a lover, the sound of the words, the love of language.

It seems apt here in relation to Jim's wonderful posting.

As Dave says, it's very scholarly and as ever beautifully written on something that really matters to us all.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for all of that Marshall-Stacks. Yes, I've always been well aware of the Aussie affection for the UK. I don't actually know where my own affection for Australia originated but I used to have a huge map of the place on my wall as a kid. One of the lads I went to school with emigrated there and I foolishly missed out on the opportunity to talk to him when he came back for a visit a few years later. What his mother told me when I met her in the street was that he hadn't left the flat since he'd got back because he found Scotland so cold.

I've never met an Australian face-to-face although we did have a temp in my last job who was a Kiwi – lovely girl – and I used to delight in her accent and the fact she needed to try and cram as many vowels as she could into every word she spoke. I suppose that's the universe's way of compensating for the fact that the Scot's drop as many as they can.

And, Elisabeth, do you know my wife had never seen a pantomime till she came over here? What are those Americans all about? As for melon jam – I've never tasted it nor even seen a jar. I'm not a great lover of jam but I'd give it a go on a bit of toast. Lovely wee poem even if it is a bit saccharine.

ken armstrong said...

Hi Jim, the posts - articles - get weightier and better as we go.

Dialect is so interesting. My auntie moved to Helensburgh in her early twenties, she'd be in her seventies now and, whenever she came home, she's come with what we perceived as the broadest of 'Scottish' accents. Yet, to her Helensburgh neighbours, she never lost her Irish accent, not a jot.

We see the nuances in our own local dialects but, the further away we go from home, the more the voices meld into a generic accent. It's fascinating.

Sorry I haven't been around so much mate - you understand the slings and arrows better than most and you are regularly in my thoughts. k

Jim Murdoch said...

Ken, nice to see your name popping into my comments box. No need to apologise for your absence; I do understand, as you rightly say, better than most. But you have been missed.

I've only been to Helensburgh a couple of times with Carrie. There are some nice knickknack shops on the front but that's really it. I've heard the residents talk that the only good thing about the place is the train to Glasgow. I actually quite liked it but then as long as I've a decent Internet connection and a supermarket that does home deliveries I could live anywhere.

Carrie is in much the same position as you aunt. To my mind she's never lost a fraction of her American accent despite the fact that half the time she says 'tomahtoes' and 'tomaytoes' the rest of the time. Her family has commented though how much her accent has changed although I didn’t really notice until her son came over for a visit and I could hear the two of them interacting and, yes, there was a marked difference.

McGuire said...

Never read William McIlvanney. He seems to have stopped writing or nothing much in the 00's. Wonder why...focusing on teaching?

An interesting dissection of the Scots tongues. The many different and confusing tones and types. I do agree that writing/typing in 'glaswegian' (for example) does get rid of some pretention, and brings in a new freshness that can often lack in 'proper' written English.

It can allow for more creative, inventive neoglosims. I quite like some of the crudity it allows me to add in, in the barbaric mispelling, phonetic play, and so on.

Interesting as well, I have found, it that when people are learning to speak English i.e. in Italy. They speak in broken English and often they create new expressions and sentences that we would say were wrong but actually turn out to be more articulate, interesting, than our own expressions allow for.

I like messing about with our language, cutting through the holiness of the word, as someone once put it. We want to keep our dialects, our accents, keep new speak at bay. Mind you, it is clear that English is becoming the language of the globe - perhaps in another 50 years or so we will be heading toward a one world language? A bit of a leap but not entirely unfounded.

I've got more to add but I'll com back and I've mulled over things.

Jim Murdoch said...

You're right, McGuire, McIlvanney didn't publish anything for years until Weekend a couple of years ago. I read it but it's set in a very different world to the rest of his books and is quite a different style; I found I couldn't get into it but my head wasn't in a very good place then, I should get back to it. If you find a cheap copy of anything by him then it's worth forking out a couple of quid for a look see.

As for writing in Scots, yes, it's perfectly suited to your rough-and-ready style of writing; it's a bit untidy, a bit take-me-as-you-find-me, and, in your recent character sketches, you've really hit the nail on the head.

I do think that a global language is essential and, yes, Americanised English is the forerunner though I have no doubt that us Brits will hang onto our quirky ways of talking and spelling to the bitter end. The one thing I remember from my bible studies was something God said, almost as an aside, before he confused the languages at Babel: "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them" (Gen 11:6). Now whether you accept the biblical account or not is neither here nor there but I believe the sentiment stands. What I find amusing is that the forerunner for a return to one language is probably the most bastardised tongue on the planet chipping bits off any ol' language that takes its fancy, a read hodgepodge of a tongue.

McGuire said...

Tower of Babel is an amazing story. Are you a believer, Jim? As I remember you're not. Just curious.

There is a parallel between the tower of Babel and thne Sumerian myth Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. You can read about it in wiki. Very interesting.

American English does appear to be the forerunner. I don't like the idea of all languages being whittled down to one, I suppose it will never be quite that simple, there will remain a strong few variations I hope.

take-me-as-I-am, that does describe me well, but hopefully not completely. I'm trying to build 'greater edifices' within stories rather than simple character sketches and scenes. Work to be done, and I'm confident I can do it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm a don't-care-er, McGuire. I can't help my upbringing and the knowledge I've acquired but I quote the Bible in exactly the same way as I would quote Shakespeare. I have long lost interest in religion. I never had a faith. I went through the motions expecting that I would develop an appreciation for spiritual things by osmosis; it never happened. Now I neither believe nor disbelieve nor wish to do either and it's not a matter of sitting on the fence like the agnostic does; I'm not.

As far as language goes the world is far to big a place and humans are far too awkward for us ever to get to the stage of their being one unified language but I do expect a time when the world has it's official language and it seems only fitting that it would be a form of English although I find it interesting what Joss Wheedon incorporated into Firelfly, a form of English which had melded with Chinese.

Jim Murdoch said...

Since I wrote this article I've discovered that in Leonard's most recent collection, Outside the Narrative he has included one new piece of dialect poetry. 'An Ayrshire Mother' is a tribute to, and spoken by, the poet's mother. She names the things of her world ("ma rosary beads / ma womans guild / ma chapel") and pesters the poet:

    huxterin aboot
    yir face in that book
    look the suns oot
    get some air aboot they legs

The poem ends with the mother's injunction to her son: "speak proper".

boxers are cool said...

Happy Thanksgiving, and I'm thankful you're keeping this going :-)

boxers are cool

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