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In Praise Of Dialect

A celebration of non-standard English

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

When I teach first year Creative Writing students we always have a session on voice. I use extracts from Irish, Scottish, Geordie and Afro-Caribbean writers to illustrate how dialect can make writing distinctive. I also include a few Welsh examples: ‘Hits you like bleach, it does’; ‘The poppity-ping’, and ‘Have a swill in the bosh.’ Which mean, respectively, it stimulates the senses, the microwave, and to wash oneself in the sink. Even when they didn’t understand all the words students said they found dialect a vivid way of establishing character and place.

In the writing exercise that followed, students were asked to write around ten lines of prose which began, ‘Where I come from’, or ‘We call it a…’. Listening to a variety of pieces revealed how language starts to develop. One year a student from Hull contributed ‘croggie’, which means getting a ride on someone’s handlebars, and other students chipped in with regional variants. Another student whose local word for truanting was ‘mitching’ called a character a ‘mitcher’ and derived a verb from it, ‘to mitch.’

Recently a lot of students have struggled with the exercise. A few explained they had never really learnt the local patois, but more seemed embarrassed when I asked why they found it so difficult to write in their regional dialect. Their answers saddened me. It seemed they’d come to university to learn how to write ‘properly.’

A lot of my students come from working-class backgrounds, as do I, and so I understand the desire to speak and write ‘properly’ when you move into higher education. If you don’t, even now, you may not be taken as seriously as a well-spoken middle-class student. But while a lot of them shy away from using British dialect in their writing, many try to write in the American English that they’ve picked up from TV shows, films and books. Of course there are other factors that dilute the appeal of dialect — such as the influence of social media, and the rise of Multicultural Urban English which incorporates words from a number of different ethnic groups. Nevertheless, my students’ attitude can also be seen as a reflection of mainstream publishers’ attitude towards dialect.

Debbie Taylor was advised that the Geordie dialect in her novel Herring Girl was ‘a “barrier” for readers’. Ben Myers’ novel Pig Iron was only read by one corporate publisher who left him with the impression that the northern setting of his novel made it less commercial. It went on to win the Gordon Burn prize. Patrick McCabe recently claimed that his brilliant 1992 novel The Butcher Boy probably wouldn’t be published today. He claims the opening sentence, ‘When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent’, would now be ‘corrected’ by an editor.

This is not a new trend. When James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, written in Glaswegian dialect, won the Booker Prize in 1994 one of the judges publicly denounced the book, while Simon Jenkins described it as ‘literary vandalism’ in The Times. In 1993 two judges allegedly managed to prevent Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting from being shortlisted by threatening to walk out. Kelman is the only Scottish writer to have won, Bernice Rubens, in 1970, the only Welsh writer and this year we finally had a winner from Northern Ireland, Anna Burns’ Milkman. It’s interesting to read Kelman’s comments on the struggle to retain control of his style: ‘In order to fight against the house style you have to justify every single comma[…] You have to revise and revise and proof at every bloody stage to insure that everything’s spot on, especially because you’re working in what other people regard as inconsistent ways’. Last Orders by Graham Swift was the last British winner that focused on working-class characters and used dialect, back in 1996. Since then winners have included novels written in American English (Vernon God Little, 2003), Caribbean English (A Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015), and Australian English (True History of the Kelly Gang, 2001).

So just what is publishing’s problem with British dialect? It seems that American and Caribbean English are seen as ‘exotic’, while British regional dialects are not. In publishing a regional accent is still a rarity, and how can that monoculture not percolate through to some extent into the attitudes of people who work in it? Publishing has finally, belatedly woken up, to some extent at least, to its blind spot about race, but there’s still progress to be made when it comes to class.

According to the renowned linguist David Crystal, ‘Some people think of dialects as sub-standard varieties of a language, spoken only by low-status groups — illustrated by such comments as “He speaks correct English, without a trace of dialect.” Comments of this kind fail to recognize that standard English is as much a dialect as any other variety — though a dialect of a rather special kind because it is one to which society has given extra prestige. Everyone speaks a dialect, whether urban or rural, standard or non-standard, upper class or lower class.’

Perhaps then, it’s a matter of labels: we now refer to U.S. English, Caribbean English, etc. and if we referred to West Country English, Yorkshire English and so on, might British dialect begin to gain the kind of respect accorded to writers from other countries who deviate from so-called standard English? For some time Wenglish has been used to describe the dialect spoken in south Wales, as it reflects the grammar and some of the vocabulary found in Welsh.

But publishers’ perception of British dialect is a missed opportunity: ‘The linguistic term “dialect” includes accent variations and changes in sentence-structure, word-choice and innovative word deviations as well.’ These are all excellent transferable skills for creative writing. If you add idiolect (an individual’s personal language or dialect), then you have another layer of language to draw on. One of my Irish grandfathers used to say, ‘It’s a day for the high stool’, shorthand for the sentiment that on a cold, rainy day the best option is to go to the pub and perch yourself on one of the seats at the bar, a lovely example of compression and imagery that I only ever heard him use. Whenever I hear that phrase a character and a situation immediately spring to mind.

In my first book, The Red Jag and other stories, I felt that the only way to capture the working class Irish who’d moved from rural communities to industrial towns in Britain in the nineteen-fifties and sixties was to let them speak in their own voices, such as in this extract from ‘A Simple Life’, when Gerry describes Newport town centre on Saturday night:

[…] you’d have to be a madman to go up town of a night. You’d be subjecting yourself to all kinds of indignity. Fellas roaring and shouting, staggering about mad with beer, you’d never know when one of them might go for you, or spew up all over your good clothes. The women are just as bad. Plastered in war paint, shrieking and swearing at the top of their voices, completely out of control, no bit of shame at all.

While Irish fiction enjoys a high profile, I struggled to find fiction which dealt with the Irish in Britain, which is a very different and often alienating experience, and which I felt needed to be recorded authentically.

Poets have always used a dialect word if it describes something better than a ‘correct’ word. It was exciting to see Liz Berry’s Black Country winning the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2014. It includes a defiant celebration of one of the most unfashionable accents in the UK:

                     For years you kept your accent,
   		     In a box beneath the bed
  		     The lock rusted shut by hours of elocution
   		     How now brown cow
 		     The teacher’s ruler across your legs.

Berry uses the Black Country dialect as a way of giving a voice to the forgotten, marginalized and caricatured: working-class women, lost industries and histories. In her poem ‘Homing’, ‘lost words’ are resurrected and celebrated:

                bibble, fittle, tay, wum,
   		vowels ferrous as nails, consonants
   		you could lick the coal from.

The striking rhythms of the West Midlands lend the poetry a musicality. Maybe this is why poetry seems more receptive to dialect than prose, as the sounds are often more important. Berry’s mentor was Daljit Nagra, renowned for evoking the ‘Punglish’ of Punjabi-English communities. I find it so interesting that Nagra, a writer from a different ethnic background, was influential in granting a white English writer the confidence to use her stigmatized local dialect.

Berry said, ‘I suppose I wanted to reclaim [the Black Country dialect] as something beautiful to be treasured and celebrated rather than the ribbing that it often gets[…] I think it is such a beautiful, beautiful dialect, full of charm and surprise and wonder, but much maligned.’ British dialect can indeed be a source of surprise and wonder. Let’s celebrate it.

Ray French was born in Wales to Irish parents. His books include The Red Jag Aand Other Stories, All This Is Mine, Going Under and Four Fathers. He is co-editing I Wouldn’t Start From Here, a collection of fiction, essays and poetry by second-generation Irish writers in the UK, to be published in 2019.

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