Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Ah refuse tae be victimised": William McIlvanney and Glasgow patter


I'm off to Crimefest in Bristol next week, so I thought I'd revisit a post or two about some of the featured guests at this year's edition of this fine crime fiction festival in South West England.  Foremost among those guests is William McIlvanney, the father of tartan noir and the author of Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalties.
================
One often sees warnings against writing in dialect, but it works in passages like this, from William McIlvanney's 1977 novel Laidlaw:

"Ma lassie's missin'"

"We don't know that, Mr. Lawson. ... She could've missed a bus. She wouldn't be able to inform you. She could be staying with a friend."

"Whit freen'? Ah'd like tae see her try it?"

"She
is an adult person, Mr. Lawson."

"Is she hell! She's eighteen. Ah'll tell her when she's an adult. That's the trouble nooadays. Auld men before their faythers. Ah stand for nothin' like that in ma hoose. Noo whit the hell are yese goin' to do aboot this?"
Here's how the narrator describes Mr. Lawson:

" ... his anger was displaced. It was in transit, like a lorry-load of iron, and he was looking for someone to dump it on. His jacket had been thrown on over an open-necked shirt. A Rangers football-scarf was spilling out from the lapels.

"Looking at him, Laidlaw saw one of life's vigilantes, a retribution-monger. For everything that happened there was somebody else to blame, and he was the very man to deal with them. Laidlaw was sure his anger didn't stop at people. He could imagine him shredding ties that wouldn't knot properly, stamping burst tubes of toothpaste into the floor. His face looked like an argument you couldn't win."
The dialect works because it's part of the whole package, and no easy, condescending shortcut. Or maybe it's just that Lawson's speech sounds vividly in my head because of my recent listening to this. (Read about Glasgow patter here and here.)

And maybe, just maybe, it's because McIlvanney gives Lawson a line whose psychobabblish content sits comically against its Glaswegian accent: "Ah refuse tae be victimized."

And now your thoughts, please, on dialect, when it works, when it doesn't, why and whether authors should be especially careful with it. Examples welcome.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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42 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

When it works, you don't really notice it, oddly enough. You appreciate it, but it doesn't stop the flow of the story.

I remember this title, but never read it. It looks good. Hope to check it out.

"Ah refuse tae be victimized." I kind of wish I'd had that in my quiver today. Wouldn't have changed anything, but the Scottish accent would have at least been entertaining.

March 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm a little more than halfway through the book now, and the accent and dialect are always noticeable. In part, that's because the accent is fresh in my mind for the reason I mentioned and because the Glasgow speech made a big impression when I was there. But part of it is that McIlvanney wants the reader to notice. The two investigators use little if any dialect, so one notices all the more when other characters do use it.

I'd always assumed that the way to create an impression of dialect was to use it sparingly but tellingly, to create the impression that everyone in the book speaks that way. But that's not what McIlvanney was up to.

"the Scottish accent would have at least been entertaining.

Aye.

March 06, 2010  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Read Trainspotting, Peter. You'll get all the Scottish dialect you'll ever need ...

Cheers, Dec

March 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Funny you should mention that. I picked up a copy of another Irvine Welsh novel, "Filth," and found just one word of dialect in the prologue, though it was one I've liked since I first came across it: pish.

March 06, 2010  
Anonymous Jerry House said...

My wife could never get past the dialect in Dorothy Sayer's Five Red Herrings. Her loss, sad to say. She normally finds dialect annoying and I really can't blame her. (We both wish movies from New Zealand came with English sub-titles.)

But often dialect can flavor a story and add to its depth and enjoyment. Dialect, used rightly or wrongly, can drive a book: Twain's use of dialect in Huckleberry Finn was terribly flawed, but it is still part of the reason why the book is so powerful.

More difficult than dialect is the use of local idioms and expressions. Sometimes there is no context in the story to refer to and the reader (well, me, for one) is left knowing that that he may be missing what may be an important part of the story. (As an aside: my daughter is currently taking a communications class that relies strictly on use of expression and gestures -- absolutely no talking in class, no writing, no spelling, no sign language. Try to describe the word "cabbage" that way. Her instructor has one gesture that she uses often in the class: it's like rubbing one's hands together rapidly in a circular motion except that the hands are about six inches apart. My daughter has absolutely no idea of what the hell the instructor is trying to say. Frustrating.)

March 07, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Jings! my parents used to get The Sunday Post when I was a kid and the comic strips - Oor Wullie & The Broons- used loads of great words like jings & crivens!

The first series of Rab C Nesbitt was a beut.

March 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I was in the presence this weekend of someone who said "Crikey!" I myself myself said "Pish!" twice. Hearing and reading these expressions is like taking a trip but without the nuisance of crappy meals, long waits in line, robotic staff and security fees.

What are jings and crivens, in case my search turns up nothing.

March 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A charming usage example from the Urban Dictionary:

Jings, crivvens, rot and excrement!

March 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jerry, use of idioms without context is bad writing. I've mentioned many times how much I enjoy figuring out the meaning of an unfamiliar expression thanks to context. Australian crime writers offers especially good opportunities in this area.

A class like your daughter's strikes me as high-concept, to state the case politely, though an occasional exercise like the one you describe could be useful. I suspect that the instructor's gestures convey one very clear message -- about the instructor.

March 07, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I usually don't like dialect. Few authors can write it in such a way that it isn't a chore to read. That being said, the bits you posted from McIlvanney are some of the best I've seen, perhaps because it's used selectively and I'm not having to wade through a bog of unfamiliar English.

March 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, one reason those selection from McIlvanney may work is that context make the meanings clear. One might not be able to figure out what freen means out of context, but its justaposition with Laidlaw's standard English friend makes its meaning clear. The juxtaposition itself adds interest of its own. One does not expect to see conversations conducted in two different languages or dialects.

March 07, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I don't like dialect much. Sometimes I think it's insensitive, depending on who is doing the writing.

But I have read British novels so full of dialect, colloquilisms and sayings, that I needed a dictionary of British words and sayings to figure it out. (Of course, British writers don't have to please me, an American reader.)

If it's done in a brief way, where the context and meanings are clear, it's okay with me.

But if it's supposed to be internationally read, then a glossary should be included in the book.

I did not mind any of this in Adrian Hyland's "Diamond Dove," as all was understandable.

Once, when trying to watch "Sweet Sixteen," a movie made by Ken Loach, the Scottish dialect was impossible to understand. However, the dvd came with English subtitles. That helped.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Peter, FYI

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oor_Wullie

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't like dialect much. Sometimes I think it's insensitive, depending on who is doing the writing.

That's the traditional objection, but I can recall no recent instances of insensitivity. Nor do I recall being left utterly clueless by lengthy stretches of slang or dialect. Context almost always provides the necessary clues, and if a sentence sounds good, I might not even mind not knowing the meaning of a word or two.

Some crime novels, and presumably novels of other kinds, too, do include glossaries. Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games" did, and I think some Australian crime novels may have as well for overseas publication.

We always expect an author to capture the flavor of his or her setting. Speech can be part of the flavor -- provided it doesn't get in the way.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Paul. The strip looks worth a browse, and I'll try to remember to keep my eyes open the next time I find myself in a British bookshop.

I wonder if the strip's history is similar to that of Bringing Up Father, featuring Maggie and Jiggs, in America: full of lovingly described scenes and dialect and high-jinks and working-class life, taken over by new cartoonists and gradually domesticated and made more genteel.

March 08, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Today we are somewhat preconditioned to cringe when we read dialect but dialect commonly appeared—and was expected to appear when the narrative warranted it—in American novels ca. 1880-1930. Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain are generally considered its best practitioners. I haven’t read much Harte or Twain since high school but I developed a passion for Howells after reading “A Hazard of New Fortunes” (1890) a few years ago. Howells “believed that dialect was essential for making literature a slice of life.” AHONF is set in New York City and Howells’ use of dialect provides an aural cross-section of turn-of-the-century New Yorkers in a way that most contemporary writers would be scared to use for fear of being perceived as “culturally insensitive.”
Today we tend to think the use of dialect is patronizing, but Howells used dialect to get across his point that all Americans are equal, regardless of their accent, elocution, or diction. Howells’ most Progressive-leaning observations are made in the broken-English voice of the German-born Lindau.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, it's suggestive that the high point of dialect in American writing coincided with the closing of the American frontier. One is tempted to imagine that once westward movement halted, Americans, authors among them, were thrilled with what the movement had set in motion and spent a few decades surveying, thinking about and integrating what it all meant. Mark Twain certainly did this. This would have included new awareness of the ways of the people scattered and settled across this big country, including their odd or picturesque speech.

Then, once Americans all began melting into the melting pot, they became less interested in their differences and more in their common nationality or humanity. This would have predated the era of political correctness.

March 08, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

But now that this same political correctness has told us to replace the melting pot with the salad bowl I find it interesting that the widespread use of dialect has not resurfaced in American literature.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A salad bowl implies that anyone may partake of any ingredient in the salad or even use it in his or her own cookery. I'm not sure that's the attitude toward dialect.

Maybe dialect is there, only it's more proprietary than it once was.

March 09, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, I think you may be right but if we (including writers) are to "celebrate diversity" why should the use of dialect have to be "more proprietary than it once was"? Why would we want to constrain ourselves to permit only those who speak a particular dialect to write in that particular dialect?

I thought the use of the term "salad bowl" was synonymous with multiculturalism--every ingredient of the salad adds its own distinct "flavor" to increase the enjoyment of the whole. I don't think you can "pick" at your salad...? I'm getting so confused I guess I'll just have a grilled cheese sandwich. Better make it Velveeta.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe one ought to seek one's diversity in the streets and shops and forget about literature. I love seeing and hearing conversation between a parent or grandparent speaking Spanish or Chinese and a child speaking English. An onlooker who understood neither of the languages involved would think the adult and child were speaking the same language, so smoothly do they communicate.

Forget the sandwich, have something like pizza, a burito or a bagel.

March 09, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Diversity is great.

I love living in a big city and going outside and seeing people from all over the world in my neighborhood. How lucky am I!

I hear stories from all over the world, learn a few words of new languages, hear international music, and am happy to meet people.

That said, I am for diversity in literature but I think people from the communities and ethnicities should write dialects primarily because often people do take offense at how it's written or done by others. Being multi-cultural in a society doesn't mean stepping on people's toes.

Maybe if there were more published writers from every community, ethnicity, country, there would be so much literature available, that all bases would be covered. I'd wish for that.

March 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well and wisely spoken. Perhaps another factor influencing use of dialect ought to how its. I can well imagine an author using it sparingly to convey the strangeness to a protagonist who finds himself in a community of immigrants, let's say. Needless to say, I'd want to be sure the author relied in his or her ear and that that ear was accurate. But this is a theoretical argument. One does not often come across dialect these days.

It would be nice to read stories by Cambodian, Mexican or Chinese authors in the U.S. writing with amused ear of how American English sounds to them.

March 12, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember reading a long time ago an hilarious translation of Andre Malraux's Man's Fate that used British slang. Needless to say, I was laughing too hard to perceive the "seriouness" of the book. Also, as a result, I could never take Andre Malraux seriously either.

May 22, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

For the most part, I leave it to others to dispute dialect in crime fiction (because I can think of no recent examples). However, I generally run the other way when I encounter a book with dialect. Perhaps that is just laziness on my part.

Sometimes, writers are just ineffective in their stylist nuances. Consider this not-crime-fiction example: G. B. Shaw begins Pygmalion with Eliza Doolittle speaking in wretched, unreadable dialect; then--with a merciful parenthetical flourish--he apologizes for the attempt and promises to render remaining dialogue in proper English.

Perhaps that bottom line is this: IMHO, no writer who has not spoken in dialect, unless her or she is well trained linguist with a solid understanding of phonetics, ought to attempt rendering it in print.

May 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous: Blogger is once again justifying the price I pay for it, so let's see if my second attempt to post this comment works.

Mike Mitchell, who translated Friedrich Glauser's crime novels for Bitter Lemon Press, addressed precisely the problem you bring up in this interview on Detectives Beyond Borders a few years ago. Substituting one dialect for another will almost never be a good choice for a translator to make because each dialect or set of slang will inevitably have such strong associations of its own.

May 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here's part of what he said:

"I live in Scotland, and there is a temptation to use a Scottish dialect (or dialects) for the Swiss, but I feel that would arouse the wrong associations in the reader (tartan, kilts, bagpipes etc). In other translations I have used British dialects a couple of times, but only for very minor characters in scenes which last half a page or so — and even then I’m not 100% happy about it."

May 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I'd say your wariness is well founded. I'd also recommend that you give William McIlvanney a try.

May 22, 2013  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I suppose it's all a matter of degree. I think just a taste of dialect is enough to tell us a character is from a different class or region. Going the full monty with a dialect simply becomes a distraction. In the Modesty Blaise thrillers, which are otherwise solidly-written, her sidekick Willie has a horrible, or should I say 'orrible, Cockney accent that just never stops. On a higher literary plane, David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has a couple of lower-class Dutch characters who are given a dialect that sounds like a cross between Cockney and a Thomas Hardy peasant, and they end up sounding like crew members from The Pirates of the Caribbean. On the positive side, in Michael Pearce's Mamur Zapt novels the Egyptian working classes aren't made to speak in dialect, as would be the case when they're using their own language. Pearce, unlike Mitchell, resisted the temptation to give them a regional British dialect. The neglected American mystery writer K.C. Constantine filled his novels with working class characters whose language is proudly ungrammatical, earthy and profane. It works because Constantine grew up with those people and he treats them with respect. I've a piece on him here.

May 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, I shall have to give K.C. Constantine another look. I flipped through a couple of his books after seeing him praised repeatedly as a master of dialogue, but the pages I read were too rich and too dense with atmosphere and dialogue for my ear. That probably says more about me than it does about K.C. Constantine.

I'm glad you mentioned that he treats his characters with respect, because that's of high importance for any contemporary writer who uses dialect. McIlvanney respects his characters. The line I quote in this post's title is funny, but it also grants dignity to the character who utters it.

May 23, 2013  
Anonymous Ellicia said...

Would it have even been possible to write Huckleberry Finn without the dialect?

May 23, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

"Would it have even been possible to write Huckleberry Finn without the dialect?"

It depends upon which dialect you mean? Huck's? Jim's? Other characters'?

Given the racial attitudes when the novel was written, Jim's dialect was inevitable.

Given the fact that it was written by Clemens (a white southerner), the dialect (of Jim) remains problematic for many readers and critics.

As an historical document, it all makes sense. In 2013, it remains troublesome for many.

To better understand the novel and its contexts, I encourage readers to study closely the racial attitudes of Americans (northerns and southerners) before, during, and after the civil war. (BTW, even Lincoln spoke of the inherent differences (superiorities and inferiorities) in the races, and that surprises a lot of people in 2013.) This will not make Clemens' use of dialects any less offensive to some readers, but it will historicize the reading so that it becomes less about 2013 attitudes and more about late 19th century attitudes.

May 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ellicia, by odd coincidence, I started reading Huckleberry Finn yesterday, and I noted the preface in which Twain lays out the wide range of dialects that he used. I'd say that's evidence that he regarded dialect as important to his work.

May 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: Odd that so many characters should speak in dialect. but Jim's speech is the one that bothers readers--as if Twain should somehoe have been less attuned to black speech than white speech, as least black speech as spoken when within earshot of whites.

As for Lincoln, I remember one of his letters that contained the short phrase "Negro equality. Fudge!" But I also remember the declarations that a man is entitled to the rewards of his own labor. An interesting fellow, Lincoln was.

May 23, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

This discussion of Huck Finn has wandered far from your original posting and its question, but I would offer one more thing (equally far from the original): A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War, a new book by historian and novelist Thomas Fleming, which I have reviewed for America Magazine, offers a compelling thesis (i.e., racial and regional attitudes in 18th and 19th century America), and anyone who wants to better understand the controversies in Twain's novel would be well served by reading Fleming's offering. By thinking beyond the parameters of Fleming's thesis, readers will have a clearer notion of how dialects in novels may be sometimes offensive and sometimes appropriate. BTW, any readers of Fleming's book may be rather surprised about how they have to reconsider their POVs on iconic American figures.

May 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll be visiting a pair of bookshops today and tomorrow. I'll take a look.

My lazy guess would be that dialect (as well as jokes and other kinds of humor) might be offensive to the degree to which the subject or target is vulnerable and recognized as such. OK, that's obvious and maybe even a tautology. Let's see what Fleming says.

May 23, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Note: Fleming's focus is NOT on dialects in fiction but on the "disease" of the American mind that could be cited as the reason for the civil war. Only by extension do I make the leap to suggest that Fleming's thesis tends to find reinforcement in some 19th century American literature, including Twain's HF. As I argued in my review, racism (in some surprising sources) and regionalism were symptoms of the "disease." So, by extension, the same "disease" is involved in Twain's use of dialect, especially Jim's case.

May 23, 2013  
Anonymous Ellicia said...

R.T.:

If Huckleberry Finn was written in Received Pronunciation, would it be acceptable. I think dialects disturb us because they denote social class and American society is very uncomfortable with the idea of class structure. I think the dialects make the characters come alive. They give voice to Huck's free spirit and let Jim's sorrow touch our hearts. The controversy has always been about Jim's dialect. I think the point could be made that perhaps Huck's speech sounded like a peckerwood to Jim.

May 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, R.T. That will be something to look for at Phoenix Books in Lambertville, N.J. tomorrow.

May 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ellicia, I'm not sure what relevance this has to Mark Twain's book, but one of the bane of my life as a newspaper copy editor is reporters who will occasionally write gonna in quoted material? Sure, the speaker may have pronounced the word that way, but a) Why do only poor people and athletes get quoted as using it? and b) Why single out that particular word for accurate phonetic transcription?

May 24, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Peter, most of the controversy surrounding HF is not the dialect but the diction, specifically the use of the word "nigger." For this one reason, HF still is a banned book in many school districts. Consider the paradox: if hip-hop "artists" and other African-Americans use the word in certain contexts, then there is no problem; if Twain used the word in a 19th century novel (within its contexts), then it is inexcusably offensive. Go figure!

I once taught the book in a university Intro to Lit class. That was a mistake. Too many students could not get past their (real or affected) discomfort with Twain's diction. Of course, the irony of their discomfort went over their heads.

Irony is perhaps THE key in dialects in any work of fiction. If the ironic effect adds to the overall quality of the work, then I think most people would champion the use of dialect. If, however, the dialect is merely a characterization "trick" that seeks to diminish or degrade the character, then I think the writer has entered the danger zone. And readers will not follow that writer into that zone. Still, too many readers simply do not "get" irony, so that is another part of the problem.

May 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right. I knew "nigger" was the problem, and one gets that word right from the beginning to the book.

Huck himself speaks in a kind of dialect. I wonder how close that was to the kind of speech himself young Sam Clemens himself heard and used.

May 24, 2013  

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