Wednesday, August 09, 2017

'Ow's she cuttin', me cocky?

The ongoing posts about dialect, accent, and unique sayings have made me smile, and also made me think about the challenge writers face when creating dialogue in a region or among a group of people with a special lingo. It doesn't have to be an ethnic or geographical group; cops, for example, have their own shorthand for talking among themselves, often referring to the number of the criminal code offence being investigated or the outcome of a call. Outsiders rarely know what the sayings mean, and a discussion among two cops might be incomprehensible to anyone else. Medical personnel, and many other professional groups, have a similar insider language. The writer faces the challenge of how much of this insider language to use, in order to make the scene sound authentic, and how much overwhelms, districts, or confuses the reader.

One of the most unique and colourful, as well as incomprehensible, dialects in the English language is Newfoundlandese. Newfoundland was largely settled two to four hundred years ago by the Irish and West Country English, who brought their own rhythm and dialect with them, and because it's an isolated island, there was little influence from outside until recently. A lively, colourful language evolved, much of it tied to the sea upon which they depended. Some of the unique vocabulary is disappearing now but lingers in the smaller villages and outports. The title phrase in this post means "How are you, my friend?"

My father was a Newfoundlander who, although he moved away as a young man and lived his life as a philosophy professor in Montreal, never lost his love of his homeland and often used phrases unique to there. "Say n'ar word" was one of his favourite, meaning "don't say a word". Another was "knee high to a grasshopper" when referring to something very small. Most Newfoundlanders today can switch back and forth between dialect and standard English, and increasingly the quirky language of the countryside is disappearing, but on my visits there, I found people turned it off and on at will, depending on who they were talking to. Get two Newfoundlanders together, possibly trying to tease a "come from away" like me, and their conversation became incomprehensible.

When I was writing FIRE IN THE STARS, set on the Great Northern Peninsula in western Newfoundland, I wanted to give a hint of the local village language without distracting or confusing the reader. Trying to write "Newfoundlandese" necessitates many apostrophes, as they tend to drop their H's and the G's on the end of ing. The resulting string of written dialogue looks like a mess that the reader struggles to decipher. I opted to sprinkle the examples lightly, to give just a hint of the flavour.

Reaction to my efforts was mixed. Many readers thought I had captured the sound of the language perfectly and they felt as if they were back in that village. A few Newfoundland readers thought I had overdone it and fallen for stereotypes. As a come-from-away, I was very concerned about this possibility, and in fact I had downplayed the dialect in order to avoid it (and for the reason noted above). The language I put in the book was very much what I had heard in the little villages in remote northern Newfoundland.

But any outsider writing about a world that is not their own runs the risk of failing to capture the authentic flavour of a culture. I think we need to do the best we can, research, visit, read, talk to insiders, but then go for it. Venturing into the unknown and exploring new vistas is what writing is all about. If I only wrote about white, middle-aged, urban female psychologists like myself, I would soon run out of ideas.

Not to mention bore myself to death.


Sybil Johnson said...

Very interesting post, Barbara. As a reader, I tend to dislike books that have too much dialect that is difficult to read, but I do appreciate the ones where they sprinkle in things so you can get a feeling for what people talk like.

Aline Templeton said...

I'm interested that you say the Newfoundland dialect has its roots in Irish and West Country, but your title has more than a touch of Cockney about it - the dropped 'H' is a marker and 'me old cock' is very typical. I wonder whether there were a few Londoners settled there as well?