Are you writing in the right language?

You hear a lot about voice in fiction. Agents and publishers are looking for new voices. New writers still haven’t found their voice. Reviewers rave about the novel’s voice. And the rest. But what about writers who go so far as to write phonetically in the dialect of their own community? How’s that for voice?

Recently at Bern Literary Festival I had an interesting conversation with two writers about language and translation. One was a Swiss writer whose breakthrough success came when he finally wrote a book in his own dialect. His name is Pedro Lenz. The other was his translator, short story author Donal McLaughlin from Glasgow.

Swiss Germans like Pedro Lenz speak dialect all the time, unless they really have to speak standard German for some formal reason, or to communicate with a non-Swiss German speaker. Many never feel fully at ease in standard German (also known as high German). And yet most Swiss German writers write in high German because that is considered the ‘proper’ language.

In the case of McLaughlin, whose childhood was split between Derry and Glasgow, there was more than one leap to be made to get to grips with the standard English taught at school. Europe, despite all its disappearing dialects, is still full of this kind of linguistic tension.

The meeting with Lenz and McLaughlin was one of those rare occasions when my day job intersected with my interest in writing fiction. I put together a podcast for swissinfo.ch which was published last week. I’m including it here if you would like to listen to the conversation. There’s also an article based on the same subject.

And for those who’d like to test their knowledge of Glaswegian, here are some phrases from the Glaswegian book Naw Much of a Talker (Original title: Der Goalie Bin Ig). Maybe you have some great lines or vocabulary to share from your own home-grown style of English?

Kid ye slip me a fifty tae Monday? (Could I borrow fifty [pounds] ‘til Monday?)

Ah get ma kick fae the present (I get my kick from the present)

It’s guid craic, listenin tae a French-speaker tryin tae speak German (It’s good fun, listening to a French speaker trying to speak German)

Marta but was greetin aw the way home. (Marta was crying all the way home)

Looks like his wife picks stuff ootae her stupit catalogue fae him – ivry couple ae years. (Looks like his wife picks stuff out of her stupid catalogue for him – every couple of years.)

5 thoughts on “Are you writing in the right language?

  1. Had no problems with the Glaswegian, Clare, but it can be a strain across a full novel. One English writer who does this well, IMO, is Ross Raisin (he’s written in Yorkshire dialect and Glaswegian).
    I think writers should feel free to use whatever language works for them and their story but, if it’s not very accessible, you do risk losing readers.

    1. I think Naw Much of a Talker gets away with it because it is short and the language not too complex but I remember finding the Yorkshire dialect a struggle in Wuthering Heights. But it’s so long since I read the book. Must check out Ross Raisin.

  2. I understood all the Glaswegian phrases too, but then my mum grew up speaking Ulster Scots as they call it now. I remember teaching Swiss German students EFL and the ‘real’ Germans as they called themselves used to make fun of their dialect and accents – I thought it sounded fascinating and they were very proud of their unique ‘voice’ – a vital element in their perceived self identities. A bit of Ulster Scots for you – ‘She’s a quare dour wee bane.’ = ‘She’s a very sober little person’ in standard English.

    1. You should write your next book in Ulster Scots! You’d probably get a grant for it from somewhere. I can see the title already: The Dour Wee Bane 🙂

      1. You’re probably dead right about the grant! I think my mum would be the best one for that project. Apparently, people are always telling her, ‘You should write a book!’

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