On guddling around in dialect

Mony a mickle maks a muckle. Photo: Mark C.O'Flaherty

Mony a mickle maks a muckle. Photo: Mark C.O’Flaherty

It didn’t take me long, when I was thinking about the story that would become The Glasgow Coma Scale, to realise that I faced a fundamental decision: on dialect. The book is set in Glasgow, and many of the characters are Glaswegians; so how was I going to represent their way of talking? Just by sprinkling an ‘aye’ here and a ‘naw’ there? Or should it be something more intensive? Something more… difficult?

I grew up in Glasgow being questioned over, or mocked about, my accent, which sounds distinctly un­-Glaswegian and means I often have to issue caveats – ‘I am Scottish, despite the accent.’ (The author Janice Galloway – you may need a dustpan and brush to sweep up that name – once delighted me when she was signing my copy of All Made Up by describing it as ‘an accent that’s travelled’.) So to try and write characters who employed ‘the patter’, as it’s known, was a daunting prospect: it meant trying to replicate in text a form of speech that I was very accustomed to hearing, but not to speaking.

Still: lots of things that are difficult are worthwhile, and I had the safety net of being able to look to that tradition in Scots literature of employing not just individual words that don’t quite have English-language equivalents, but of the variant spellings and the phonetic renderings of everyday speech. Trainspotting and the works of James Kelman are obvious recent comparators, but most Scottish authors will deploy even in ‘standard English’ writing a resonant bit of Scots lingo: a ‘cooried in’ here, a ‘glaikit’ there. The important element was to try to use context to make these words’ meanings comprehensible to a reader unfamiliar with them: quite a nice challenge in itself. And no different from when you encounter ‘flocculent’ in John Banville (or Nabokov) for the first time and have to consult your encyclopaedia or, more likely, Wiktionary.

Then there are those terms for which a phonetic rendering is unimprovable. Any day on Sauchiehall Street you might hear a harassed mum implore her boisterous child, ‘Haud your wheesht!’ How to put that in standard English? ‘Hold your tongue’ seems a bit fierce, ‘Hold your hush’ unnatural, ‘Hold your breath’ downright mean. Nope: the best translation of ‘wheesht’ is ‘wheesht’. And, as a writer, once you’ve committed to that, why not also to that ‘Haud’ – and then to a terse ‘yer’ or ‘yir’ instead of the long vowel sound of ‘your’? Suddenly the language starts speaking for itself.

What was important to me was that the dialogue seemed authentic to the characters. When we first meet Angus, a born-and-bred Glaswegian from a working class background, he’s living out on the streets; to have him speak in BBC-announcer RP English was of course not unthinkable, but it seemed it would be a missed opportunity. You can pay tribute to a place in all kinds of ways; to me, an effort to work with the rhythms and cadences and vocabulary I hear around my home city was one way of praising the place. It’s a city of voracious readers, gleeful language-users, and haverers – that’s people soapboxing and going on a wee bit long – and I wanted my book to reflect that. And while consistency of spelling was important, I was aware that not every Glaswegian speaks the same way, up to and including those of us with a ‘travelled’ accent, so there are variations among characters, from the thicker-spoken to the more anglicised. (There’s even an Aberdonian in there. I hope I got a plausible Aberdeen-ism into his dialogue too.)

There was another reason, too, one which was important to me and, I hope, will affect readers likewise. This was, as I say, a hard decision – why not set the book elsewhere and/or leave out the Weegie dialect? – and part of my motivation was to do something I’d never done before: at least to try it, to work out how (or if) I could achieve it, and to teach myself something. A first novel it may be, but The Glasgow Coma Scale is not the first book I’ve finished, and each time I’m keen to try something I haven’t attempted before.

From the reader’s point of view, in turn, I hope that the little bit more engagement the text asks as you accustom yourself to the dialogue between Angus’s Scots accent and Lynne’s English accent yields some sort of reward. A reader is a translator already; how else do those funny squiggles on the page turn first into signifying words and then to scenes you can visualise in your mind’s eye? Bringing in non-standard English is just one little extra wrinkle to an already pretty impressive act of engagement by the reader. And it never did Irvine Welsh’s popularity any harm.

On another level, it’s one more way in which Angus and Lynne – who are thrown together by circumstance and spend the book attempting, in an Odd Couple type of scenario, to try to understand one another – differ visibly on the page.

At the very least, I hope I can bring the word ‘fankle’ to a slightly wider audience.

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