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Can you read in Scottish? Writing in dialect is a subversive act

Is this literary vandalism? Trainspotting/IMBD


November 8, 2022   6 mins

However indifferent we might have been to our school days, most of us will remember at least one moment of significant connection to a teacher, or a lesson, or a book. I recall my high school teachers as a mixed bunch who nonetheless possessed a few things in common: volcanic tempers, crumpled clothes, an unconcealable world-weariness. They drilled the curriculum into us, and several of us even passed our exams, but many had, understandably, lost the ability to make any kind of connection with their students years before.

In the Eighties, central Scotland was hit with the kind of mass unemployment, addiction and poverty that often weakens school performance. By the time I started high school in the Nineties the classroom was, for many, nothing more than a box you were confined to while the clock ticked and the clouds moved past the window. Lessons regularly slipped towards chaos, and for the teachers who struggled to impose themselves, impenetrability became a survival instinct.

In the midst of this I remember an English class where the teacher made small and regular efforts to impart something personal to her pupils. “I’ve read a brilliant book,” she announced one afternoon, just as the bell rang. “By a new, young Scottish author, if anyone’s interested?” The classroom emptied in record time, but I was intrigued. At 15, culturally isolated in a small town, I had no idea that young Scottish people were writing novels. It would have been fatal to my credibility to be seen to be interested, but I memorised the title and walked to the local library after school that day.

Morvern Callar, by Alan Warner, tells the story of a 21-year-old supermarket employee living in a nameless Scottish port town. When she finds her self-serious boyfriend dead on the kitchen floor by his own hand, she steals the unpublished novel he has written and sells it, using the advance to go clubbing in Spain. It was first published in 1995; my teacher must have read it upon release, and I shortly after that.

Trainspotting didn’t enter my teenage consciousness until it’s adaptation for the cinema in 1996, so until Morvern Callar arrived my experience of literature had been strictly dustbowls and waistcoats — school texts like Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, and An Inspector Calls. Our teachers worked hard to convince us of the relevance of things that had happened in Salinas, California, or Maycomb, Alabama, but now we had a local book; suddenly it seemed as though Morvern Callar — dangerous, youthful, Scottish — was lurking right outside the classroom window. I devoured the novel, as did my friends, as, eventually, did my mum and dad and sister. The thing that captured all our imaginations was the strange familiarity of the protagonist’s voice: Morvern was an enigmatic and illusory presence, but she still spoke like someone we knew from down the shops.

We all speak a dialect and this, whether we like it or not, forms part of our identity. Yet the use of dialect in modern novels has fostered debate on many fronts. How to represent class and nationality in literature is a question that stretches back to Dickens and the Brontës and beyond to the 18th century, when authors began to experiment with a wider variety of local speech. Today, authors are often under pressure to tone down dialect in novels for the sake of reader accessibility.

One only has to consider the furore over another Scottish novel — James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late — to get a sense of the controversy surrounding dialect. The novel, written in what critics described as working-class Glaswegian vernacular, won the Booker Prize in 1994 to the horror of the columnist Simon Jenkins, who claimed it was “literary vandalism” and compared Kelman to an “illiterate savage”. One judge, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, said the book was not “publicly accessible” and threatened to resign if it won.

Perhaps it was the swear words that did it: an estimated 4,000 fucks. But Kelman wasn’t the literary disruptor some people painted him as: “Most of my stories were written from within my own culture,” he said, “so you use the language as people use it.” His book, which tells a day in the life of a newly blind ex-con called Sammy, is a letter-perfect feat of ventriloquism. The reader is fully immersed in the thoughts and speech of the Glaswegian protagonist and every aspect of his life in Nineties Scotland — the DSS, the worn cassettes (Dylan, Kristofferson, Cash,), the pubs called Glancy’s. We are treated not only to Sammy’s personality, but the personality of place.

But for many readers, schooled on did, do and done and raised on prize-winners from a mainstream novelistic tradition, the dialect understandably made the novel a slog. It was hard for some to see beyond the spelling — ye for you, didnay for didn’t, wasnay for wasn’t — and there were suggestions that Kelman’s writing was inaccessible to the very people he was apparently writing about, and for.

While critics lined up to disparage Kelman’s stylistic choices, it was Jenkins who perhaps pinpointed where the real controversy lay when he claimed Kelman had done no more than “transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”. As is so often the case, arguments about language and spelling were a flimsy cover for efforts to define who belongs in literature, which writers are worthy of the major prizes, and which emotional crises can be considered valid novelistic fodder. Can the alley-bound, newly-blind Glaswegian ever be considered the equal of the Hampstead fig-eater, gazing down from his nine-over-six window?

Perhaps, though, it all comes down to the mundane question of sales. The head of books at WH Smith noted snidely that sales of Kelman’s book had quadrupled after winning the Booker Prize — from eight to 30 copies a week! By contrast, the 2020 Booker Prize was won by another Scottish novel, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain — a no-less brutal tale of courage and love, but one that wielded dialect very sparingly. The book was an international hit, selling more than 1.5 million copies around the world. Despite his reluctance to write in dialect, Stuart spoke of his own debt to Kelman: “How Late it Was, How Late changed my life
 It is also one of the first times I saw my people, my dialect, on the page.”

Of course, dialect is not the only way to create a sense of local identity. Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar is a far more accessible novel than Kelman’s, but it loses nothing in terms of intimacy and locality. Warner rejected the phonetic spellings (or “eye dialect”) used by Kelman, instead modifying standard English words with suffixes (silentness, queerish) to give Morvern a wide-eyed individuality that echoed the kind of front-room talk you might hear from your grannie and your auntie. The use of archaic colloquialisms (totey-wee, blethering, midden) and the proliferation of local nicknames — serve to illustrate the tight-knit informality of the community she comes from.

I hadn’t read Morvern Callar in a decade when I returned to it during the pandemic, bored and homesick on furlough in London. The feelings it gave me as a teenager in a small working-class town were undiminished as an adult in London — that there is darkness and poetry outside our front doors; that events worthy of literature can take place anywhere. I had probably decided I wanted to be a writer back in 1995, but as is often the case, school then jobs and life in general got in the way. With months off work I decided, finally, I’d have a go at writing my own book.

After living away from Scotland for such a long period, it wasn’t as straightforward as sitting down and writing from scratch. Dialogue is often mentioned as one of the trickiest part of writing to master, and if you are trying to replicate a specific dialect — even one you grew up with — it is doubly hard. I used my own way of speaking, the speech of my family and friends, as well as online resources like The British Library archives to polish the dialect of individual characters. The process revealed the threads of Doric dialect that I’d picked up from my father, who grew up in the northeast of Scotland: words like pechin (tired), birl (spin), and muckle (big), and the habit of dropping the “s” from the end of many pluralised words (“down the stair, seven year ago”).

Reading a book written in dialect requires commitment from the reader. And yet so many of the attributes that readers prize in a book — atmosphere, authenticity, a sense of place — are enhanced by characters who speak and think in distinctive ways. The structure of our language defines not only our own identity, but how we experience the world, and opening ourselves to other ways of speaking can help us better understand other lives. For me, writing in dialect helps readjust the boundaries of who belongs in literature.

I never told my English teacher that I had been listening that day in class, or that I tracked down and read the book she recommended. Yet Morvern Callar is a book whose voice strongly informed my own attempts at writing. It taught me that there was profundity in my small-town experience. And it showed me that you could, in Scotland, write about those experiences.


Tom Newlands is a Scottish writer living in London. His work has most recently appeared in New Writing Scotland, the New Statesman and in the BBC Radio production Margins to Mainstream with actor Michael Sheen. His debut novel is forthcoming in spring 2024.

thomas_newlands

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CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“Much may be made of a
Scotchman, IF he be caught young”.

(Dr Samuel Johnson.)

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

I gave up on “How Late it Was” about halfway through. Not because of the dialect – having lived in northeast Scotland for 40+ years, Glaswegian is hardly challenging.
Just the relentless negativity. In the end, like its author, I just thought, “ah, f*ck it”.
At the time, things weren’t going so well for me and I wanted to escape the atmosphere of such writing, not immerse myself further in it.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 year ago

If an author wanted positivity he’d set his book in Edinburgh.

Kevin R
Kevin R
1 year ago
Reply to  Sam Sky

Like ‘Trainspotting’ then?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

I still speak ‘Glaswegian’ even after 40 years in England – I haven’t had to lose the accent as most English people understand it if you speak clearly enough and not too quickly, though I obviously don’t use locally defined words. However I cannot read prose in the Glaswegian dialect – it’s just too difficult even for me to follow unless I read it out loud, and it smacks seriously of pretension too.

Clownlard Jesus
Clownlard Jesus
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Reading how you speak is ‘pretentious’? The words ‘Scottish cultural cringe’ mean anything to you? You’ve been brainwashed by spending too much time in Scotland-hating England.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

I think writing non-conversational English in any dialect is pretentious – you rather presumptuously assumed it’s because I don’t like Scots dialect in particular. That assumption says rather more about your own filtered view of people.

Carol Scott
Carol Scott
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I am the same, Glasgow born living in England, still have my accent but can’t stand reading anything in dialect.

Orson Carte
Orson Carte
1 year ago

Just call me a pedant, but when I read “it’s” when it should have been “its” my heart sinks. Especially when the article is about language…
Trainspotting didn’t enter my teenage consciousness until it’s adaptation for the cinema in 1996″

Last edited 1 year ago by Orson Carte
Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

Nice article. But hard to understand . . .

Last edited 1 year ago by Samuel Ross
Julian Newman
Julian Newman
1 year ago

@ben arnulfssen has a point, but overstated. There are indeed good reasons for gaining mastery of a standardised Language and there are also good reasons for engaging with local languages which are generally known as Dialect. It has been the misfortune of Scots that since the Union of the Crowns there has not been a Court around which the processes that would have sustained one form of Scots as a standardised language, as a result of which it has a good many regional dialects but no national language.
I say this was the misfortune of Scots (the language) but it may have worked to the advantage of the Scots (the people), as dominies taught the use of a more widely understood standard English. Here I support @ben arnulfssen. But there again, the stigmatisation of popular speech as “bad English” rather than its recognition as local dialect must have been hugely to demoralising to pupils who were native dialect-speakers. Modern teachers of “English”(the school subject) ought to include in their curriculum both the use of the standard language and of local dialects together with discussion and awareness of where these variants are appropriate and effective. Literary works that use dialect should thus be used as a classroom resource to reinforce the awareness that “English” is no one thing.

Clownlard Jesus
Clownlard Jesus
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Newman

The stamping out of Scots and Gaelic by the English over the centuries has been no mistake.

jim peden
jim peden
1 year ago

I naively thought the aim of writing was communication. If you have a good story to tell then tell it to as many people as possible. The dialect hurdle is a source of friction that deters many – if not most – people from reading Shakespeare or Burns. And they had good stories. So, in a world that is riven by conflict rooted in misunderstanding, I believe we should all at least talk the same language to each other sometimes. The alternative is that we a’ fa’ on wur bahookies.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
1 year ago
Reply to  jim peden

But we don’t… There are enough of us in the Scottish diaspora to make sure that disnae happen.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 year ago
Reply to  jim peden

I mean stating language is just communication is like saying, as certain early 20th century architects do, that architecture is just about building functional edifices. It’s a phillistine reductionism. And yet everyone gets outraged with buildings but somehow are fine with ugly language, without connotations, history, rhyme or complexity. Shakespeare reduced to a Basic Emglish vocabular telling ‘stories’ is a soulless abomination, just as the simple lamguage versions of the KJV bible or Book of Common Prayer were. No one wants to work to appreciate anything, everything has to be served on a platter of toddler-speak.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

I enjoy remembering my secondary school teachers – it was the seventies, and two young woman teachers (maths and geography) in particular used to captivate the boys in their boots and leather mini skirts. Mrs Haldane and Miss Walsh, we loved you!
They’ll be about seventy years old now.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

We had a young English teacher, Miss McKniff, who wore low cut tops and regularly bent over to “check our work” as we scribbled away at our desks (just the lads, mind).

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

That reminds me of that famous Scotch ditty :
“ When the moonlight flits across your tits, Oh Jesus Christ almighty “!*

(*Derek & Clive)

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Clownlard Jesus
Clownlard Jesus
1 year ago

Scotch is a drink, not a nationality, decorticated, semi-evolved, semi-sentient simian.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“semi-sentient simian” an excellent description of your good self!
Scotch is a rather old fashioned term I grant you, much favoured by Dr Samuel Johnson as you might recall.
However it is STILL a correct description of those unfortunates living well to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. Why else would we still have a ‘ Scotch Corner’ on the A1 for example?

John Macleod
John Macleod
1 year ago

Rarely is an article ever written so clearly and yet so eloquently, pleasure to read.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

A hundred years ago Mencken was complaining that young people in America were taught “The King’s English” at school but spoke differently. He tried to get people interested in teaching in the medium of spoken American.
He got bored with it. His English was fantastic.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Wasn’t he also a virulent Anglophobe Mr Wheatley?

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

When I read about things happening in the UK at the moment, I become an anglophobe. So what.
Londoners think that London is everything but now it is an also-ran, something with only a past.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Am I correct in thinking you live in Wales?

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago

If it is he?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Thanks, I stupidly hadn’t thought of that!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Ehh Jammy, yeh no ken chib eh

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Odd to think that however unintelligible Scotch is, ultimately it is just another English dialect.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago

L’Anglais n’est qu’un autre dialecte Francais.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Un peu trop d’allemand!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

La verdad. Veramente, und wahrlich.

Last edited 1 year ago by Richard Craven
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

To switch to language of the Gods, if I may:
“Usque ad mortem bibendum!”

( Gosh my predicted text gremlin didn’t like that!)

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

From the Sonnets, Mostly Bristolian, by Richard Craven:-
……….
Sonnet 141
AprĂšs avoir ces cent quarante Ă©crits,
je suis épuisé et me considÚre
une langue craquée léchante, dedans, un puits
empli d’une boue visqueuse, d’une croĂ»te grossiĂšre.
Il en reste quinze encore, coincés, cachés:
des crapauds rotants que les murs moussus
font résonner. Enfin, bloquée, fùchée,
la langue, toute sĂšche et vulgaire devenue,
va bifurquer, et désormais siffler.
Chaque midi, pour un instant, le soleil
Ă©claire cette vie grimpante – viens regarder!
Voilà en bas, frétillante et vermeille,
la langue, les crapauds fugitifs, la chasse
avant que l’ombre couvre la disgrñce.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago

Button it, ya radge-bag!

Anyway, one reason for being a fan of vernacular language as the narrative voice in fiction is that Trainspotting (read when I should have been swotting up for my finals) furnished me with a whole new vocabulary of colloquialisms, insults and rhyming slang, totally distinct from that found where I had spent my youth:

Radge (mad/aggressive)
Chorrie (steal)
Lemon (girlfriend)
Chib (knife/stab)
Skag (heroin)
Morningside speed (cocaine)

Marvellous.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 year ago

“Skag” was common parlance at secondary school in the late 90s. I suppose it was the influence of tje film.

John 0
John 0
1 year ago

Better make a version with subtitles for across-the-ponders.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Two new books for my reading list! Ta! Oh, and I never had any trouble understanding Flashman’s father-in-law, or the early 17th Century dialect in Barth’s “The Sot-Weed Factor”, so this sounds like fun!

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

One aspect missed by most reviewers of Trainspotting was the differences between the language used by different characters to narrate the story. Welsh wanted readers to understand that the main characters came from different backgrounds. To most reviewers however they were all just Scottish.

ben arnulfssen
ben arnulfssen
1 year ago

How much MORE disadvantage does this writer wish to inflict on the younger generation? Present a CV written in such a fashion, and you may as well mark it “delete before reading”; present actual work in that fashion and you won’t last long.

I realise this is a deeply unfashionable point of view in certain narrow circles (and I dont eat figs except as a laxative, and what’s a nine-over-six?) but education DOES gave a function, and this isn’t it.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  ben arnulfssen

The author is talking about dialect in fiction as a narrative voice.
Although fiction is a good description of some of the CVs I see these days.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago
Reply to  ben arnulfssen

Not everything in this life is about employment.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

What else? Is it not necessary to have a function in life? Work for charities comes and goes but is still employment.
Please don’t say ‘family’ because zillions of people are employed and also bring up families.
Maybe looking at your phone is the other alternative?

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

What a joyless existence you must endure that your parents and teachers never encouraged you to read as a child.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  ben arnulfssen

Raised as a North London working class boy, I understood from the earliest that I should master two forms of English and know when to use them. It wasn’t difficult, so I think that you are worrying unduly.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Agreed. Many, many people do this and you just get used to it.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

It’s called diglossia and people have been doing this intuitively everywhere in the world since the beginning of recorded history. So, as you say, it’s a non-issue.

Last edited 1 year ago by Sam Sky
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

You must be a canny linguist…

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 year ago
Reply to  ben arnulfssen

“Nine-over-six” is a way of describing the configuration of panes in a sash window. Sash windows took over from casement windows which themselves were the first mobile windows, taking over from the immobile mullion windows with fixed panes of glass that one sees in say medieval buildings.
An upper sash with nine panes and a lower sash with six panes. I believe this was the popular configuration in the 1790s. Throughout the 18th century when double sash windows were first widely used* the to early 20th century when they started to disappear one sees a range of different numerical combinations of panes in each sash that went in and out of fashion.
* The first sash windows were invented around the 1670s but were not widely popular until the Georgian period when in the early 18th century “six-over-six” was the first major style

Last edited 1 year ago by Sam Sky
MJ Reid
MJ Reid
1 year ago
Reply to  ben arnulfssen

Simply because local dialects and Scots as a language with its own dialects are not seen as important in high-falutin’ Edinburgh where English must be treasured at all cost. Yes, teach children English, but don’t rubbish the way they spake at hame and let’s get more of how they talk down on paper. Then more might want to learn English and leave school literate. Instead of being bored, talked down to and illiterate as a result.

Kevin R
Kevin R
1 year ago
Reply to  ben arnulfssen

Rubbish. Spelling and grammar were fluid in Shakespeare’s day and we’re still admiring his work today. The fact that a writer chooses to use dialect does not suggest either they or their audience are stupid. Emily BrontĂ« is mentioned in the article; you may wish to re-read Wuthering Heights to gain further insight.

Clownlard Jesus
Clownlard Jesus
1 year ago
Reply to  Kevin R

Excellent recourse to the tedious, unimportant English literary canon.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Bad luck, you deserved better judging by your erudite contribution on here over the last couple of years!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

Thanks, I really appreciate your kindness.

Clownlard Jesus
Clownlard Jesus
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Obviously cos yer not Scottish. 😉