Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Being Colloquial

I am curious to know what people think about the use of local colloquialisms, idiom and slang in a novel. I am not talking here about direct speech, where this is probably desirable and even necessary, if the author wants to reproduce the flavour of the place and time. Even in this case, though, I wonder if this can be overdone. I remember reading Wuthering Heights as a teenager, and finding the passages, where Joseph the servant spoke, quite unintelligible. But this is an extreme example, and I am not really thinking here so much about trying to convey an accent in writing (this would be another blog in itself) as about the use of phrases and vocabulary that is more or less specific to a particular time and place.

The problem is particularly acute when a novel or story is written in the first person, as though the narrator were addressing an audience. It is important that the narration reflect the time and place of the narrator. But to a reader from another time and place, some of the language used might be incomprehensible. I have been assessing/editing a book which fits this description: it is a first person narrative, in which the narrator directly addresses his audience. I have encountered some phrases and expressions that I struggle to understand. I hesitate to cite them here, because for some of my readers, these phrases might sound perfectly normal. For my own part, I cannot always decide whether a phrase or sentence is poorly written, or simply colloquial.

To illustrate the point, I will write a short passage that draws quite heavily on Australian colloquialisms, idiom and slang, without being a caricature:

“I wondered back the other day from me mate’s house, where we had a barbie. It weren’t half bad. There were snags and prawns, as well as all the other usual tucker. We all tipped back a fair few tinnies, and some of us were thoroughly pissed by the end of the night. I legged it home to avoid the booze bus. I got to thinkin’ about some of the great times me and me mates had. Like when we all went down to Schoolies at the Gold Coast. One year in particular, when some of us got into a bit of a blue with some blokes from over the border. We had some great times in those days. When we weren’t bored shitless.

“These days we’re just about all of us married. Workin’ our butts off. I took a sickie the other day, though. Took the tinny out and did some fishing with the boy. ...”

You get the picture. I am curious to know if non-Australian readers had any difficulty with this. (I’m hoping the aussies didn’t.) In Australia, we are exposed more often to American and British idiom, than Brits and Americans are exposed to ours, so we can usually follow what is said. Not always, though. There are times (whether in writing or on the screen) when I still have difficulty with some British or American language.

Personally, I love such variations. Nevertheless, I suppose when writing we should all be careful to ensure that we can still be understood across the cultural divide.

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