The Problem with the Problem with Dialect.

When I took, as a way to widen my horizons, an English module as my optional in higher education I was lucky enough to have been writing creatively and studying creative writing off my ow back since the age of 14. I was a 22 year old woman with my own opinions about the subject, and nowhere near as impressed by the “wisdom” of my 25 year old post-grad tutor as the teenagers in my class.

In short, I already knew that writing, like art, is subjective and malleable, and I already knew that the reason we learn the rules is so that we can break them creatively and skillfully. In short, I knew that when she began to rant about the evils of dialect in writing she was not giving us the One True Truth, but speaking as a Very English English Major who had trouble reading some of the dense Scottish dialect that her chosen field would involve.

As someone tracking the development and representation of socialist ideas and working class lives in Scottish literature she was going to be, had to be, reading things like Docherty, The Big Man, Glue, (and maybe even Trainspotting), and a plethora of other titles which might feature dialect of the Scottish variety in different densities. So, in all likelihood she was expressing or experiencing a personal dislike of the use of dialect in writing because she was forced to deal with it daily.


And there’s nothing wrong with that.


I find writing laced with different languages, such as Lolita  frustrating, but I know it’s because I am embarrassingly non bilingual and it makes the reading process harder for me.

The issue is that this tutor, like so many others, presented her belief that the use of Scottish (or any other, though she specified Scottish) dialect in writing either directly or in dialogue was unacceptable, lazy, and unrefined as a fact. And the issue with this is that the dialect she was talking about is the language of the life of many working class people in Scotland. In fact, its the language of Scottish life at large.

But her opinion found traction because the students around me were quite young and thought her word was Law, or they themselves were English, Welsh, or French, etc and also disliked having to battle with Scottish dialect in books (the Irish students, and, surprisingly, the American students seemed to find it interesting, if troublesome). Or they came from affluent Scottish families and saw the use of dialect as “low-class” or “ill educated”. And so I found myself the lone, working class Scot in a class which unanimously decided that the use of any dialect, but in particular mine, the one I grew up speaking, had no place in the realms of educated, literary fiction. And this was decided not as an opinion, but as a fact. Because there’s a Problem with dialect in fiction.


Here’s my problem with that problem; it doesn’t exists. What does exist is, on one hand, the understandable commercial prejudice against the use of regional dialects from big publishers who want as wide a consumer base as possible to draw from. On the other there is what I just described; the “educated” dislike of people who have English Literature degrees, and have decided amongst themselves that dialects are not “proper English”, and so relegate AAV, Scots, Cockney, and other such manners of speech as signs of poor education and lazy writing.


One makes sense, the other is bullshit.


I get publishers wanting to be able to sell books as widely as possible in order to make their money back. I do not get, or accept, the idea that patterns of speech and expression used in the everyday lives of normal people have no place in fiction. Fiction is about the lives of every day people; we read to experience. In his utterly magical, but harrowing, The Book of the Night WomenMarlon James uses dialect and colloquialisms which I can only assume are native to the Caribbean, or which originated within the culture amongst slaves. It’s a dialect that most white Scots will not have been exposed to, and yet it did well enough that I found it in a train station bestseller ranking; when a story is compelling enough, when the reader is avid enough, the meanings of dialect and colloquial terms will be uncovered through research or context. As a result the reader comes away with a slightly deeper understanding of the culture and outlook of the people it belongs to.


As a result communication becomes easier. As a result those who might not have had much of a voice before begin to be heard, even as echos. It might sound trite, but I believe this, and I believe that the use of dialect in fiction, whether it be AAV, Scots, or any other, can only be a good thing. The skill of the writer should enable the reader to immerse themselves in the story and the language; a good book does not become bad for the use of dialect, but it might become great if it’s applied well.

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