Does your reader need to speak the lingo?

?Phil: According to the BBC, the work “Twerking” has made it in to the Oxford English Dictionary. According to them, it means, “to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance”.

No, that didn’t help me much either. I understand that Miley Ray Cyrus did it at some awards show and apparently that is enough to get you an entry in the big book of words no one buys anymore.

Is it a problem if you use words in your book that exclude the reader?

What matters more – that the language is right for the scene, or that the person reading it understands it?

I ask, because while busy not knowing what Twerking is, I’m reading Feral Youth by Polly Courtney . Who says men can’t multi-task?

To help the reader, the book starts with a glossary of “street” terms as all the speech is written in the language the characters would really use. Obviously being down wid da kidz, I knew all this anyway, but I can see how it would help a less hip reader.

As I read, I am reminded of Anthony Burgess’s book “A Clockwork Orange“. Written from the main protagonist Alex’s point of view, the early chapters are in Nadsat, an English dialect that the author invented to keep the text from becoming dated. Had he used contemporary language from the time, characters would have probably being saying “Daddy-o” which would have nailed the period firmly in the early 1960s rather than a few years into the future from whenever you are reading it.

(I know Daddy-o is probably dated for London in 1962, the rest of the country tends to lag behind a little and the book was written in Hove which is permanently set to 1934)

Anyway, I remember really struggling with the language when I read it. To be honest, if I hadn’t read the book in that period from finishing answering the questions to being allowed out of the my Social Science exam, I might not have stuck with it. As it was, I always wondered if Burgess is partly responsible for my hopeless grade in the subject (CSE 2) as me being rubbish as the subject. I know I’m not alone here (with the language, not rubbish exam results) as others I’ve talked to about the book mention the same problem. The film noticeably tones the language down.

Now, we have Alesha and Co speaking their own version of English in Feral Youth, and again the readers will struggle initially, although not as much. It was probably a third of the way through the book before I stopped turning to the glossary every few pages.

Despite this, my instinct is that it is the right way to do things. I couldn’t believe in inner city youth yammering away on their mobile phones in received pronunciation any more than Alex and his droogs would have. If the reader wants to immerse themselves in the world of inner London “yoot”, they need to learn the lingo. Perhaps this is a case for reading the book twice, the first time to get your ear in and the second to follow the story. Maybe it’s an indication of how far I am from the world of Alesha and her “bredrin” but perhaps that is part of the thrill – being allowed entry into a very different space.

We’re still not putting Twerking in our Book though.

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2 Comments

Filed under Phil, Writing

2 responses to “Does your reader need to speak the lingo?

  1. Several examples spring to mind. Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” has a very interesting patois, lots of Russian (and the odd ‘Stralian) colloquilisms. Takes a while to get used to, but after while I start talk this.

    Orwell is so well known as to not need mentioning, but that was talking about the forced restriction of language to political ends, so almost outside the topic here. It is also explained in the text.

    Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Charlie Stross Halting State both take place in-and-around “Embra” and enuciate the dialect and accent in the text. Again, takes a bit of effort, but it’s about authenticity. The latter author often has glossaries in the back of his books.

    Conversely, Paul Theroux makes a point of (and overtly states so) translating Spanish phrases into English in “Old Patagonian Express”. Much easier reading than putting in italics. Dan Brown and Ian Fleming, I’m looking at you!

    • Trainspotting is another good example.
      “Renton old chap, would you mind passing me some of that heroin please? It’s very morish.”
      It just doesn’t work. The trick is to include enough for colour but not so much that reading feels like wading through treacle.

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