Fit Like? (Writing in Doric, Scots or any other dialect)
by Kathleen Gray
‘Writing in English I can range wider; writing in Doric I can go deeper.’
When as writers do we chose to use our ‘first language’ (in my case a strong local dialect called Doric used in the North East of Scotland) and when do we use ‘standard English’?
My relationship with the speech I grew up with is complicated: if I spoke in my local dialect outside our home and community I was worried I’d be labelled a ‘teuchter’- roughly translated as a country pumpkin. If I spoke in English within that same community, I was considered ‘posh’ – again a pejorative term. I’m ashamed to admit that for most of my teenage years and twenties I more or less rejected my local dialect. Returning home for family occasions I refused to slip back into the dialect making a rather clumsy statement that, by using English, I was showing everyone how sophisticated and cosmopolitan I was. Mmm… I look back and am rather ashamed of these episodes and yet I’ve noticed that dialect is often about class and can be used to make a conscious political statement.
When I first started using my local dialect in writing I was concerned about being perceived as parochial or sentimental or, heaven forbid, ‘kailyard’ – a term generally considered derogatory. Decisions about when to use dialect always causes me to pause and think very hard: ‘to use or not to use, that is the question’.
One of the pragmatic problems of writing in dialect is the spelling of certain words. Fortunately there are Scots dictionaries available now, although my spell check has a field day when I write in Doric. Personally, I admit that reading my local is dialect actually difficult: I think most dialects have evolved as oral traditions and are perhaps better suited to plays and story-telling.
When I was in school in the 60s and 70s there was no literature available in our local dialect – hurrah, hurrah, hurrah, now there are poems, plays, stories and novels in Doric and hopefully this is the same in your part of the world too.
Does the decision to write in dialect depend on the subject matter? Recently, the topic ‘home’ came up in the writing group I lead, and I found myself veering towards Doric. Family, community, farm and home seem to be obvious topics for writing in Doric; plus the question always arises ‘Authentic to write the dialogue in dialect and the descriptions in English?’ I’m not sure about the integrity of any writing that is such a mixture. I think it’s all or nothing!
And if you write in your local dialect do you then become pigeon-holed as a Doric/Scottish/Regional writer? And does it matter? Certainly, I limit my potential readership by writing in Doric: the short story I’m working on now will only have potentially a tiny readership unless I ‘translate’ it into English. Of course, there are brilliant writers such as Lewis Grassic Gibon in his trilogy, Sunset Song, who managed to convey a sense of the local dialect with all its idiosyncratic rhythms and vocabulary and still made it intelligible to a wider audience. Maybe I just need to polish my craft? So, dialect: how is it for you?