Saturday, March 26, 2016

Representation and regional variation

One area of Paper 2 of the new AQA English Language AS level I've been trying to address is the focus on how users of language varieties are represented. In the examples I posted in January, stimulus texts taken from stories about schools 'banning' slang and/or dialect touched on how regional varieties and youth sociolects are represented and discussed, so they make a useful starting point. 

Another area though is how fiction represents accent and dialect, often through 'eye dialect': a way of writing words to make them resemble how they are pronounced. It's less precise than using a phonemic alphabet but creates an easy to understand representation of how a regional accent might sounds. Irvine Welsh uses it in Trainspotting, which is set in Edinburgh and through the eye dialect you can hear the sound of the Leith accent coming through:

Third time lucky. It wis like Sick Boy telt us: you’ve got tae know what it’s like tae try tae come off it before ye can actually dae it. You can only learn through failure, and what ye learn is the importance ay preparation. He could be right. Anywey, this time ah’ve prepared.
Another regional variety represented in fiction is the Yorkshire dialect, which features in the work of Barry Hines, whose A Kestrel to a Knave is a classic of working class fiction. In the short extract of dialogue below, you can hear the author's attempts to capture the sounds and words of his characters' voices, capturing also something of their social and personal identity in the process, perhaps in a way that Standard English simply couldn't do:

He stayed in his own half of the bed, groaning and turning over every few minutes. Billy lay with his back to him, listening. Then he turned his cheek slightly from the pillow.
'Tha'd better get up.'
No answer.
'Alarm's gone off tha knows.'
'Think I don't know?'
He pulled the blankets tighter and drilled his head into the pillow. They both lay still.
'Tha'll be late.'
'O, shut it.'
'Clock's not fast tha knows.'
'I said SHUT IT.'
He swung his fists under the blankets and thumped Billy in the kidneys.
'Gi'o'er! That hurts!'
'Well shut it then.'
'I'll tell my mam on thi.'
Jud swung again. Billy scuffled away to the cold at the edge of the bed, sobbing. Jud got out, sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, then stood up and felt his way across the room to light the switch. Billy worked his way back to the centre and disappeared under the blankets.
As the Yorkshire poet, Ian McMillan explains in his piece about Barry Hines (who died last week),  it was something of a rarity for authors to use the voices of working class regional English speakers in a serious and considered way in fiction. For many middle and upper class authors, regional accents were easy markers of social difference to employ and non-standard English speakers were often mocked or ridiculed. McMillan explains how pleased he was to hear his own voice being represented in an authentic and sympathetic way:

I wasn’t only captivated by the characters and the plot, though. What really made me grin and bang the settee arm with my pudgy fist was the way the characters spoke: they talked just like me. Somehow Hines, who died at the weekend, managed to get that minimalist Barnsley poetry down on the page without the apostrophes flying round the paragraphs like racing pigeons.
These text extracts make quite nice examples for analysis and discussion at AS level, because they offer a representation of different characteristics of regional dialects (the use of thi and tha suggesting the Yorkshire pronouns thee and thou, for example). 

Elsewhere, less sympathetic representations still abound and a trip to a local charity shop this week (don't dare say middle-aged teachers never have any fun) meant that I stocked up on old copies of (the extremely rude) Viz comic which I spent a large part of my late teens and early twenties reading when I should have been doing something useful. 

One of the annuals features a strip called The Boy Scouse, in which a young Liverpool boy goes to Scouse Camp (as opposed to Scout Camp - dat's da joke, la) and develops Scouse skills. You can see a bit of it yourself in the extract below:

Unlike the serious examples earlier, the representation of regional variety here is all part of the mockery of a whole group of people, or perhaps the social and regional stereotype around them. 

The pronunciation (th-fronting stopping* in dat, g-dropping in avoidin and shopliftin & /t/-glottalisation /l /substitution** in gerrin), along with local expressions such as la (used like lad or mate, according to this link) and the syntax of colloquial spoken English such as the 'tail' ("Dat'll go great...dat will") are one element of the shorthand used to create the stereotype of the Scouse scally, along with the curly hair, references to unemployment, crime and anti-social behaviour.

The strip itself could be a good way into a wider essay question about how some regional dialects (and/or sociolects) are portrayed negatively in popular culture, as well as a useful wider discussion about the ways in which (often offensive) social stereotypes are easily tapped into through the representation of a particular way of speaking.

*Edited on 27.03.16 to amend th-fronting to th-stopping (cheers to @Nickking6)
** and t-glottalisation to /t/ to /l/ substitution (from Clark & Watson's work here, as suggested by Nick)

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