Creating a Historical Voice with Dialect
It is impossible to accurately replicate the voices of the distant past as we cannot hear them. The way we speak is constantly developing, vowel pronunciation being the most open to change. We can, perhaps, attempt an echo of that voice which gives the reader an invitation to step temporarily into another time and place. Yet, that time and place is only ever an interpretation of a reality created in the present. The historical novelist acts as a translator of the past – a go between, making language palatable for the modern age and choosing judiciously which echoes make sense in our contemporary lexicon.
Discovering the historical facts is not the only task for a writer, but the way people spoke is just as important if your characters are to become credible. The view point of the servant, or working-class voice has become ever more popular in our inclusive age. Silent bystanders to the shenanigans of their betters, these characters are perfect narrators as they follow their employers into intimate domestic spaces. Yet, their voices remain the most unrecorded. Thus, folk song lyrics became a huge resource for phrasing and word choice while writing ‘Captain Swing and the Blacksmith’. Court records are another possible source, but unreliable because of the prejudice towards those who spoke in dialect. The condemned presumably would have changed their voice to mimic ‘their betters’ and probably used every lie under the sun to escape transportation or the noose.
Dialect can define character and separates class. The balance of your inclusion of dialect is tricky as it is very easy for it to sound hammy – especially West Country which is easy to use in jest. My story deals with serious social and political issues, yet, it is good to keep humour as people laugh and use language to laugh at themselves. Within my character Ginny Scammell’s ‘nanny-fudging’ [tall-tales] there are bitter truths.
Finding the right balance is integral in presenting dialect. I wanted to use every day words in dialect throughout the text to give a thin skim of difference to the language. After much procrastination and reading, I rested on, ‘nuthin’ and ‘sommat’. Deciding how to spell these two words took hours of my time. ‘summat’, ‘nothin’ ‘nut’in’? In speech, this word is almost reduced to a glottal stop or mere jerk of the neck, but too many speech marks can look clumsy and awkward on the page – nuthin it is.
My protagonist, Sue Trindall, was born in Wiltshire, 1822. No doubt, she would have had, to modern ears, a thick West Country accent which she would have attempted to alter if speaking to a ‘person of quality’. The book is written in 1stperson which gives another issue. In order for the story to be at all readable her voice had to be educated to some degree – when I did this my narrative changed and a whole new dimension to my research began. The beauty of writing itself, the act of shaping letters, and the power of words to manipulate and control became a theme. Her father became a far more important character, insisting that his two daughters could read and write in a county with 56% male literacy and 44% female literacy .He steals phrases from famous poets to write love letters for a fee and then turns his skill to writing the threatening notes sent to landowners, used during the Swing Riots before the destruction of their property.
Using dialect to colour my writing was an enjoyable task and there are many words, I feel, we should bring back in to regular usage. I tried to make subtle differences between characters. Sue comes from a small town, with some influence from bigger cities. Their voices were more likely to have incorporated slight vowel differences from Salisbury or London. The characters in the remote village of Imber, have precious little contact with outsiders, or, like the elderly Mother Buxton, don’t ever go anywhere at all. I gave her voice idioms and colloquialisms, peculiar to herself. In this way dialect is a great tool for characterisation as long as not too thickly spread.
I found the word ‘prinit’ from a Wiltshire dialect online source. This apparently meant, ‘take it’. It was assumed that this derived from the French ‘prenez’, to take, which came back from WW1. I created a back story for Mother Buxton, whose husband had returned from the Napoleonic wars with the word, and it became indigenous to the village of Imber.
Many Wiltshire colloquialisms have found themselves into the general everyday lexicon as the flow of population from rural to urban areas has been constant for over 200 years. I made good use of these as it helped the tone of voice and everyone understands them: ‘belly-button’, ‘cack-handed’ [to describe left-handedness], ‘dribs and drabs’. Wiltshire phrases charmed their way into my pages: ‘up-along’- a little way up the road, and its opposite, ‘down-along’. ‘Somewhen’ [its opposite is back-along] is a favourite and I think should definitely become more popular. It lies somewhere between sometime and in my dreams…
Nouns or adjectives in dialect had to flow with the narrative and not sound too alien. Readers need to be able to interpret meaning from the context. Some words seemed to fit easily into her speech:
‘shrammed’- exhausted, cold and finished.
‘caddle’ – confusion
I have not created a true early 19thcentury working-class voice, but hopefully with a smattering of words and subtle turns of phrase an impression of rural poetic voices of the past. There was one word I couldn’t find room for: ‘spadgewhistle’ – apparently a toothbrush? Hopefully I won’t forget to put this in another Wiltshire tale…
Some other favourite words:
addled – gone off [as in a bad egg]
arse over tip – to fall headlong
blather – fuss, uproar
bone shave – sciatica
chucky pig – woodlouse
crousty – bad tempered
diddiky – rotten, crumbling
dimpsey – half lit, dusk
dollop – large lump
fair t’middlin – so, so
fuddled – confused
gallivantin’ – straying from home
glory-hole – place/cupboard for rubbish and odds and ends
goozegogs – gooseberries
half-baked – dim-witted
loppity – to feel out of sorts
main – good, excellent
narration – fuss, commotion
ninny hammer – foolish minded person
pelt – in a passion or a rage
slammock – slatternly woman
zammy – simpleton
E.J.Hobsbawm and George Rude, Captain Swing, pub.1970, Lawrence and Wishart, London.
Captain Swing, E.J.Hobsbawm and George Rude, p64