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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

April A-Z: Variation

This letter had me stumped for most of today. For folklore, I thought: Vampires, I've nothing to add; Valkyries - Sarah Makela (sorry about the lack of umlauts!) did a lovely job on those already today. So I thought about writing and came up with virtue (an old-fashioned idea still prevalent in some kids' writing) and violence (how much in ok in kids' books?). THEN my 7 yr old wandered in to tell me how proud she was of herself for reading the bits that are 'said funny' in Stunt Bunny: Showbiz Sensation (which she's loving generally). The character in question has an accent - they are "ze best in ze world", that kind of thing. And then I knew what I could write about: Variation.

In my day job teaching English Language at A Level, the topic of 'Variation' is basically accent and dialect. The students need to be able to linguistically describe differences between different varieties of English (e.g. Geordie, West Country or US versus UK Standard varieties). It's a lot to ask of teenagers who frequently need to learn where these places are as well as what might be typical. It's no good teaching a class what's typically 'northern' or 'southern' in English accents if they think Norwich must be 'up north' and fail to realise that London is classed as southern! Anyway, all that aside, it's one of my favourite parts of the course. It's often the point where students realise the classist issues that we Brits have with accent, particularly since there are usually parts of their own usage that they've never realised are non-standard. For example, when I first started teaching in Nuneaton, I made the mistake of using the verb 'run' to teach the difference between the present perfective and simple past, not realising that 'I have ran' would be perfectly acceptable to most of the class. Issues like this help them to see how 'unfair' it is to make judgements about people based on usage, but also how ingrained it is for us to do that.

Anyway, I wanted to also link this to writing. Clearly, my little one was thrilled at being able to read and pronounce a non-standard accent, and it really helped the characterisation for her. This is exactly what using non-standard varieties in fiction should do: enhance characterisation. It shouldn't (I think) be a gimmick. I appreciate dialect literature as an attempt to strongly locate a story in a particular place, or as a way of validating non-standard speech. I know only too well that non-standard varieties are used because we value them as part of our identity. I don't appreciate the character who speaks in awkwardly-produced 'bumpkin' dialect that doesn't ring true to any particular place, used as a shorthand for 'uneducated' or 'simple'.

I think if you want to produce a piece of dialect literature, that's a specific undertaking, and worthwhile to preserve or raise the profile of a particular variety. Of course, you'd better get that dialect absolutely right!

On the other hand, giving just one character 'an accent' (i.e. spelling words phonetically only for them) often fails to ring true, or separates them markedly from everyone else. Sometimes, there's a reason for this - and if you are doing this, and know why, then fair enough. But dialect usage is arguably at least as effective when lightly drawn, i.e. the odd dialect word features, and Standard English words are spelt as standard. Or, as in the "Stunt Bunny" example above, you focus on one particular non-standard pronunciation and render only that phonetically.

Otherwise, to take things to their logical (if absurd) extreme, you'd need a different way of spelling 'grass' down South than up North. Grarss versus grass perhaps?

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