Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing and Language, Dialect, Accent and Register

From time to time, writers need to depict a character who speaks with an accent, in a dialect, or even in a foreign language. And quite often, we will have a group of characters who are involved in, let’s say, magic. The area of interest, be it magic or anything else, will require its own register, of which more later.

Idiosyncratic speech can make writing tricky. But before we consider how best to handle the situation, let’s take a closer look at just what these terms mean.

A language is a communication system shared by a number of people. English is today an international language, not limited by national borders. Esperanto is an invented language, intended to provide a relatively simple means of communication among people who have no common language. Auslan is the sign language of the Australian deaf community. Cornish is a dead language that has been revived by a few natives of the county who are eager to give the ancient tongue a new lease of life.

Most languages contain more than one dialect. A dialect is a variety of language used by a specific speech community. A dialect may have noticeable differences in grammar, syntax and vocabulary from the ‘standard’ form of the language. ‘Dialect’ implies that it is spoken by many or most people who live in a particular area, so we talk, for instance of someone speaking in a Yorkshire dialect. But Black American English is definitely a dialect, and it is not limited to any particular area. Cultural factors can also come into play.

There’s a difference between a dialect and an accent. The term 'accent' usually refers to the way people pronounce words in a particular area. For example, most English people pronounce the name of the fodder crop lucerne with the accent on the second syllable, while their Australian cousins put the accent on the first syllable. Both Brits and Australians pronounce ‘buoy’ the same way as ‘boy’, while their Stateside buddies will say ‘booi’. However, Brits, Aussies and Americans (and Kiwis, South Africans Canadians and Indians, among others!) who speak a reasonably standard form of their country’s version of English can generally understand each other without too many hitches, so they are said to be speaking ‘with an accent' rather than ‘in a dialect’.

But try putting a country Cornishman, a country Queenslander and a native of the Deep South in a room together. You would probably get a few laughs from their mutual incomprehension because it’s quite likely their accents would be so broad, and would contain so many mutually unintelligible words, that they could be said to be using dialect rather than accent. This is less true today, of course, than it was even 30 years ago, but even so, anyone who travels around the different English speaking countries will tell a story or two about failures of communication.

So what about our last term, register? A register is a variety of language associated with people's occupations and interests. 'Register' describes variations in language use connected with a particular topic. For instance, if I go to a writers meeting, I will hear expressions such as ‘protag’, ‘POV’, ‘sub’, synop’ ‘blurb’ all of which are either limited to people involved in writing and publishing or have a different meaning in the literary context than they do in everyday speech. But I might go straight from the writers meeting to review a ballet, and my review is likely to contain words such as pirouette, pas de deux, balon, elevation, flic-flac and entrechat, all of which are French in origin because France is where ballet was first codified, so it based its vocabulary on that language.

All of us have more than one register, which we will use in appropriate contexts. It’s useless for me to natter on about POV or balon at a get-together for people who practise Yoga, for example. I might find one or two folk there who knew what I was talking about, but generally, it would be inappropriate. We all know intuitively to restrict register use to its proper context.

So how would we deal with these situations if they form part of a story we want to set down on paper? I’ll start investigating that in my next post.

(You'll find the follow-up to this article at: