A collective voice for literature and languages in Scotland

Graeme Armstrong – Standard English is oor Second Language

‘I wonder how you’d feel about reworking the language of the book.’

 

‘The use of dialect will make it difficult to connect with a mainstream audience.’

 

‘Struggled with the language, asked to see the dialled-back dialect version.’

 

‘Potentially a tough sell to English publishers.’

 

‘It would make sense if the voice in his head is slightly more standard than the version that comes out in dialogue.’

 

 ‘I remember being impressed with the writing … but worrying if any publisher would take it on.’

 

‘Made for a difficult reading experience.’

 

‘Graeme might want to consider editing the use of accent/dialect?

 

‘You could also possibly keep the full dialect effect in dialogue.’

 

‘Mainly, I do find voice novels of all kinds difficult, so the barrier for me was always going to be higher than for other editors – to me, however good the voice is, the storytelling can suffer, and I did find this to be the case here.’

 

‘I have trouble with novels in dialect, sorry.’

A selection ae rejections (oot ae roughly 300) fur ‘The Young Team’

 

Let’s no beat aboot the bush. Publishin is a business that sells art. Novels written in dialect ir seen as less commercially attractive. In finance, it’s rate fur risk. Maybe in literature it’s representation fur risk. Higher risk, less representation. Let’s no even start on workin-classness n its ‘coarse’ themes. Plus, the last big blue elephant in the room, profanity. Yi read a story aboot young men killin each other wae knives n addiction n their mental health frayin cos ae the vast weight ae trauma upon their shoulders, surrounded by a landscape ae modern poverty n the thing that gets yi angry is a few harmless sweary words. Offence is an unfortunate by-product ae social realism. Its main function is just tae become a mirror, held up tae reveal images most don’t want tae see ae truths they don’t want tae face in languages they don’t want tae hear.

Why even bother? There ir plenty ae successful Scottish working-class authors who write in Standard English n dae well. A sense ae place is evoked through settin n characters ir given local characteristics n idiosyncrasies n just a pepperin ae profanity. A wull show yi fear in a haunfae ae fucks. The odd risqué use of c*nt (perhaps intentionally) adds shock value as it’s incongruent tae the rest ae the adopted style. Scotland’s favourite free morpheme is such ordinary everyday parlance we barely blink if we read it. Used authentically, there’s nae offence or provocation intended by the majority ae its inclusion as common noun (he’s a sound c*nt) or as indefinite pronoun (somec*nt/ anyc*nt/ everyc*nt/ no c*nt) In place ae a realistic dialect portrait, authors create mutations where narrative is transacted in a ‘higher’ form. The clarity ae thought n expression afforded tae oor native guide default tae a more palatable Standard English. Meanwhile, the low, wild demotic dialect is reserved fur characters, who become linguistic puppets dangled on strings ae supposed authenticity. Characters ir reduced tae caricatures by this effect, their true dialect offered as dialogue canapés tae the unfamiliar reader, satiated by the apparent otherness ae the partial linguistic exhibit. They provide the local reader nae such nutrition.  Oor language becomes a motif n isnae truly represented or respected by it. Nae working class Scot thinks in RP. Kin yi imagine? The willin suspension ae disbelief fur us is broken. An elevated n alien Standard English narrative voice betrays the remainin realism they have so carefully n respectfully crafted.

The demanded conformity n policin ae Scottish vernacular dialect begins in childhood. It’s not aye, it’s yes. It’s not naw, it’s no. Ewes (Yooz) are female sheep. Scottish parents know instinctively that if their child speaks in the dialect ae their working class community it wull hold them back in later life. Love forces the correction. Standard English is ma second language. It’s that other higher status language, the wan ma maw telt me tae use in job interviews tae create the right impression. Expectin artists tae forgo their daily language n write their truth in a foreign Standard English is a different thing entirely. It isnae an act ae love. It soon became clear that ma language wis an unwelcome deviation. The un-standard English: the strange, the foreign, the niche, the difficult, the incorrect, the unfit.

Scottish dialect works typically fall intae the realm ae literary fiction. No matter how subversive or rebellious the content, their language adds a deeper element tae their construction. Books which choose dialect as the dominant narrative voice huv a layer ae linguistic complexity. Dialect is a tapestry wae a unique pattern. Nae two renderings need be the same. The creator is master ae this lexicon, each thread n the entirety formed through years ae dilution, distillation n evolution ae their community’s oral tradition. Most ae it went unwritten n often stuck in yir mind as stuff yir granny might say, bar the mad patter, obviously. The skill ae this craft is treadin the fine line between legibility (often as a concession) n authenticity, ensurin absolute continuity ae yir created lexicon. The ear discernin, then deployin or creatin an appropriate signifier as a written representation on the page fae auditory perception, sometimes withoot rules or huvin ever seen the word written. The syntax is typical ae Standard English n the majority ae words remain the same. The skeleton ae the language only alters slightly. These difficult changes take a few pages tae adjust tae. There’s nae undeciphered language system ae Airdrie hieroglyphics. Can you provide a glossary or translation? Nae chance. Welcome tae Airdrieology 101.

Is it worth aw that grief tae write in full dialect? That depends. If the desire is tae connect wae [/sell tae] the widest possible audience, then absolutely no. Let’s consider who that possible audience ir though. They ir yir typical consumers ae literary fiction, who read widely n enjoy varied stories fae varied places but less so stories concerned wae poverty or deprived communities. That is, unless they’re polished n no unfiltered lived experience wae too many sweary words. While many readers see dialect as an exotic challenge, the people who connect most meaningfully wae it ir the possessors, local people often excluded fae literature. Exclusion starts fae birth in a deprived community. Books ir the preserve ae yir betters, lots huv nae relationship wae them at aw. Understandable, if yir life trajectory n language ir notably absent. These highfalutin things exist in other places, fur other people. Never being represented creates another layer ae cultural exclusion fur the excluded.

An English tutor in the Scottish prison system messaged recently tae say her class hud been studying ‘The Young Team’. Soon as they wur told they wur doin a literary study, they wurnae interested. She told them the title, hopin it wid strike a chord. Maybe unsurprisingly, their reluctance didnae disappear. They agreed it would probably be a lot ae shite n ‘cheesy’ n written by a ‘tourist’ who hud never experienced the life they lived as young men. ‘They’re not confident in Standard English,’ she tells us. ‘They assume it’s not for them and it will be flowery language… It [dialect] was less overwhelming for them.’ Wan ae the most sceptical said after readin, ‘Yi know wit? A found that book very inspirational … A’m gonnae write ma ain book.’ Sometimes it wis read in full n others, it wis broken intae digestible constituent parts tae examine relevant social themes. Other copies wur passed between prisoners in the halls ootwith the classroom environment. Dialect tae them wisnae just desirable, it wis essential fur access. Literature written in the common tongue hus a powerful capacity tae connect wae the excluded.

Wit convinces me, beyond aw reasonable doubt, that authentic voice is so vital, ir the faces when yi walk intae a room full ae lived experience. They’re the experts in this. The shields ir up, hard shells intact, bravado impenetrable. Wan group ae young offenders aw laughed n smirked when a wideboy shouted ‘Yass! Story time, troops!’ n sat cross legged on the flair. A laughed tae, then spoke n they heard their ain voice sayin different words n maybe offerin a different end tae the eld story. The smirks faded. Afterwards, a few hung back tae speak tae us, away fae the group, n confided that they hud dreamed ae suhin else beyond the bleak horizon ae their reality. Stories n truths that huv the capacity tae convince anywan, ae even the possibility, ae that brighter beyond, ir important n sometimes a matter ae life n death; as wis the case at the start ae ma journey, when A wis a gang-member, discarded n told tae leave school at sixteen wae nuhin. That wid huv been fatal fur me. A voice in full n brazen dialect spoke tae me then wae its infinite energy n telt me tae stay the course n keep this new faith n filled us wae equal sense ae worth n wonder. A hung-on fur twelve years fightin fur an education n then tae tell ma ain story, in ma ain voice.

Truth doesnae belong only tae those who speak in Received Pronunciation. It is often tarnished when yi speak it in yir ain accent, but any objections wur never really aboot comprehension tae begin wae, only low status n the perceived low value ae yir words, both commercially n in substance. This isnae new. Frankly, it’s crap. Oor giants’ words ae power lit fires way back when n we faithfully followed through oor ain years ae dejection n doubt, until finally, finally it wis done n neither oor words, nor oorselves could be dismissed anymare. This is ma trooth, these ir ma words n they ir transacted proudly in the language ae ma community.

 

‘My culture and my language have the right to exist, and no one has the authority to dismiss that.’
~ James Kelman

Other fires wull follow n spread.

 

‘THE YOUNG TEAM’

Noo these c*nts huv came fur battle

So it’s time ae stawn n fight

Back tae back wae tenner shots

We’re the soldiers ae the night

 

Sportin Mera Peaks n slasher hats

Wur always on the go,

Don’t blame us fur this life wi lead

Because it’s aw we fuckin know

 

Wae dreams n aspirations

Wi looked towards the stars,

A joost never thought ma dreams wid mean

A’d be stuck behind these bars

A poem by a Scottish prisoner as a response tae ‘The Young Team’. Shared gratefully wae thanks.

 

Literature Talks is a series of pieces commissioned by LAS, asking Scotland’s leading writers and literature producers to reflect on an aspect of Scotland’s literary landscape.

 

Audio

You can also listen to Graeme reading his incredible piece below. Please note: this audio content contains strong language.

LitScotland · Standard English is oor Second Language by Graeme Armstrong

 

Graeme Armstrong is an author from Airdrie, North Lanarkshire. His teenage years were spent within Scotland’s violent ‘young team’ gang culture. Graeme’s life changed when he was inspired to study English literature after reading Trainspotting at just sixteen. He was written-off and told to leave school without qualifications but defied expectation to read English as an undergraduate at the University of Stirling. After graduating with honours, he took a Master’s in Creative Writing – where he would be mentored by Janice Galloway.

Described by poet Kathleen Jamie in university as ‘bilingual’ – Graeme writes in and champions the use of Scottish west-coast vernacular dialect, following a rich heritage of Scottish working-class artists such as James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Irvine Welsh.

His debut novel, The Young Team, was published by Picador in 2020.

It became a Times bestseller.