I'm in the
midst of copyedits for the first book of my forthcoming County Cork Mysteries, Buried in a Bog, and I'm in a quandary.
is, I'm trying to write about native Irish characters.I've spent time in Ireland, and I've listened
to a wide range of people speaking; I've watched Irish movies (love The Commitments!) and television shows (Ballykissangel in particular), and I
like to think that I have a good ear for languages.But setting them down in print is something
have choices.I can write in ordinary American
English and let readers fill in the accent on their own.But that looks wrong on the page.Dialogue, internal or external, does not
follow tidy grammatical rules.People
stop and start, drop syllables or word endings, and interrupt each other.If they all spoke properly, no one would
of dialogue in general, but writing slang or dialect creates additional
challenges.You may hear it in your
head, plain as day, but set down what you hear and you leave people scratching
their heads.Huh?If they have to stop and sound out what
you've set down in order to understand it, you've dragged them right out of the
story, and you don't want to do that.
do you the writer distinguish among individuals and social classes by how they
speak?More complications.Word choice and pacing help, but that doesn't
convey the sound of the words.Put two
guys face to face on the street, one in a nice suit, one homeless and
panhandling:are they going to sound the
same?Of course not. But it's even more
difficult when you're in the midst of a different culture and you don't know
the social indicators.
The Irish have
a long tradition of respect for language—theirs is a culture of poets and
storytellers who valued oral traditions.They also have had a long and complicated history with their language. It's
the spelling that is a mess.
was still the majority language through the eighteenth century, but it
became a minority language in the twentieth century, thanks in part to the
English government, which insisted that only English be taught in schools. To
be fair, the problem probably began with the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth
century, when which many native Irish speakers (primarily from poorer areas)
either died or left the country. There are ongoing efforts to keep the language
alive and encourage its use (I've benefited from Boston-area Irish language
classes), and it is taught in most schools in Ireland (which does not mean that
students speak it with any fluency).There
is an all-Irish-speaking school in each of Ireland's counties. Irish is a
required qualification for applicants to the Garda Siochána, the Irish police
1950s, an Official Standard for spelling was introduced, in theory to simplify
spelling and make it easier for regions with different dialects to
communicate.There was also a change
from the traditional Irish script to modern Latin script.If you compare some words in the old script
to those in the new, it's clear that trying to make the language
"modern" only made it more complicated.Which in turn alters how anything is read on
the page.When, for example, you look at
a poem on the page, you see an unlovely jumble of letters, half of which are
not pronounced as they appear (why does "mh" sound like "w"?
or "bh" like "v"? In the Old Days, the original m or b
would have had merely a dot over it, which would indicate a change in
pronunciation—simple.)But listen to the
same poem read out loud, and you hear the rhythm and the flow.
Christian Brothers First Irish Grammar, ca 1920
Not that it
was ever easy. Here's a pair of pages
from a Christian Brothers First Irish Grammar, dating from (I think) the 1920s—in
other words, before the English-imposed changes in spelling.Note this is the "First."Not an simple language, is it?Unless, of course, you grew up speaking it
and didn't worry about the formal rules of grammar.
of the technical hurdles, one of the glories of the Irish language is its
musicality, the lyricism of its inflections.There's a wider range of pitch in any Irish conversation, a different
pacing, an altered structure (for example, many conversational sentences will
begin with "so,…" and end with "then." "So you've been
to Dublin then, have you?" It's a "soft" language that flows off
the tongue easily.
danger for the writer trying to capture this in any authentic way: it often
looks silly when you write it down.
there's pronunciation, and that's where I'm stuck.An Irish person outside of Dublin would not
say, "how are you?"They'd
say, "how are ya?"But is
"ya" the right transliteration?There's my problem.Is "how
are yeh?" better?That's what I'm