Saturday, April 29, 2006

'Shawnie': a pragmatic approach to dialect.


'Shawnie' by Ed Trewavas pub Tindall Street Press, Birmingham 2006. ISBN 09547913 8 X.

Written in Knowle West (Bristol) dialect, this first novel by Ed Trewavas gives a disturbing perspective on an abuse-ridden, dystopian, white-trash estate in Bristol, where the drunk, the drugged and the damaged perpetuate their abused and abusive existence. Whilst some of the baddies get their just deserts, the final message, besides the obvious one that we are all dysfunctional in our own way, is that there are those so damaged as to be beyond rehabilitation. The novel seems to support the view that a predilection for abuse can be hereditary. Some survivors might question this theory these days. The novel poses further interesting questions besides those of social theory and the nature of the abusive personality.

Most teach-yourself-to-write books advise the avoidance of dialect as publishers are less than keen on it. This in itself makes 'Shawnie' a brave effort. The author has adopted a pragmatic approach to rendering the Knowle West dialect. (My family and some of my friends are from the area, and I went to school there and later frequented some of the pubs mentioned, so I have more than an academic interest).

Dealing with dialect is not easy because:

a) if the entire text is put into dialect the result can be unintelligible even to speakers of the dialect, or at best of very local appeal, because a full transcription requires so many neologisms or non-standard spellings;
b) in the case of this particular dialect, there are many unspellable sounds so that a full rendition of the text would require a substantial glossary;
c) consistency is paramount.

The author captures most of the dialect accurately. Where it is just not possible to reproduce the exact sound, he opts for a standard spelling. An obvious example of this is the appendage ‘look’ which throughout Bristol has the meaning of ‘ if you see what I mean’ or ‘you understand’ and equates roughly to the South Walian ‘isn’t it’ or the Lancashire ‘tha’ knows’.

“cos e’s really clever look and I ain’t.” (p.2)

“even when e was a babby, three years old, look.” (p.6)

The problem with 'look' is that, in the dialect, there is a glottal stop at the end rather than the ‘k’. The actual sound is possibly nearer ‘lut’ without saying the ‘t’.

More interestingly, Trewavas uses a different amount of dialect in different parts of the text. In direct speech he gives us the full treatment – every word is rendered into dialect (with the exception of those like ‘look’ mentioned above.)
However, outside of this, where the characters are reflecting in internal monologue, a half-rendition is used: the letter ‘h’ may get dropped but vowels and dipthongs remain standardised. (I should explain that each chapter contains only internal monologue or direct speech.)

Thus, outside of direct speech, ‘it’ remains ‘it’ but in direct speech it becomes ‘eht’. Reading these two sorts of rendition – the ‘half’ and the ‘full’ – demands for a while a kind of secondary suspension of disbelief: it also causes one to consider such questions as ‘What accent do I think in? Do people not think in dialect?’ There is no doubt that the book would not have worked with everything rendered into the full dialect.

You get used to the two sorts of rendition after a while even though occasionally they are so juxtaposed as to be unsettling:

“I mean it weren’t me monthly or nothing.
‘What time’s eht, Shawn?’” (p.5)

Personally, there are one or two sounds which I would have rendered differently: I would have liked ‘ar’ for ‘our’ and ‘awd’ rather than ‘ode’ for ‘old’. I felt ‘you’ was overused and preferred the author’s alternative ‘yowe’ or ‘yuhl’ though these tend to be stressed forms. I found the last chapter inconsistent with the use of both ‘darlehn’ and ‘darling’ and with the last paragraph of internal monologue switching into full dialect. These are small points.

Overall, I think the author has done a very good job. I hope that 'Shawnie' will appeal to a wider audience than that reached by other dialect-written works. It contains some fine writing, deals with important social issues and deserves to be widely read.

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