OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReading L.A.G.Strong’s collection, Travellers, I’m struck by how many of the stories are narrated in, or have characters who speak with Irish voices.

Strong, H.E.Bates tells us (in The Modern Short Story), was ‘part’ Irish. Wikipedia says his father was half Irish, his mother wholly so, so some ‘part’! It also says he was born in Devon. What accent did he have I wonder. As a director of Methuen for twenty years, did he have a boardroom class accent too? We all have several voices, sometimes referred to as register. The telephone voice is perhaps the most famous, and despised, yet to match our voices to those we speak with might not be an act of parody or condescension so much as one of sensitivity. Serving petrol for pocket money in the days before Health & Safety, I’d change my register to fit the drivers I was serving.

As a writer I voice my stories in different accents, quite apart from those I give my characters. Is it patronising, or disrespectful, or even evidence of stereotyping, to do so? The idea that there is a Scottish accent (or an English, Irish or whatever one), rather than that there are Scottish accents seems to me to lie at the heart of the answer we might give.

In storytelling it’s credibility, rather than authenticity, that counts, especially when that authenticity is spurious. Voices belong to individuals, and might sound alike where regional, national or ethnic groups are concerned, but they will remain individual. That’s how we we can tell them apart, on the telephone for example. Imagine how difficult it would be to listen to radio plays if we couldn’t tell one Englishman from another, nor any two Scotsmen apart?

The imagined purity of accents (and genetics I would venture) is a political fiction, and when an author gives his narrator, or characters a particular type of accent, a particular voice, it’s the voice of the individual he is creating, not a template for all similar voices. The further we are from those voices, in terms of hearing them regularly, the harder it might be for us to distinguish between them: familiarity, in this case, breeds discrimination – in the older meaning of the word.

A friend of mine had lived in Glasgow all his adult life, and to me sounded like a native of the city, but he’d learned his English in his home town of Coventry, and I often wondered if the Glaswegians caught a whiff of his Midland vowels from time to time, as they would mine. As writers we write not only as we speak, but as we hear, and that, surely, is part of the witness that, as writers, we must bear.

Perhaps the more interesting, and more difficult question, is what we think the differing voices bring to our stories. Why is it that this tale, or that, seems more convincing in this, or that accent? What do they add to the tale? And what might we do as an alternative to them?

In the contemporary world more language than ever is generated in print, not necessarily on paper. Does that, will that, do away with the regional accent, replace it with a global voice? And if it does, if it is doing, what will be the markers of individuality that we then distinguish between, in our stories, and in our lives?

Advertisements