Strip the Willow and Rip the Bodice

Because everyone needs a hobby …

They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit … May 21, 2010

The title of this verse is from a Robert Burns’ poem – Tam o’Shanter. If you couldn’t guess just from the one line, Burns is writing in dialect – a Scottish dialect, in fact. I had the lucky opportunity to study this poem in Scotland at St. Andrews and I will say – the best way to read this poem is to do it in your best Scottish accent – no matter how bad it is (picture me on Skype with my mom trying to). Here’s the whole stanza this verse is in so you can see:

“As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d, and curious,

The mirth and fun grew fast and furious:

The piper loud and louder blew;

The dancers quick and quicker flew;

They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit,

Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,

And coost her duddies to the wark,

And linket at it in her sark!”

I copied that from my massive Norton Anthology – the whole poem is available online – just google it. For fun – you could do what I did. I had to read it in class in my normal accent, but to really understand it, you have to really work through your best fake one.

That’s dialect in poetry.

Dialect in novels is also the same way. I’m just going to name authors here since my Eliot novels are either yet to be packed in NJ or are packed away here waiting to be unpacked this weekend. So – Eliot, Dickens, Twain – the list goes on. Dialect not only creates character, it sets place, time, class – all of these things.

So why am I going on about dialect? (Right now I wish I had Eliot’s Adam Bede on hand – Adam has two ways of speaking: a way with his mother at home, and a way when he is with other people – gah! But I think dialect will come up again so I won’t go into mourning)

Mayhue’s attempt at dialect is … well, laughable really. It’s so stereotypical – throw in a few ‘yer’s ‘canna’s and ‘dinna’s and poof! Scottish dialect … not so much. One could say Robbie has an excuse, of course, if his accent slips (and I swear – that is one HUGE deus ex machina if I ever saw one – she can get away with so much having that plot point of Robbie having been in the ‘future’). But Isa doesn’t. Her words become jumbled with lots of ‘yers’ and ‘canna’s and ‘dinna’s.

Thing about dialect is … if you’re going to write in it you have to be able to mold it. It’s not like there’s a set vernacular, which seems to be Mayhue’s hangup. There’s a vernacular in her dialect – all the Scots in this book talk the same way, even if they are of different rank or class – you name it.

But again – here’s the thing – does this matter?

Certainly, in an Eliot novel it matters. In a Dickens, in a Twain – of course. But does it matter in this random book I picked up in Giant a few weeks ago, just published this year, that will probably be read in a day or two by most then forgotten about once it’s ‘used up’ so to say?

It’s things like this that get me thinking – why the heck am I bothering to talk about dialect in a book whose main audience probably doesn’t give a crap. Or they do and they don’t care that it’s contrived – they just want the ‘feel’ of the voice (I don’t even know what I mean by that).

So frustration:

That lovely .gif reminds me there’s a new Doctor Who on tomorrow – woot woot!

And talking about dialect of course bring up the whole idea of research. I thought a lot about if I was going to talk about research but I’m in the middle on the subject. So – for now – sticking to just dialect.

I think the research side would infuriate me … I’m very much into researching before I write to make sure I’m not going against the period that I think if I got into research at the moment, there’d be no stopping a rant. I think the ‘historical’ aspect of these novels should be pushed aside (not like the ginger case) but until near the end.

I want to do a little research on my own – just wait and see.

But back to dialect. If you hadn’t figured it out by now, I am a picky person. I get angry about accents in movies (I actually made up my own ‘rules’ about accents – but I won’t get into that). When I’m reading a novel, though, I like the variety. I like what you can ultimately ‘get’ from dialect.

I have a feeling, though, in this genre dialect is just a sort of extra. Oh – they’re not American! Oh – it’s pretty Scottish lads! Oh – JUST. LISTEN. TO. HIS. ACCENT.

And I think that’s the case – it’s one of those: oh, doesn’t he have a nice accent?

Rather than: what do these dialects tell us?

In a phrase: it’s just for show.



Mayhue, Melissa. A Highlander’s Homecoming. New York: Pocket Books, 2010.