Writing the Vernacular by James Devaney

As yet we have in Australia no hard and fast rule for the handling of the vernacular in fiction. Our writers are merely feeling their way, each tackling the question in his own fashion. The results are interesting.

In speech it is often necessary to set out the speech of the uncultured, the ungrammatical, the fellow who drops his "h's" and his "g's" and murders vowel sounds. How should such speech be printed in good fiction? Plain dialect is easy enough, for it is definite, but the vernacular is not dialect. If the navvy or the bullocky has to say, in his own way, "I am going to believe what you say," the author may print it just like that; or like this, "I ain't gunna b'lieve whatcher say"; or he may be content with a mere indication, "I ain't going to believe what you say."

The second and literal interpretation is the most exact one, but it does not follow that it is the best. It is overdone and it offends the eye. And it is quite unnecessary. The third version, I would maintain, expresses all that needs to be expressed. I do not agree with writers who bar entirely all interference with spelling to attain the vernacular, relying only upon phrasing and rhythm to express the speech of the uneducated. That is sometimes enough, but not always. It tends to make the newsboy talk like the professor, and both like the author himself. Whatever is still debatable, it is certain that all the ins and outs of a man's lingo need not and must not be followed to get strict accuracy. Edward Dyson does this, and the result is horrible. Here is a bit from "Fact'ry 'Ands":-

Ther graft wasn't what yeh'd call 'ard, 'n' it suited me complaint t' lie there 'n' lurk, waiting fer ther little lydies 'n' ther stout gents ter 'it ther pipe.
Dyson's matter, his invention and his humor are first class, and he does perhaps get the Australian drawl, but that sort of vernacular throughout would damn any book.

The truth is that a writer can get the effect he wants by phraseology and choice of words, with only an occasional resort to home-made phonetic spelling. That he can get it without bad spelling at all is a question worthy of debate. I believe that he cannot. A correctly-printed phrase like "Me and Billo had a pint" expresses your prol├ętaire at once; there is no need to print it: "Me an' Billo 'ad er pint." I think it would be bad art to do so.

I should say that the dropping of the hard initial "h" and of the "g" at the end of present participles is justified. So are "me" for "my," "ain't" for "are not," and a very few more. But one sees much otherwise excellent prose ruined by the overdoing of the vernacular, till dialogue reads like a Penny Comic. "Ther" for "the," "ter" for "to," "orl" for "all," and such horrors are never justified and never effective because there are never so spoken, if the letter "r" has any value at all. Your rough diamond might say "Oh lor!" but no one ever said "Gord" or "arsk" or "tork."

Our writers of fiction are still uncertain about the slurred "you." We see it written as "y'," "yer," and "yeh," and so on, and perhaps the first is the least of these evils. They seem unnecessary because we all slur small words. We all occasionally say "o'" for of, "t'" for to, "th'" for the, "an'" or "'n'" for and. Why then torture and uglify the text with such letterpress contortions?

First published in The Bulletin, 14 August 1929

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 13, 2008 9:04 AM.

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