Friday, May 21, 2010

Language, Dialogue and Dialects--Shropshire

Enabling characters to speak properly--to reflect their origins, their status and their natures--is a challenge for every writer. In a country such as Britiain with a wide variety of regional dialects, it is a particular test. I am a Canadian and so, in many ways, it is presumptuous of me to write stories set in Britain and to think, without extensive experience of the country, that I can make my settings authentic. But I do my best, and I work hard at research. Language is part of that effort.

Stories set in London among the upper classes are no problem. (I have spoken elsewhere of my concern with authentic period language.)The beau monde all spoke much the same and the writer needs only to reflect individual speech patterns in dialogue. When a story moves beyond the boundaries of London and the upper class however, interesting language possibilities occur. The writer of course has to find a balance of dialect use--too much annoys, confuses, and ultimately alienates the reader. But a little, just a touch, can add an authenticity and charm to a story that nothing else can provide. The accent can be elusive, hard to capture, but the archaic, location-specific words themselves have a fascination all their own.

When I wrote 'The Disadvantaged Gentleman' I studied the language of Shropshire, and I found a wonderful book. Written in 1879, the "Shropshire Word-Book; a Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words etc. used in the county" by Georgina F. Jackson, is a treasure.        
Some words just beg to be used in a story:

"Tan - to fret or to worry"

"Rozzen-in - to set to work in a determined, vigorous manner"

"Fore-end - the beginning of a week, month or year"

"Daggly - wet or showery"

"Ovil - conceited, supercilious"

"Daffish - shy and bashful"

Old words are, for the most part, highly evocative and in many cases ungrammatical. One or two of these words in the mouth of an appropriate character will bring an authenticity to the story that nothing else will.

The "Shropshire Word-Book" is available for download from Google Books.

(Gray's 1824 map of Shropshire, left)

"English Accents and Dialects : An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles" by Trudgill and Hughes looks like a very useful reference.

BBC has an excellent page of audio dialect references called Voices, and for a more scholarly take on British dialects, go here.

I just read a historical fiction book that used at least twice the expression 'how come'. That is poor contemporary English, and that it does not belong in a book set in Ancient Egypt goes without saying. The language must be right to convince the reader of your setting. And if you can add a charming old word or two, so much the better.

Next week, Regency author and researcher Joanna Waugh will visit us. Visit her website of resources for Regency readers and writers at She'll be discussing the Bath Assembly Rooms. I hope you will join us.

'Til then,



Joanna Waugh said...

There's a fantastic internet site called the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA). It has dozens of audio files of accents from all over England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. And anywhere else in the world. Check out the files on England at
I'm looking forward to blogging next Friday, Lesley-Anne!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thanks so much, Joanna! I've never come across that site. I'm going to check it out right now. See you next week!

Vic said...

You are both fonts of knowledge! Looking forward to Joanna's visit.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thank you, Vic! (blushes coyly and ducks head) That is an honour, coming from you--we could start a mutual admiration society!

Nikki said...

Would you like to discuss you experience of writing in the Shropshire dialect for an interdisciplinary project about the Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire dialects - The Local Language Project - which is now into Ph.D research. It would be fantastic to hear about your experiences, and how you found working with the dialect.

Best Wishes

Nikki Gittins