Colloquial Language in Literature: Love it or Loathe it?

The use of colloquial language in fiction doesn’t sit well with many. I have heard it described as pretentious, tiring, and too much like hard work but I have to say I disagree. From a young age many of my favourite books were written in a strong dialect and I loved it.

Trainspotting      Nina_De_La_Mer_-_4_AM      TheVan

In my early teens I fell in love with the work of Roddy Doyle and the Irish family he created in The Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van). I was fascinated not just by the wonderful characters he portrayed in The Rabbitte family, but by the picture he painted of life in working class Dublin. In my late teens and early twenties I discovered the work of Irvine Welsh and immersed myself in the Scottish vernacular so much that I was thinking in a Scottish accent for weeks. The latest book I’ve read that had that same wonderful effect on me was 4am by Nina De La Mer, a Scottish author based in Brighton who has drawn inevitable comparisons with Irvine Welsh, not just for her use of colloquial language, but for her refreshing realism, and focus on drug culture.

The Pompey vernacular map created by Jodie Silsby
The Pompey vernacular map created by Jodie Silsby

When I wrote The Fire Fox and the Harvest Moon I knew that it would be set in my home town of Portsmouth. Anyone who has ever visited Portsmouth will be all too aware of the distinct accent and vernacular used there. To write a novel based in a city and not tap into that rich lexicon seemed wrong to me. As I wrote, the Pompeyisms flowed, and I loved it. By reading about, and immersing myself in the language I was flooded with childhood memories and was able to draw on that creatively.

I have had a love/ hate relationship with my accent my whole life. As a teenager I wanted to ‘talk more Pompey’ to fit in, as I progressed in life I found that I was trying just as hard to lose it. I worried that my accent betrayed my ‘common’ roots and made me appear less intelligent, that I wouldn’t be taken as seriously. In feedback during my Teacher Training my fears were realised when I was told by the assessor that I should not have used the word ‘quid’ in my lesson as I was supposed to be a role model.

I love accents, I always have. When I meet people from other parts of the UK, indeed the world, it fills me with excitement. I recently met a couple from South Carolina and I was bowled over by the accent of the Deep South, which I have heard in my head so many times (The Colour Purple, Vernon God Little, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). For me, reading in another dialect allows me to become a part of a world that I have never, and may never, experience.

To restrict colloquial language in literature is to whitewash the history of generations of people. Not everyone speaks in the Queen’s English, and nor should they. Like it or loathe it colloquial language is real, it’s honest, and I for one love it. And to all those people that bemoan colloquialisms I say ‘stop being such a squinny, you din!’

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7 thoughts on “Colloquial Language in Literature: Love it or Loathe it?

  1. While there is plenty to be said for clear communication where everyone knows the meanings, the sound of language can give access to what is in peoples’ heads; how other people actually experience the world. It’s a feeling for your thoughts with your brain shaping your mouth and tongue as you read, feeling what other people feel when they speak.

    When I lived in Japan I found that communicating in English was much easier if I spoke like a Japanese person speaking English. It allowed me to get much better at Japanese syllables because I was already imagining how a restructured English would sound.

    More imagination I reckon ;D

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    1. Yeah it’s really interesting – I couldn’t agree more with your point about the sound of language representing what is in people’s heads. Good point Sam. More imagination is never a bad thing. 🙂

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  2. I also massively want to enjoy that equatorial, Equadorian volcano to which you have so kindly drawn my attention. In addition, another of your comments has made me think that “Ecuador” is just Spanish people saying “equator”…

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