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This report is taken from PN Review 127, Volume 25 Number 5, May - June 1999.

Voice and Voices Bernard O'Donoghue

Dialect voices are very prominent in contemporary writing in English: Irving Welsh's Scottish in Trainspotting; the north Dublin of the novels of Roddy Doyle; the West Indian of Benjamin Zephaniah; and so on. It has been going on in America too throughout the century; there Southern accents are very audible. Often the writers who draw on regional language claim to be dispersing power to the linguistic margins: 'giving a voice', as it's called, to those who previously lacked attention. Well, if that is so, it is, as Dickens would say, uncommonly civil. It is not usual for those in possession of power to spread it around when they don't have to. So what's going on?

In fact, of course, when you think about it, this idea of 'giving a voice' to the unlistened to is a very peculiar way of putting it: indeed it's more or less the exact opposite of what is really happening. After all, all those Scots, West Indians, Southern-states Americans and Northern Irish people had voices already; they weren't given them. It is the central media - in books and television and radio - who borrowed their voices. The local voices are the givers, not the receivers.

Regional language clearly has much to contribute: the most obvious thing is the sheer variety offered by the sounds of dialect words. But equally cherished in literature is the dwelling on place-names: Adlestrop, Frickley, Eastwood, Ashleworth, Knocknarea, Mucker, Inishkeel, Anahorish. The loving lingering that ...


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