“Mind your language“…
“Mind Your Language” was a British television programme that our family loved when I was a little girl. The construct of a harassed, overworked English teacher attempting to teach British immigrants the English language created a hilarious parody of people from different cultures trying to learn English. It brings to mind the context of the English language that we use today. What is the standardized form of English that should be acceptable in writing?
As a person that was brought up using Colonial English and encountering a barrage of different dialects when first coming to England, I was surprised to find the English citizens pronouncing their words incorrectly or subjecting syntax to strange acrobatic feats whilst still making English sense! And, it seemed to be acceptable! It made me doubt the education I received from teachers and parents, who insisted that good articulation and grammar were fundamental to being understood and accepted in society.
One must always mind one’s p’s and q’s to project one’s social status.
My pronunciation came under fire from the standardized English speakers who assumed I came from South Africa, Canada, Australia or, in rare cases, the United States. They picked at my accent and idiolects (my pattern of language use), making fun of my colloquial terms which were not used in their modern English. It made it difficult to identify my writer’s voice when I first decided to formerly write Deception. Harder still was trying to write dialogue for the characters using a language structure that made their voices believable yet understood. After careful deliberation, I chose to furnish some of my characters with local dialects I heard growing up; the everyday language used by family and friends.
Sprinkling language with spicy local dialect and accent gives your character an authentic voice.
The character known as Esther Munford, my main character’s grandmother in Deception, took on the voice of my own gran, borrowing her inflection of ‘Mma’ before saying my name. After light research, I found out that my family had traces of Botswanan heritage as well as South Africa lineage. Being mixed race means you get a taste of many different cultures and a mixed heritage. In this case, I could hear my gran’s voice vocalizing her inherited culture that evoked memories of warmth, strength and the smell of French Lace perfume. Of course, I had to change that image of the character to fit the book, which became difficult to separate until later in the book when my character revealed her secrets. That broke the ties that bound her to my gran and released Esther Munford into the literary world to become her own identity.
This did not solve my problem of how to find the right standardized English to please all readers when encountering my next book, a crime thriller called The Iron Pendulum. Reading other crime novels for some insight, I discovered that the authors found their balance in shaping their stories around the location, feeding the language style through descriptions and dialogue and cementing the style of English used in the variances of adjectives and word play with pronouns and subjunctives.
There is no right or wrong English; as long as it is understood, it is English!
The educated experts who evaluate and included words and grammar gremlins encountered in our dictionaries and books will always set the standard of the English language, but as cultures blend and mix, we can expect an evolutionary change to the English language again and again, as has occurred over the past centuries. In this way, I have concluded that as long as my English sticks to its Colonial roots and as long as I create the right balance of dialogue, accent and background to my characters, my writer’s voice will be safe.