What the hell are we supposed to use man? Harsh language?

You sit down to write the book, and suddenly dialogue tends to happen. Your characters speak to each other. Sometimes they get upset, sometimes they get angry. Sometimes they’re just being bitter, ironic, or perhaps bitterly ironic. But what do they say. You as the writer are the one who puts their words down on the page.
Now I’ve worked all my life amongst men who swore. I can remember when Sid Vicious swore on telly (way back in 1976 if you believe Google). I remember going into Ulverston Auction Mart, and there, sitting on a bench watching the events in the dairy ring, was my Grandfather and four of five of his contemporaries. As I wandered up to say hi, they were talking about the Sex Pistol’s outburst. They were shocked. “Ignorant little s…, needs his a… kicking.” “I’d give the little b…… a ……. hiding if he said that in my presence.” They were criticising him in language that would have scorched his ears. It wasn’t that they were against swearing, but there was a time a place for it. The Dairy ring at Ulverston auction was obviously, in their minds at least, the time and the place. My Grandmother might have disagreed but had she been there, they would have modified their language.
I read someone commenting about an article he’d come across. He worked out (from figures in the article) that young people swore ten times an hour when they were with their mates. From some of the kids I know, that ten times an hour is probably an underestimate. But the words they use are often used without meaning. They’re just ‘intensifiers’, synonyms for ‘very’.
This might give us our way in. The kids are an example. They have their own ‘language’ or argot. I call it an argot because people outside the group aren’t really supposed to be able to understand it. Kids want to speak a language their parents cannot understand, lawyers and PR people want to speak a language that baffles their clients into handing over the money. Each group has its own argot, jargon, call it what you will.
So back to your characters, what is their ‘argot’? That is obviously going to produce a lot of their vocabulary.
But on the other hand, whilst my Grandfather’s argot (when he was talking to his mates) could get pretty scatological, when in the presence of his Wife and five daughters, it was considerably tamer. As a general rule we can assume that people are expected to abandon or dilute their argot when attempting to communicate outside the group. If my Grandfather had stuck with his, you’d have written him off as ignorant, if a lawyer stuck with his in a social situation you’d write them off as a pompous bore.
From a writer’s point of view, the argot presents another problem. Our reader is probably not part of that particular group. Therefore they cannot expect to be entirely comfortable with it. We could probably cope with the swearing, but lawyer’s argot doesn’t make for easy reading. So we have to water it down a bit, if only to make it comprehensible.
The final issue is the time and place. If you’re writing the dialogue for something happening here and now, then you can go and sit amongst the folk you’re writing about and get a feel for their speech patterns and vocabulary. If you’re doing a historical piece, then it is possible that examples of the argot have been preserved, so you can use that. As with the modern stuff, you might want to water it down a bit so it is comprehensible. On the other hand you might want it to be incomprehensible, to give a feeling that these people are different, outside society or part of a different society.
But what about those of us who write fantasy or Sci Fi? Here I offer no better solution that that adopted by Douglas Adams in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. In the original radio series ‘Belgium’ was described as the most offensive word in the galaxy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: