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Friday, 23 November 2007

"The Past Is Another Country...."

What's the correct answer to the greeting, "Alright?" ? I don't know if this is a Yorkshire colloquialism or in worldwide usage, but far from the genteel, "Good morning, Lady Harley-Farley, how are you?" of another era, it seems that in the age of speed in all things, we do not like to waste time with words and reduce the greeting to "Alright?" You walk along the road, pass an acquaintance and he/she nods, "Alright?" What do you say? "I am very well, thank you, how are you?" sounds too verbose. A simple, "Hi!" or "Morning!" (omitting the 'good', of course)? Or perhaps just a nod and a smile?

When L.P. Hartley wrote, "The past is another country, they do things differently there..." he might have warned that they speak another language there, too, and what a challenge this presents in writing historical fiction. In order to find the authentic voice of a particular era, is it necessary to check every word for its usage at the time? For example, 'naughty', in Shakespeare's time, was far more derogatory than it is nowadays. The word 'sick' - I believe - came to England from America some time in the mid-19th century, and I recently discovered (from Stephen Fry's brilliant book), that 'Hello' only came into usage as a greeting after the invention of the telephone. So do I check every word that the characters speak, or is better to capture the essence of the age by using language which is more familiar today? After all, some local phrases of 'old speak' would make no sense whatsoever to anyone born outside of Yorkshire or after 1970. I never understood my grandmother's greeting, "Why don't you come like yourself?" Things didn't break, they 'went west', angry people, 'played Hamlet', to 'make love' was a mild flutter of eyelashes and 'to screw' meant to look or watch and spices were sweets, and sweets were meat. Combine that with all the Yorkshire grammar of nowt, sommat and replacing 'our' with 'us' ('we're having us dinner'), changing 'the' to 't' followed by a sort of guttural 'er' (going t'er shops) and local vocabulary of ginnels and snickets for alleyways, the 'coarser edge' for the kerb...
Perhaps it would be much easier to set the novel in a community that had taken a vow of silence...

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