and so the help requests begin

This one perhaps goes out to my British readers more than others, but in theory anybody’s capable of answering it for me.

What authors — ideally spec fic, just because of my reading preferences, but not necessarily — have done a good job of representing cockney speech? I need authors, not media sources, because I’m curious about the methods people have used for showing it on the page. Like any dialect or accent, it’s really easy to fall into the territory of “really annoying and borderline unreadable,” and I’m keen to avoid that, while still conveying the distinct flavor of the pattern. Probably I’ll rely more on phrasing and quirks of word choice than phonetic representation, but I’d like to see how other people have tackled this issue.

So who’s writing good cockey-centric fiction? Bonus points if it’s Victorian, but since my concern is on the sound more than the vagaries of rhyming slang, modern-day stories are also acceptable.

0 Responses to “and so the help requests begin”

  1. la_marquise_de_

    To be honest, you’d be better watching some of the east-end set tv shows, like the dreaded East Enders. Otherwise, Dickens is probably the best way to go for the Victorian era. Or possibly Sarah Waters.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve watched things with the accent (though only one ep of East Enders), so I have a decent sense of how it sounds to the ear; my concern here really is how to print it on the page. I’ll try Waters — Dickens I’m likely to be reading regardless.

  2. doriscrockford2

    I second Sarah Waters, and beg you to please leave the phonetics off the page. 🙂 Word choice, yes, but the phonetic spelling gives me a headache and I’m liable to skip over that character’s dialogue.

  3. thespisgeoff

    I third Sarah Waters – and I’d say that, phonetically-speaking, dropped Hs are okay. Diphthong substitutions, however, get annoying to read might quickly.

  4. jurious

    Terry Pratchett wrote a few Cockney-accented characters into his recent Discworld novel “Unseen Academicals”, though since he is a comedy/fantasy writer, it tends to be a little overdone for humorous effect – alot of “yes, guv” and what not. 🙂 That’s all I can think of that I’ve read recently.

    Maybe Dickens would be a place to look…?

  5. dr_whom

    Also, keep in mind that the sound of present-day Cockney accents is likely to be noticeably different from that of Cockney accents of 150 years ago; modern representations might not be that useful to you for that reason.

    • Marie Brennan

      Do you think it’s changed that substantially? (You’ve got a lot more of a linguistics background than I do, so congratulations: you will now speak for that entire field!) My instinct is that the drift hasn’t been that fast, given what I know of pronunciation in the 1500s — but I could be wrong.

      • dr_whom

        So I don’t actually know, English dialects not being what I know most about. However, in the U.S., dialectological research done as recently as the 1940s predated some of the major regional accent features that exist today, and described major regional differences in some features that no longer exist today. So my advice is, be cautious. I could try and find some sources for you on what the phonological features of Victorian London are likely to have been, but I’m not quite sure where to look for that.

        • Marie Brennan

          Interesting — I’m less surprised by the loss of features (since I expect the rise of radio, TV, and film has homogenized our speech to some extent), but the growth of new features in such a short span of time is a little unexpected.

  6. gauroth

    Kipling was superb at writing accents. Many years ago I heard ‘Danny Deever’ (from ‘The Barrack Room Ballads’)read aloud by an actual Cockney. The reader said that Kipling had got it just right.

  7. zunger

    Ellen Kushner made an interesting point on a panel at WFC about this — 20th-century readers tend to have a very heightened sensitivity to the rendering of accents in text, especially compared to 19th-century readers. Apparently many 19c texts therefore extensively render all sorts of accents, and it quickly gets on the nerves of 20c readers.

    What she said that she found worked best was a very light smattering of accent rendering, but instead (I wish I could remember the exact quote) to change the meter of the writing to match natural meters to the text. One author she referenced (again, can’t remember which — may need to check my notes) apparently had great success indicating the “Frenchness” of a setting / set of speakers by shifting their dialogue to an Alexandrine rhythm rather than the iambic rhythm that English speakers naturally fall in to. And of course, Tolkien did his famous routines with OE/Nordic cadences (alliteration, etc) when rendering the Rohirrim.

    OTOH, Guy Gavriel Kay was sitting next to her and disagreed about the importance of this. (Although he didn’t contradict the basic hypothesis, as far as I can recall)

    I personally suspect that she’s mostly right — but capturing the rhythms of Cockney speech, rather than the rendered sounds, could be a challenge. It also suggests that 19th-century sources for this should be taken with a really big grain of salt.

    • Marie Brennan

      When I’m writing a non-fluent English speaker, my tendency is to represent that with phrasings and word choice: missed verb tenses, or constructions from the native language (like a Spanish speaker using a double negative, or an Irish Gaelic speaker saying “I am in my sleeping”). I actually had an Arabic speaker correct some of the dialogue in Star for exactly that reason. And that will probably be 90% of what I do for the cockneys — but I am contemplating, for example, dropping the H’s.

      I hadn’t thought about the different tolerances between the 19c and 20c, but that’s a good point. (And a reason not to rely solely on Dickens for my model.)

  8. akashiver

    Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White did a great job with the era, as far as I can remember. I forgot how/whether he rendered accents, but his prose definitely wasn’t jarring.

  9. dynix

    Maybe some of the hellblazer comics? ‘Hold me’ by gaiman and mckean

    For books, maybe Neverwhere?

Comments are closed.