Saturday, 12 May 2012

Speaking in tongues

Doris the Editor: Blissfully unaware
I’ve been talking to myself a lot lately. Or rather, reading out loud parts of my first novel. The dogs don’t care, the cat’s stone-deaf and my husband is used to it. However, I find it disconcerting. You see, in my mind I have a perfect Scottish accent and can sound convincingly like any man, woman, child or barking dog. But reading aloud I’m just a middle-aged woman with a received pronunciation (RP) English accent.

Did I say ‘accent’? Like everyone else, my way of speaking sounds to me as if it’s the norm. But now I’m living in Scotland, albeit the part which probably has the highest percentage of English people in its population, so that illusion has been shattered. Two incidents also brought this home to me.

Boots opened its first chemist shop in 1877. I wasn't there.
My early adult life was spent in London, working in the buying offices of Boots the Chemists. In the late 1980s, Boots decided it was too costly to maintain a London base when it owned a huge amount of real estate in Nottingham. Many of us relocated to the Midlands, generously rewarded for agreeing to live and work alongside people we had previously only known on the telephone. Up there, I made a very good friend who shared my enthusiasm for cats and crime fiction. She said to me one day, ‘We thought you were dead posh at first, talking like you do. But you’re quite normal really.’ Thanks, Barbara, wherever you are now.

At the age of forty I became a mature student at Edinburgh University, studying English and Scottish literature. For the first year we were required to study English Language, including phonetics. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this, but I found the work on regional accents fascinating. Etched on my memory, though, is the occasion when I was instructed to stand up in the lecture theatre and repeat several phrases as a living example of RP. I was mortified.

The reason why I’m doing a lot of reading out loud is not just for editing purposes, although that is part of the polishing process which everything I write goes through. This week I’ve recorded a YouTube video! I read the opening of No Stranger to Death for the Pulp Idol competition being run by Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall project. And although that chapter reads well on paper and Kindle, did my voice do justice to it? Only the judges can decide that, but luckily the portion I read has only my main character, Dr Zoe Moreland, in it and she’s English. My three minutes were up before the young, male and Scottish policeman makes an appearance.

Beautiful Hexham library
I was lucky enough to attend recently the launch of Mari Hannah’s The Murder Wall as part of Hexham Book Festival. Mari chose to have an actress, Phillippa Wilson, read excerpts from her book, and I thought this was such a great idea (not that Mari couldn’t have done it herself). Phillippa had just the right accent and added so much to the words she was reading.

Robert Burns wrote in his poem To a Louse about our inability “To see oursels as ithers see us”. I would add “To hear oursels”. In a perfect Scots accent, of course.

Robert Burns by the wonderful Peter Howson