Tag Archives: idiom

Language alert

I regularly rattle on about the use, abuse and evolution of language, including in this earlier post.

Last weekend I heard a teen friend using “maybs” – a short form of ‘maybe’.

After mentioning this to my fellow web-heads they also gave me “totes” for ‘totally’, and “evs” for ‘whatever’. When my kids can’t even bother with all the syllables in what-ev-er, I’ll know communications have reached an all-time low.

I also heard a breakfast radio presenter calling for similar examples of teen speak and the best he was offered was a ripper: “You’re harshing my mellow.” Presumably this translates as “disturbing my calm”. It reminds me of Neil, the hippy member of the unforgettable Young Ones share house. Now those guys really knew how to have fun with language.

Speaking of conversational combat, here are a couple of sizzling put-downs I’ll never forget:

Me reading out a grab from a newspaper citing a new “guru”…
Colleague’s reply: “Huh. They only call someone a guru when they can’t fit charlatan into a headline”.

Me telling a friend about someone who took a year off work to write a novel…
Reply: “He didn’t write a book. All he did was prance about wearing a f***ing beret.”

Journo to telephone caller: “You’re not witty! You’re about as sharp as a f***ing bowling ball!”


Listening to language

There was an interesting piece in yesterday’s Sunday Age about how schoolyard language is evolving. It’s reproduced online without the fun graphic that caught my eye – but still worth a squiz.

As an author, I try to be constantly alert to the idiom of people I might be writing about. An authentic voice = a persuasive character.

As a parent, I’m more alarmed than alert to some of this new slang. For instance, my son and his mates continually use “versing”, as in “I’m versing Josh at chess”. I’m forever telling them there’s no such word. To compete versus someone doesn’t mean versing them!

However, language is alive and always adapting to trends and conversational shortcuts. It may well be that my son will have the last laugh in an updated dictionary. “Look Dad, now there is such a word…”

Footnote: My daughter is four and a force to be reckoned with. She recently described some overripe fruit as “all fluggsy and budgie”. I reckon that communicated her feelings very well.

Hearing voices

One of the things that can make or break your story is getting the voices of the characters right. You’re ploughing through a book, enjoying the plot and then one of the characters uses language that just doesn’t fit (e.g. a five-year-old uses the word ‘loquacious’ or something equally unlikely). The whole story suddenly becomes less plausible. Things don’t ring true.

One wrong word or phrase can stick out like a disastrous casting decision in a movie. Months of research on your plot can go to waste if the voices grate.

So how do you get the voices right? One of the tricks is to listen. If you’re writing about children, talk to them first. Listen to how they blend, shorten, mispronounce or approximate words. My daughter recently told me a princess in one of her videos was named “Uriness”. It took me a bit of work to establish that the castle staff were actually calling the princess “Your Highness”.

You’ll also need to do your research. Because one of my narrators in Game as Ned has an autism spectrum disorder, I did a lot of reading on how this can affect thinking, speaking and relating to the world. Most importantly, I found books by authors with autism such as Dr Temple Grandin and Donna Williams. This helped me view the world through eyes that brought different perspectives to my own.

Another character in GAN, Mick, is an ocker raised on a farm and suffering post traumatic stress disorder after his tour of duty in Vietnam. I’d assumed I’d be safe for Mick to use typically Aussie ‘strine’ expressions such as “she’ll be right” and “no worries, mate” but these were queried by the publishers as potentially too recent for a character in a 1970s setting. So you need to fact check voices too. Phrases and slang have use-by dates.

For the record, my intrepid wife tracked down a linguistics professor who was able to carbon date and verify the phrases I wanted to use.

You also need a good sense of what make your characters tick. If you understand and feel the things that motivate them, you should start to sense how they’d communicate. Would they have oft-repeated favourite words or phrases? Their own idiosyncratic idiom?

And, when you have spent enough time with your characters you might actually start to hear them in your head. Rather than a sign of madness, this can be a breakthrough moment. Writing their voices is almost like dictation once you can hear them.

I began writing GAN as a teenager. After a journalism career postponed the project, it was more than a decade before I returned to my manuscript. As I read through my earlier work, everything felt wrong. It took me a while to realise that, just as I had aged, so had my characters. Their voices sounded too young. I had a lot of rewriting ahead of me. The story is, I believe, the better for it.

Incidentally, there’s nothing to say a five-year-old can’t use the word loquacious. But if it’s going to be plausible you’ll need to create a character who can persuasively and believably spit out all those syllables.