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Monday, November 5, 2012

Steve Almond On Writing In Dialects: ‘Sometimes Ye Jist Dae It’

Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle in the 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. (Miramax)

In reviewing Irvin Welsh’s “Skagboys” for The New York Times Book Review, our literary critic Steve Almond started thinking about the use of dialects in fiction.

“Skagboys,” the prequel to Welsh’s 1993 novel “Trainspotting,” is set among young drug users in Edinburgh, Scotland and is written in their language without a glossary.

Here & Now literary critic Steve Almond. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

As Almond tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, he found the effect absolutely maddening at first, but he found the effort to understand the dialect ultimately rewarding.

“I think Welsh is very effectively able to mine the poetry of the way that these guys speak. And it’s quite beautiful. And it’s more authentic ’cause this is the way that the youths of Edinburgh speak,” Almond said.

Almond takes a look at how dialects and accents are used in such works as Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep,” Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”


  • Steve Almond, literary critic and an author of short stories, books and essays.

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  • livingtheactivelife

    I have a particular love for Trainspotting and thoroughly enjoyed this interview!

    After two failed attempts at trying to tackle reading the dialect (it IS like learning a foreign language), I finally conquered it but not after it conquered me. However, I ultimately concluded that it was essential to have to toil through the text, experience frustration and continue to persevere. Only the most committed would finally enjoy the unique experience of seeing life through the characters’ eyes without having to be an actual heroin addict. And once a reader could feel as though they could identify with the main character, despite all his flaws, shortcomings and at times, unforgivable acts, that reader could read without judgement, prejudice and preconceived assumptions.

    I would argue that the use of dialect is the only mechanism that can help a reader overcome these hurdles. In Trainspotting in particular, dialect seems to subversively deconstruct the commonly accepted belief that drugs are bad therefore drug users are bad therefore their opinions and experiences aren’t valid.

    It’s a unique thing to be able to identify with someone so completely unlike you who is typically so easily dismissed by the majority of functioning society. And yet, at times, it is so critical to step completely outside of yourself in order to not only understand others but better understand yourself.  And since “body swaps” only exist in movies (for now), Trainspotting is the next best thing!

  • EF Sweetman

    Brilliant Mr. Almond!

  • Phlatphish

    Oh dear.  Am I the only one to see the comedy in Mr. Almond appreciating the beauty of Irvine Welsh’s prose, as in his mind he mispronounces the words, and, what’s more, in an Irish accent? Drop the E in Irvine and you’ll be close. Edinburgh, well try Edinburra, or Embra. Please, please not Edinboro. Surely there’s a Scot around somewhere to help you with these trivia. Finally, a brogue is a shoe, or an accent found in Ireland. Never have I heard it applied to the way we speak. See you, Almond, yir a numpty.

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