Phone Voice

Potato, b’dayra, Tomarrah, tomato,
Let’s call the whole thing off… or maybe just click here for my Arena essay on dialect.
Or give those eyeballs a workout and read on…




Phone Voice


I have a phone voice.  Sometimes it’s a work voice. The tone might level out a notch. The words more pronounced. I could even be using it right now. For the most part, it’s not a conscious thing, more auto pilot, possibly born from imitation or the need to be understood beyond my circle. Or maybe it evolved from teacher’s frowns at mispronunciations, Chimbley instead of chimney. Hosbidle instead of hospital.  You say potato. I say b’dayra. As I get older, for the most part, my provincial tone has faded, in much the same way as an engaging sign might pale in a shop window.

Some might consider variations of a common language as verbal anomalies or a weakness on the part of the speaker. For others they are a language in themselves.  Capturing these variations when writing dialogue is such a vital part of capturing a place or character. For the likes of Irvine Welsh you might even say it has become a style.

Dialect can contort and sweep. It brims with inventiveness and energy. It can consume.  In the eighties, when the influence of American Culture was well into its stride, Americanisms began to creep into the vernacular of young Irish kids. Words like ‘Cool’ and ‘Chill’ were used. School became ‘lame’. People used to barf.

Some time ago I had the opportunity to meet a screenwriter from New York.  All seemed to be going well, plenty of smiling and nodding, that conversation tightrope between the formal and the informal, until it began to dawn on me that this person couldn’t understand about 90% of what I was saying. My phone voice and scattered Americanisms were not enough. Perhaps, if it wasn’t for new methods in communication, I might have realised this long ago. Email had lured me into a false sense of security.

With my novel due to be republished in the States later this year, I’m beginning to worry about being misunderstood. They use ‘z’s instead of ‘s’s across the water. They have gasoline and precincts, druggists and eggplants. I might need an interpreter. Or training. Www-pronounce-your-‘t’s –dot-com. But at what point does a change in how you speak become loss of identity?

Within new software to detect plagiarism is something called ‘stylometry’, a function used to make out a change in the writer’s style. Because it turns out there is a quality unique to each writer that never changes. And one incidental outcome for ‘stylometry’ is how it can be used to unveil pseudo-writers. Bad news for those who wish to remain anonymous. But it’s good to know that it matters little if an author is experimenting or trying out a different genre, because at the very least, this is one area where voice will always remain the same.