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.

Am I a Clown to You!

In a quest to find his perfect match, Tom Stacey, the main character in ‘A Model Partner’,  asks –
‘What is the best way to tell if someone has a good sense of humour?’
Thinking about it, I suppose there are some things that might indicate someone who assumes they have a good sense of humour.
Wearing tee-shirts with slogans on them perhaps? Adorning a cardboard Burger King crown in public places? Or just being one of those people who say things like ‘everybody thinks I’m a gas laugh’ or ‘I’m completely mad’ when they encounter someone new.
 I’ve no definitive way to prove that someone has a good sense of humour but Tom’s question does give me the opportunity to talk about comedy, veering towards the literary end of things of course.

So here it goes, a funny little piece about…emm…funny pieces…

Am I a Clown to you!

Sinéad  -Doctor, doctor, it’s been seven hours and fifteen days since they took their love away.

Doctor – Girl, you better try to have fun no matter what you do.

Sinéad  – You’re a fool.

Ah yes,  Doctor Doctor jokes.
Tucked away in comics, infiltrating Christmas crackers.
We’ve all heard them and we’ve all groaned.
Maybe a part of us dies every time one is uttered. They have the power to annoy, maybe even to depress.  It’s got to the stage now that it is their unfunny reputation which is keeping them around, in a way it is as if we are not laughing at the joke but are laughing at the notion of how terrible a joke can be.

This type of humour hasn’t been lost in the literary world. In a business where people often take themselves very seriously there’s bound to be a few people waiting to take the mick out of it. Take the English department in San Jose State University. Since 1982 it has sponsored a literary competition called the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The rules are simple. Whoever comes up with the worst opening line to a novel wins. The competition was named after the author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who penned the line ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, one which has been repeated and overused ever since, probably even imitated and altered in some ways.
‘It was a dim late evening with high winds and excessive rain’ doesn’t really have the same effect though.

The winners of the Bulwer-Lytton are varied, funny and a little bit off-the-wall, like this one from 2010:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss – a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil. — Molly Ringle, Seattle, WA

And this from 1997:

The moment he laid eyes on the lifeless body of the nude socialite sprawled across the bathroom floor, Detective Leary knew she had committed suicide by grasping the cap on the tamper-proof bottle, pushing down and twisting while she kept her thumb firmly pressed against the spot the arrow pointed to, until she hit the exact spot where the tab clicks into place, allowing her to remove the cap and swallow the entire contents of the bottle, thus ending her life. — Artie Kalemeris, Fairfax, VA

My favourite is probably this one from 1983:

The countdown had stalled at T minus 69 seconds when Desiree, the first female ape to go up in space, winked at me slyly and pouted her thick, rubbery lips unmistakably – the first of many such advances during what would prove to be the longest, and most memorable, space voyage of my career. — Martha Simpson, Glastonbury, CT

But the San Jose State University is not alone in poking fun at the literary world. Ever since Bookseller magazine praised the book “Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice” in 1978, it offers a prize for the oddest title of the year. Some of the shortlisted from the 2013 competition are –

Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop and Other Practical Advice in Our Campaign Against the Fairy Kingdom by Reginald Bakeley

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening/ by David Rees

Was Hitler Ill? by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann


Writers like Marian Keyes and Roddy Doyle offset the serious themes of their books with truckloads of humour. Comedy can often come from the everyday traits of the characters. In a similar way to some stand-up comedians who use human foibles to make us laugh, the ones that cause you to sit up on your sofa and point at the screen and say ‘It’s so true’ over and over again. Whereas the humour with the likes of Terry Pratchett comes from giving traditionally inhuman characters mundane human characteristics. In a complex world of vampires and golems, dwarfs and witches you might have two characters on one hand arguing over the price of cabbage while on the other coming out with some cracking lines…

Give a man a fire and he’s warm for the day. But set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life.  (Terry Pratchett – Jingo)

Mr Pratchett is one of those people with the envious disposition of being intelligent but not taking himself too serious as this picture of him shows, taken at a signing event.

t pratchett t shirt

In Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, humour is continuously weaved through the dialogue. To capture the world through such absurdity is a real skill. But it is the truth in the absurd that makes it clever and enlightening and in the end, funny…

‘Why are they going to disappear him?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t even good grammar.’

Or the line from the book that was paraphrased by Kurt Cobain…

‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you’

In an interview with the Guardian the gifted Anne Enright was asked if she had to work at getting the balance right between serious issues and humour and she responded by saying –

I work at the sentences. Many of the things people find distinctive about my writing, I think of as natural. In fact, you’d have to point a finger and say, “Why has that writer not got a sense of humour?” Why are we not amazed by these humourless books? What are they trying to do by eliminating the natural sap that rises, the natural pleasure that we get, particularly if we’re dealing with words?”

And there is a great deal of truth in this.
People are funny – the things they say, the way they act, how they think. It’s one of our finest traits. It makes us want to be around each other.
If possible, writers should try to take advantage of this and use it in their work.
But my one piece of advice, try not to squeeze too many Knock-Knock jokes into your novel.

the writing retreat One