Fluent in 1½ Languages

On Friday, I attended the premiere of a play written by John Quinn, whom I’ve known for several years.

In O Halflins an Hecklers an Weavers an Weemin, he tells the story of the jute industry in Dundee. The play was staged in the round within Verdant Works, which used to be a functioning jute mill and is now a museum dedicated to the manufacture of the material. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, particularly the satirical in-jokes that only locals understand.

A large portion of the dialogue is in local dialect; in fact, even the title seems like gibberish to those who aren’t familiar with the vernacular. Helpfully, however, the programme contains a glossary of the terms used in the production. The title translates as ‘The Mother Tongue’:

Glossary from the play
Glossary from the play

In everyday life, I speak and understand standard English. I also understood almost every word of the play without looking at the definitions, and I’d be able to decipher the dialect’s parent language: Scots. But to say anything in dialect or Scots, I would have to make a conscious effort to work out my sentences.

That’s why I say I’m fluent in 1½ languages.

There’s a long tradition of English as a written language, with dictionaries and grammar guides going back centuries. Scots, on the other hand, is more of an oral language and there’s no commonly-accepted way to render it on paper. As such, I find it easier to catch what’s being said than if it’s written down.

The problem is most apparent with the sound at the end of the word ‘loch’, which is pronounced like ‘huh’, but said from the back of the throat; a similar sound appears in German. This guttural noise is usually written as ‘ch’, but in English, those letters are pronounced as in the word ‘church’. There are also less obvious issues. The word ‘yes’ can be translated as ‘aye’ or ‘ay’, but depending on the context, the word ‘ae’ might mean ‘always’.

In modern times, there’s been a revival of the Scots language. Perhaps it’s down to the formation of the current Scottish Parliament in 1999; perhaps it’s because Scots speakers can now easily find one another online.

In my experience, there’s a minority of people who use the language merely to show off or to exclude non-speakers. But spoken for the right reasons, it’s full of rich expressions that often have no direct translation.

‘Tartle’ is the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name, and is under consideration by the Collins dictionary. ‘Driech’ can be used to describe any weather except warm and sunny, and can only be used in relation to weather. There are even informal neologisms such as the word Facebook being split into its component words and translated to ‘Pusjotter’; there’s no one definitive reference for this, so here are my search results.

I’ve no plans to start writing in Scots myself. But I am pleased to be fluent in half a language and I appreciate the insight it gives me.

Press play.

Recently, I’ve rediscovered the art of playwrighting. National Novel Writing Month used to have an offshoot called Script Frenzy. In 2012, its last year, I wrote my first and only full-length script: a stage play for two actors. Since then, I’ve become more comfortable with dialogue in prose, and how it can be used to imply action, or indeed how an action can omit several lines of speech. I haven’t yet edited my Script Frenzy work, but I imagine I could tighten up the dialogue and cut out many of the directions.

One thing that strikes me about penning a play is that you must have a clear idea of where it’ll be performed, not just which venue, but where in the world. A radio drama, for instance, will be radically different from a screenplay, and done on a vastly different budget. Even taking a stage play from London’s West End to Broadway will require the script to be laid out in a different format. But once you know where it’ll be set, the rest falls into place.

Scrivener, for instance, offers several different templates, including all the ones mentioned in the last paragraph, and any that aren’t shown by default can probably be downloaded. You tell the program your next action by pressing Enter or Tab at the end of each line. I’ve found this software a joy to work with for novelling, and just as good for scripts.

It’s most important, however, to remember that playwrighting is not for control freaks. The moment you give it to a director, he or she will have different ideas about how your words should be presented to an audience. You might imagine your characters sitting opposite sides of a table dressed formally, but the director might see them in jeans cuddled up next to each other. The writer has limited input in this process. The only way to guarantee it goes the way you want is to become a director yourself.

Ready to Play.

Having been flat on my back with illness last week, I missed the chance to go to a play on 25 June called Shape of a Girl at the Little Theatre in Dundee. It tells the story of a Canadian girl who was bullied and subsequently found dead. I’d been invited by a friend, playwright Mark McGowan, who is involved with Dundee Dramatic Society.

By last Friday of that week, I was feeling much better, and Mark invited me on a backstage tour of the theatre used by the society. It really is a little place: more like a large house than a venue. The auditorium seats just 100 people, and I saw the actors holding an intense rehearsal session there for a show that opens in August. Backstage is upstairs in the attic space, accessed by wooden staircases at the sides of the stage, yet it houses a green room, costume store, sewing room, and a coffee bar.

As Mark persuaded members of the company to sign up for his latest production, I spoke with one of the actors. The theatre group has lasted around 90 years, and we discussed how it has managed to remain in its own niche against comparable venues in the city, and the potential threat from a cinema that is due to open across the road.

I also flipped through an index of plays, each with a summary of the plot and required number of actors. Between the ages of twelve and 14, I had a brief acting career through the National Youth Music Theatre. It now strikes me just how difficult it must have been to find a suitable script so we all had a part. Similarly, Dundee Dramatic Society are volunteers, so there is little control over the age and gender of the players.

I’ve only once tried my hand at playwrighting, and I enjoyed the process. The group that runs National Novel Writing Month used to run a similar event in April called Script Frenzy where participants were challenged to produce a 100-page script during the month. Many of my local SF group chose to produce screenplays, but I elected to write for the stage as it needs only two actors.

I haven’t redrafted the script since it was written. But I’m confident I’ll one day return to it, tighten up the dialogue, iron out any plot holes, and see it performed.