Them or em?

  • Herring Girls

A longer feature on on the challenges of conveying regional dialect without alienating readers appeared in the Guardian Review on 4 October, sparking 120 comments – and counting. You can add your three ha’p’orth here, and/or below.

Do readers need as much molly-coddling as publishers think? In the course of writing Herring Girl, I was advised by various publishing professionals to ban therapist Mary from smoking, stop Ben referring to elderly women as ‘old biddies’, to strip out all references to masturbation, and to make everyone with a Geordie accent speak – well – without a Geordie accent.

Seriously? With Ant and Dec, Ross Noble and Sarah Millican on TV, and ‘o-ah no-ah’ (cf Nancy Banks-Smith) Ruth Archer on the radio? Surely there can be few people who are baffled by Geordie dialect these days? But apparently novel readers still inhabit the retro linguistic world of 1950s broadcasting, with its clipped vowels and perfectly honed received pronunciation. As if The Colour Purple and Trainspotting had never been written (and been read, and understood, and enjoyed, by millions).

True, it can be a bit off-putting to start with, to face a page of text peppered with apostrophes, where ‘th’ has been removed from ‘them’ and ‘with’, for example. So whip em out altogether, that’s what I say. The fewer the apostrophes, the more natural and normal the dialect will seem – because it is natural and normal.

Now I’m not blaming my advisors. All they want to do is (and I quote) ‘remove the barriers’ and make sure the novel is read by as many folk as possible. But is dialect still a barrier these days?

Below are two short extracts from Herring Girl. The first is the published version, with some of the distinctive syntax and accent expunged. The second is how I wrote it originally, complete with the Geordie flourishes I’ve learnt to love in my 20 years in this part of the world (plus a few bits of extraneous research detail that I couldn’t resist at the time, but which had to go in the final version – and quite right too). What do you think?

It’s early in the story, when 12-year-old Ben is first hypnotised by his therapist Mary and starts speaking in the voice of a herring girl who died over a century earlier.

Published version

‘I’m outside the smokehouse on the quayside, and the lumper’s upending another cran of herring into the farlane. And here’s the fish tumbling in, all silver and a-slither, hitting the farlane like water and splashing up the sides – and right out, some of them, so you have to scoop them off the ground before some daftie kicks them.’

Mary lets her breath out in a long silent whistle. She’s listening to a herring girl! Annie must have been a herring girl! It’s all there: the accent, the vocabulary, the historic detail – material no boy of Ben’s age could possibly know.

‘Good, very good,’ she says, controlling her excitement. ‘What else can you see?’

‘I’m looking down at my hands, and Flo’s beside me, shovelling salt on the fish so’s we can hold them, because they’re that slippy, you can’t get a grip without a roughening of salt. A Shields herrings is that full of oil this time of year, all you’ve to do is squeeze it and the oil’s slipping through your fingers like dripping.’

Original version

‘I’m at the smokehouse, and the lumper’s upending a cran o herring into the farlane, so they’re tumbling in all of a slither, like a heave o silver vomit, hitting the farlane and splashing up the sides – and right out, some of em, so you’ve to scoop em off the ground afore some daftie kicks em.

‘Shields herrings are that full of oil, they burst open if you look at em. Then afore you know it the ground’s shining wi grease and we’re skidding right and left in wor great boots, head over heels in a slew o squished innards, and you don’t get that mess out o your skirt in a hurry.

‘Da uses herring oil on his high boots, to keep em supple when the sea’s been at em. This time o year all you’ve to do is squeeze a plump mattiefull and the oil’s slipping through your fingers like dripping.

‘So now I’m looking down at my hands, and Flo’s beside us, shovelling salt on the fish so’s we can hold em, because they’re that slippy you cannat get a grip wi’out a roughening o salt. And we’re back to gipping again, getting up wor rhythm, the dip and cut and flick of it.’

By |2018-07-30T13:25:52+00:00June 5th, 2014|Fiction, Herring Girl, Writing|6 Comments


  1. Rosie August 1, 2014 at 5:05 am - Reply

    Thanks for posting this. I especially liked: ‘ the dip and cut and flick of it’.

  2. Karren August 1, 2014 at 9:36 am - Reply

    Love your original version. You can here the music of the language. Your editors have slathered it with southern starch.

  3. Karren August 1, 2014 at 9:37 am - Reply

    Sorry – hear. I can spell,!!

  4. Heather Welford August 1, 2014 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Oh I don’t know….or even Ah divvent knaa.

    I think both versions are fine 🙂

    The original version is more colourful and gutsy but because of the vocabulary (mainly) and phrasing. If you really wanted to be consistent about reflecting actual speech, all your “-ing” endings would be “-in” endings or even “-in’ ” endings. Or endin’s. Or endins. Or endns. And they were not.

    It’s a matter of fine judgement – you cannot be literally and consistently reflective of the spoken word, because it will act as a barrier and slow down comprehension and empathy with the characters (unless you want that effect, of course). You have to make a decision on how much to do it.

    Mark Twain had the dilemma with Huckleberry Finn – he transcribes non-standard English just enough to give a real flavour of Huck’s speech without messing with the reader’s understanding. Dickens pinpoints people socially and educationally and sometimes morally with non-standard speech. Loads of other examples.

    In the end, it’s a judgement call.

    Or caal……

    • Heather Welford August 1, 2014 at 10:31 am - Reply

      weird graphic in the middle of my post – don’t know how it got there.

  5. Elizabeth August 4, 2014 at 11:13 am - Reply

    I much preferred the original – more vivid and colourful, and with the rhythms and cadences evoking a sense of real women talking and working together. The publisher’s version? Yes, slathered in starch is a perfect image. How very sad.

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