Wednesday 18 November 2009

Novels of Misspelling

Gentle reader, I should warn you that there may be some coarse language in this post. In fact, I'm sure there will be.

The first line of the deliciously delicate novel Londonstani goes like this:

Serve him right he got his muthafuckin face fuck’d, shudn’t b callin me a Paki, innit.

You see, what the author is doing, which is very clever, is to tell us the accent in which the character is speaking. That’s why he spells mother as mutha. That’s how they pronounce it in Hounslow.

Etonians, Oxonians and indeed all those who don’t live in Hounslow pronounce mother as mow-thear. We also pronounce the e in fucked, which we write as fuckèd. A typical conversation at my boarding school would run something like this:

- Is your mow-thear coming to visit you this weekend?
- I’m afraid not; she’s too busy being fuckèd by my faither.
- Noi.

That’s how it was. As for the b – well I’m not going to tell you how we pronounce b because then you would be able to move among us undetected and it would be worse than the worst excesses of the French revolution.

What really gets my goat about all this, though, is that he spells right with a ght. I can only deduce from this that the ght is always pronounced in full around the farther reaches of the Piccadilly Line.

In the pubs near me (North West London, far from Hounslow) people employ a strange rhetorical device whereby a noun is immediately followed by a superfluous pronoun. The conversations are hard to punctuate but they go something like this:

Mike, he reckons that Arsenal, they’re going to win the league this year. Me, I reckon that Chelsea, they’ve got the strength and depth for a long and bitter campaign.

That really is how they speak, like the bits of newspaper at the bottom of an old lady's drawer. Yet the funny thing in the gritty novels of misspelling like Londonstani is that after throwing in a bunch of oaths and curses the author almost always forgets to do anything so extended as to make a line of dialogue sound structurally convincing.

In Carl Hiaasen’s novel Skinny Dip, which is set in Florida, one word is misspelled throughout. Son of bitch is consistently rendered sumbitch, which is perfect because that is how they pronounce it in the Profound South. The word only pops up every ten pages or so, but that one eccentricity of spelling combines with Hiaasen’s excellent ear for the structures of speech to keep the accent in the reader’s mind.

But those writers who misspell more than once a page are almost always cloth-eared when it comes to patterns of speech.

The only exception I can think of to this rule is Dickens who, of course, rendered speech perfectly but still made poor people reveal their lack of education by saying woz instead of was.

It shouldn’t really be me writing this post. Mrs Malaprop – a former Miss Hounslow finalist with relations in Florida – could have knocked it together better than I have done, but I fear the swearing would have made her take fright, which she would pronounce friggahut.

UPDATE: Mrs Malaprop informs me that nobody in Hounslow would ever pronounce the t in innit.


  1. Hiaasen today is a dreary camping site, a few hours from Oslo. There is a writerly vein in this gene pool besides the Florida offshoot- Dag Hiaasen has written works such as "The cost of speaking ones mind in clandestine Norway", and is chairman of the board of an organisation called "Popular action against psychiatrists who go to far". It is of course neither popular nor really about action in the normal sense. I have always beleived that of all the forms of insanity, paranoia correlates most closely with writerly perfection. Could one go further and say that in order to improve his writing the Londonistan fellow should experience the horror of being cloistered in the woods somewhere rather than just "hanging out" in a vibrant, multi-cultural area where there are just too many distractions?

  2. It's called "eye dialect", and it's often used to indicate not that the speaker is pronouncing the word differently, but rather to indicate the speaker's social status.

  3. I wouldn't have put the comma before innit. Having a pause there denotes a question, whereas no pause is for being insistant. Thus:

    "Shudn’t b callin me a Paki, innit?"


    "Shudn’t b callin me a Paki innit."

    Also, pronouncing the d in shouldn't (or shuldn't) is too posh. Shun't might be better.