A friend commented after reading my book Facing Up that it might have too much Australian slang for an overseas audience. The dialect isn’t trying to be overly Aussie as such, but it still has that flavour. And there are some terms in it that aren’t commonly known to other English-speaking countries.
But I’d hope this isn’t an issue – I think any slang is couched in such a way that it’s reasonably understandable. And I really don’t want to change my book so that the terms are all Americanised, as I’ve seen done. It’s a book about Aussie teenagers, growing up in the suburbs of an Australian city (it’s unspecified in the story, but it’s based on my home town of Melbourne).
So my characters would never call a work vehicle a ‘pick-up’ or ‘truck’ – it would be a ‘ute’, short for ‘utility vehicle’. A 375ml glass beer bottle is called a ‘stubby’, and cigarettes are called anything from smokes to ciggies to fags (that latter term is rarer today, for good reasons).
I love Aussie English, even with its odd habit of shortening everything, then adding a ‘y’ or an ‘o’ (‘breaky’ for breakfast, ‘arvo’ for afternoon). I have no idea why we do that, but here’s an interesting article that suggests some answers. And if you add some Aboriginal English, it’s even more deadly, brudder! (this sort of translates as ‘cool, man’).
These days it’s quite easy to Google a phrase if you can’t work it out from its context in the story. I guess the author could put a list in as a reference, but for me that spoils the fun. The reader can exercise their mind and imagination – not to mention their internet-searching abilities 😉
When I was young (that creaky old phrase!), in 70s & 80s Australia, we were obviously pre-internet, but also an island continent. Sure, people were starting to fly overseas more often, as international flights got cheaper and faster, but not as much as they do today. So not being able to drop into say, Ireland from England for a day-trip, we relied on immigrants to learn more about other languages and different terms for things. And we heard them on TV, or read them in books. It was easier with TV if you could clearly see what they were referring to, but books could be different.
I’m not sure why this sticks in my mind (maybe it’s the reference to food) but I’ll always recall wondering about a character’s nickname in SE Hinton’s early YA book, ‘That was Then, This is Now’, about teenagers in Tulsa, Oklahoma circa 1970. The character was called M&M. Now, that particular US candy had not yet infiltrated Australia, so I was left to puzzle over what it looked like. It didn’t stop me loving the book, it just meant that I didn’t have the exact visual reference until years later (and now Australia is flooded by M&Ms!). I’m sure I’ve picked up much more interesting and educational references than this, but that’s just an example.
If we all held back from using terms peculiar to our own countries, we’d only have horrible bland books in some form of neutralised English, probably saturated more with American terminology, since this is the biggest market.
I haven’t even touched on the joy that is reading about your own culture, which is part of the reason the whole #LoveOzYA campaign was started. It’s the same with pushing to have more people of different races, sexual preferences, cultures and religions on our local TV and in books – there’s that comfort and solidarity in seeing and reading about people just like you, doing normal things.
So it works both ways – we should use our own vernacular to set a sense of time and place in our books, to allow people of other backgrounds to see how we live. And it helps give us a sense of our own culture, comforting for the most part! (even if we may wince at the dagginess of some things, including the use of the words ‘dag’, ‘daggy’ and ‘dagginess’*).
And I’d hate to think I’d sell out my cultural background just to sell more copies of my book 🙂
*Dag: A common Australian term originally from a word for the matted wool on a sheep’s rear end, it somehow then became an insult about someone’s old-fashioned, or complete lack of, dress sense. Now it’s a word of affection meaning someone who is being a bit silly but loveable – ‘C’mon, you big dag, let’s go home!’ No, I don’t understand the connections, either!