What’s in a word?

During my student days at University of Glasgow, I had the benefit of meeting the then Writer-in-Residence Liz Lochhead (who later became the national poet of Scotland, the Scots Makar) for a few one-to-one sessions.

Having been a massive fan of hers since studying Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off and Blood and Ice in school – and hearing my beloved drama teacher rave about Lochhead’s talents – this was a giddy experience.

The bubble burst almost instantly, as soon as I entered the room and said ‘hello’.

Lochhead’s face fell, bemused, then disappointed. Her question was: “You’re Scottish why did you choose to use the American word ‘holler’ in your short story?”

The short answer (which I’ve pretty much kept to myself until this day) was: I don’t know, it seemed like a good idea at the time when I was looking up the thesaurus.

The piss-artist answer was: I was aiming for a richer, more diverse vocabulary that reflected the character’s openness to different cultures and her desire to travel and broaden her horizons. It spoke of ambition and dreams.

Turns out old Liz has a fantastic bullshit detector…

Question: When in my little 19 year old Glaswegian life had I ever used the word holler? When had I ever heard it said naturally within conversation? Was it a word I heard used often in any set of circumstances?

Answer: nae chance.

Learning: choose your words carefully and (try to) use them wisely.

Embarrassing teen story aside, this is a lesson which I revisited recently.

Scottish plays attract me – Morna Young’s Netting, Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places, Morna Pearson’s How to Disappear – the familiar Scots language stirs a special part of my soul. Not the Non-Executive Trustee part, nor the NHS employee part and certainly not the ‘responsible’ daughter of a Church Elder part.

No, Scots language calls that important, unfettered, true spark of my soul. The part that sits up drinking whisky and listening to rock music till 3am with my brother; that enjoys Saturday afternoons drinking stout and eating pork scratchings in the corner of a dark pub with my man and my dog; that yearns to wild camp, swim in the sea and live off the land all year.

So why with all this love and appreciation for the Scots language did it take a writing workshop lead by a much more established and successful playwright (Morna Young) to make me feel like I had permission to use Scots in my own writing?

Partially it is an ingrained social-economic, generational tick. The way you speak to your granny is not the way one should speak in school, or work, or university. There was also a theory that if you wrote in Scots it would be more difficult to get your work staged, or toured, or broadcast.

At its heart theatre is dramatic and challenging, so where better to showcase lively dialects and colloquialisms? Audiences are hungry, experimental, they are eager to hear a cornucopia of new voices.

Everyone enjoys the voyeurism of someone else breaking the rules for them. Who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to ride characters’ coat tails to unfamiliar worlds without getting down and dirty? Imagine being transported to 20th century America, or a present day Dundee housing estate, perhaps colonial Australia or a future Mars colony? All that adventure without any real danger or inconvenience. Magic.

Beyond these wondrous possibilities, dialect can be a powerful storytelling tool – where do your characters come from? Where are they now? How did they get there? Can you tell their social-economic class? Their level of education? Their age, gender, personality, physical attractiveness? How are they connected to each other – are they siblings, friends, lovers? How close are they really? Are they estranged? Do they chime off of each other; using the same linguistic rhythms and ticks? How does their dynamic develop over the course of the scene and/or play? How is this reflected in their dialogue?

It seemed scary and daunting, but finally, after a decade of mulling it over Liz and soaking into my own skin – I am embracing it.

Ta hen.