Monday 13 July 2015

Why we should all be more like Shakespeare

By Candy Gourlay and Moira McPartlin

This Wednesday, 15 July, at 6.30 PM at the Barbican Library, Candy will be in conversation with Scottish author Moira McPartlin at the London launch of Ways of the Doomed

CANDY GOURLAY: Moira, I've been reading Ways of the Doomed in preparation for our forthcoming event at the Barbican Library and the thing that immediately leaps out about the book is the inventive use of language. You play with words like a rock star riffing on his electric guitar - it is interesting, crazy making and pretty brave with lots of Scottish thrown in.

'For jupe sake,' one character swears mildly. He gets 'fair puggled' when he's tired. Another character 'puts his hands on the wall and takes a swatchie at the sky.'

The bending of language in young fiction has always fascinated me as an other-culture author who writes for a Western readership. When I'm writing my Filipino characters, I try to capture the music and humour of Filipino-ness without actually using Filipino words. It's a tremendous juggle, because not only must the Western reader get my character, my Filipino reader must see nothing askance.

Moira, is the creative use of language a signifier that this book is set not just in another culture but another, future time?

MOIRA MCPARTLIN: When I was writing it I knew three things about my book:

(1) It is set in the future, the year 2089 to be exact.

(2) The sixteen year old protagonist mean the book would be a good read for teens.

(3) Points one and two mean that I’d better play smart when creating a future world. The play smart device I used was language. Not a whole lot of gobbledygook, hard to remember language that often pops up in pure Sci-Fi. Nothing tech or geeky, just a smattering of different words, invented words, play-on words, and some good old Scots.

CANDY: Good old Scots! I'm still recovering from when Christina Banach taught me the word bahookie - as in 'shift yer bahookie'! From the sound of your book though, it's not just Scottishness that drives your playfulness with language.

MOIRA: I am no language expert, I failed my higher English after all! But language and vocabulary fascinate me. I love the way it evolves. New languages were introduced into Britain firstly by invaders and then by centuries of immigrants. English has moved from Old English, to the Middle English we can read in Chaucer and onward into Modern English. New words arrived from the days of the Empire, from the Colonies and are constantly required to keep up with technologies and with moving populations.

And words don’t just arrive, some words leave, take root elsewhere and return home. My particular favourite is ‘smashing.’ This word is thought to have come from the US sometime in the 20th Century, but some Gaels I’ve spoken to claim its origins are from the Gaelic phrase “is math sin” pronounced “sma shin” meaning good or fine. Could it be that this word left Britain during the Highland Clearances, settled in the US and made its back to us via WWII GIs or Television? There is some debate about this but the Gaels are sticking to their story and so they should, it’s a good one.

So this mishmash of influences can be used by any writer to invent words to give unique voice in our imagined worlds.

CANDY: I think you're very brave. English is my second language and I am often daunted by my non-nativeness. How dare I try to make a language not my own do my bidding!

What makes me keep going though is the fact that our readers are young people who have no hang ups about language. Almost ten years ago now, I attended a keynote by young adult author Scott Westerfeld on the subject of writing teen slang. Here's an excerpt from the piece I wrote YA Voice and Teen Vernacular:

“When you are a teenager you are still in the act of acquiring language ,” Scott told us. “One of the reasons I really like YA is that teenagers are more interested in voice than adults.”
Teenagers, he says, write more poetry per capita. They play more word games. They memorise more song lyrics. They like to spell things creatively. And a high percentage are in fact learning a language in school. 

Nine years later, re-reading my report on Scott's speech, I marvel not only at how USEFUL the talk was for us writers targeting teen readers, but how RESPECTFUL Scott was of the way teens use language, presenting the manipulation of language into slang as something to be admired. That's the kind of author I want to be, I thought.

Which is why I propose we writers of young adult and teen novels should be more like Shakespeare. Check out this video from 2007 of master YA author John Green (one of my favourite John Green videos) teaching his readers how to insult each other like Shakespeare:

Wasn't Shakespeare the master at making up words?

MOIRA: Shakespeare is reported to have invented over 1700 words currently in use today. He did this by changing nouns to verbs, joining words, using prefixes and manipulating words from foreign languages. By using these simple techniques he invented words that were exciting, surprising and, because of their familiar roots, were also easily understood.

Advertising, amazement, luggage, eyeball, monumental, moonbeam, bloodstained, undress, besmirched, discordant. discontent, premeditation - all words attributed to Shakespeare!

Incidentally, Shakespeare may not have invented the word ‘selfie’ but he has been credited as inventing the Emoticon. According to the Fifth Columnist Blog, in the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays : ) follows right after the naming of a character called Sir Smile.

CANDY: I like what Scott Westerfeld says about young people having no fear of recreating language. I think of Scott whenever I meet a teacher complaining about the way young people talk today!

MOIRA: In the novel 1984, George Orwell, famously invented Newspeak. Wikipedia describes it as “a controlled language created by the totalitarian state as a tool to limit freedom of thought and concepts (such as freedom and peace) that pose a threat to the regime.”

It is interesting that few Newspeak words have evolved into today’s language except the word Newspeak itself which has become the generic term for attempts to restrict disapproved language by the powers that be. Sadly we see more and more examples of this every day. It is fascinating to note that the two concepts from 1984 that have entered into our world as TV programmes and subsequently our vocabulary are Big Brother and Room 101.

CANDY: I could feel the influence of 1984 in Ways of the Doomed.

MOIRA: Well, I took my own advice and put the mishmash of influences to test.

The land where Ways of the Doomed is set is called Esperaneo so of course I use a few words from Esperanto, the universal language constructed in 1887 that today has over 2,000,000 fluent speakers worldwide 4.

CANDY: Yup, Scott Westerfeld warns writers not to use new slang for teen stories. It gets old too quickly. His advice was: steal it from really far away. In Uglies, he appropriated the 18th century word 'bogus' as slang used by his dystopic teenagers to mean 'no good'.

MOIRA: The easiest language for me to use is Scots or rather the mash up of Scots words I inherited from my parents. My family are from the Scottish Borders but we moved to Fife, just north of Edinburgh, when I was small. It wasn’t until I went to school in Fife that I realised that not everyone spoke like us. Words like speeder (spider), rummelled (a cross between rolled and pummelled) were alien to Fifers. Oh how they laughed!

But many other pure Scots words are wonderful to use in English text because of their onomatopoeia qualities, not just sounds but feelings too. Words like boak (to be sick) and stoondin (throbbing).
I also made up words from foreign roots. The black marketers in Ways of the Doomed are called the Noiri (noir being French for black) and one communication device that is placed in the ear is a Tympan from tympanic membrane or eardrum.

CANDY:  What fun! Okay, that makes me want to quote from that Scott Westerfeld article again:

“Teens are saying: I care about language, I am having fun with language; (slang) is pure emphasis on the joy and expansiveness of language. And that’s a perfectly good reason for slang.” 
When I was reading Ways of the Doomed, I could certainly feel your joy in expanding the language! But we've also got the gatekeepers to think about, don't we? When editing was almost done on my last novel, Shine, my editor emailed me saying something like, "Hey, you've only got one swear word (is CR*P even a swear word?) - take it out and your book could get a younger reader or two." The word was not particularly important to the story so we took it out.

MOIRA: In YA novels there is a risk that the over-use of swear words could put off many vetoing parents and teachers. I was conscious if this while writing later drafts so I duplicated some blasphemous words with the names of planets instead of gods, but I found this unoriginal. Then I discovered the army acronym SNAFU (you can google the meaning!) and came up with the swear word snaf. It works in most situation when an expletive is needed.

The most fun I had was making words from consumer goods. We live in a consumer world, in a world where Google has become a verb and Apples don’t always crunch. In my world old men have Brillo-brows, skin can be Areo’d and foreheads can Pringle. Once started the possibilities become endless. I am well into the sequel and already new words are appearing like speeder’s web on a Noiri man’s wallet.

CANDY:  Thanks for guesting on Notes from the Slushpile, Moira. Congratulations on another promising book. I hope gazillions of readers buy it!

MOIRA MCPARTLIN made a big impact with her debut novel The Incomers, which tells the tale of a West African woman moving to a small town in 1960s Scotland. It was shortlisted for the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and was a critical success. Moira is also a prolific writer of short stories and poetry, which have been published in a wide variety of literary magazines. She has delivered workshops to a wide range of audiences including Shell Oil executives, teenage singles mothers, refugees and asylum seekers and young offenders at HMYOI Polmont. She currently lives in Stirlingshire. Ways of the Doomed is the first book in the Sun Song Trilogy. It was published in June 2015 by Saraband.


  1. Really interesting. So bold writers can create language. Is slang, then, pioneering language at the frontier? And what does that mean for all those purists who would conserve it within the confines of a rigid box?

    1. Language is always tricky. You don't know what will have staying power and what will immediately sound dated and uncool. It really does take courage to play with it!

    2. Language I'd always tricky. You don't know what will have staying power and what will immediately sound dated and uncool. It really does take courage to play with it!

  2. I do wonder if the guardians of language did sneer at and dismiss Shakespeare's inventive use of language. But the plays outlived them all, which is how the language survives to this day.

    1. Yes. I wonder if they did indeed sneer. When I lived in Israel, the self-appointed guardians of official Hebrew shook their heads in horror as the language rapidly evolved in response to mass immigration and the adoption of Arabic idioms. All fascinating stuff.

    2. But who are the "guardians of language"? Working, as I do, at Oxford Dictionaries, I've been fascinated to see the even-handed and descriptive approach that the editors take. Their job is not to dictate how language should be used but to chart how language
      is used by real people, and modern slang is very much a part of that. But some people will never see it that way - check out the comments on the definition of literally for evidence of that.

      P.S. The Oxford English Dictionary has 1911 as the earliest citation of the use of "smashing" that Moira mentions. But we always love to get an earlier date (or antedate) , so who knows!

    3. 1911? it's funny though that theory that it came from the US. Smashing sounds so English.

    4. Who are the guardians of language? Why, I guess teachers and parents ... I've had a lot of conversations with teachers in Asia registering their disapproval of the use of colloquial language in books (eg, in Singapore, some teachers complained that books in Singlish dialect should not be read by children still perfecting their English)

    5. The French are great guardians of their language. They have a committee. Rather than adopt a new English word or phrase they invent their own. For binge drinking they use "beuveries express" and "mot di├Ęse" (word sharp) for hashtag.

    6. I recently heard a teacher correcting a boy who said 'nuffink.'
      While children do need to know a standard written form of English for use in job applications, etc., we should not denigrate their dialects but celebrate diversity. After all, we don't all speak like BBC anchormen. By the way, in Israel, there's a quasi-governmental Academy of Language, charged with keeping the Hebrew language 'pure.'

    7. When I was a child in the Philippines, my teachers fined us five centavos if we used mixed Tagalog with our English by mistake. :(


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