Dialect and Diversity

In the middle of the last century, the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called attention to voices used creatively by writers. 'Diversity of speech', he wrote, 'is the ground of style', and commenting particularly of the novel: 'For the prose artist the world is full of other people's words, among which he must orient himself and whose speech characteristics he must be able to perceive with a very keen ear' (Bakhtin, 1984:200-1). In his book After Bakhtin, David Lodge, himself a prolific novelist, draws attention to this feature in the novels of Dickens, George Eliot and D.H.Lawrence.

But the uses of voice don't confine themselves only to fiction. In our time poetry has also widened its appeal by developing its range of speaking voices, tones, registers, accents, slang expressions. Writing in all its creative forms no longer limits itself to the voice of one dominant authority, or to a form of address by a single speaker; that is, white, middle-class, educated British-American. Writing as art is now practised by people from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, representing differences of age, gender and sexuality. All these voices are actively sought by audiences and readers whose numbers reflect a similar range of culture and experience.

When it comes to the question of how much or how little we know about other people, it is hardly surprising that voices provide one of the first signals of difference or similarity. We might indeed remember a voice more than a name or face. City neighbourhoods often consist of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Living on the same staircase as an Asian family, the Scottish poet Liz Lochhead wonders about the mother's position in terms of her speech and location. Spoken language can differ between generations in the same household: 'How does she feel? / her children grow up with foreign accents, / swearing in fluent Glaswegian' ('Something I'm Not', in Crawford and Imlah, eds, 2000:505). In a radio play by Benjamin Zephaniah, a young boy with a natural-born English Midlands accent wonders about his father's black Caribbean preacher-voice holding forth in a manner astonishing to him—one is obsessed with football, the other with the Bible.

In his poem 'The Shout', Simon Armitage describes how he and another boy at school were testing 'the range of the human voice'. How far does a voice carry? was the question they asked themselves:

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