The etymology of the term colloquialism can be traced to the Latin word colloqui, which in turn is derived from the words com meaning 'with' and loqui meaning 'conversation'. The phrase is used to refer to language that is normally used in casual conversation. Authors and playwrights often use colloquial language while writing, and therefore you may often come across instances of colloquialism in novels and plays. From the works of the Bronte sisters to the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, most famous works in literature are found to be dotted with slang terms that are associated with periods that they were written in. Why do they use these terms, what is the effect they seek, and which are the examples that elucidate the concept the best? Our article tells you everything that you need to know.
Why do Authors use Colloquialism?
When you read a novel, a play, a short story, or any other form of literature, you are bound to recognize certain literary techniques that the writer has used. While most authors introduce figures of speech deliberately as a method of enhancing their work, colloquialism is something that generally tends to creep in. Authors tend to use the language that they are most comfortable with (unless their work demands otherwise). Every writer is influenced by the place he belongs to, the way people around him speak, and the phrases that are used by them. It is in such a scenario that colloquialism is often intertwined in the language of the literary work. There are many authors who use colloquialism deliberately to imbue a sense of reality and to render their work a contemporary touch.
Purists may scoff at the idea of using everyday language in literature, but there is a sense of realism that slang and colloquial terms impart. If you trace the history of use of the vernacular and colloquial in literature, you will learn how Shakespeare used slang in his work so that it would strike a chord with not only the courtiers but also with the masses. Colloquial language served to open up the world of literature to all.
Critics argue that in modern literature though, colloquialism has often been used to exclude instead of include. This may be true in some cases where the use of language serves no purpose except to make it less accessible and understandable only to people from certain sections of the society. But there are several modern literary gems that use the vernacular to repel and attract the reader at the same time; cases in point being works like Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange, The Catcher in The Rye, etc. All these novels use conversations between characters to convey to the reader where the character comes from and to reinforce the setting. Dialogs with colloquial phrases often have a more far-reaching effect as compared to those written in pure English that may be difficult to understand for some. These dialogs are often responsible for the depth of the novel and also for creating a connection between the reader and the characters.
Using colloquial language and slang in literary works can have a great impact, and the examples given in this article will help you understand how colloquialism can enhance your reading experience.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852
Excerpt: "If I must be sold, or all the people on the place, and everything go to rack, why, let me be sold. I s'pose I can b'ar it as well as any on 'em."
Why the Language Works: The novel is widely regarded as a seminal work in anti-slavery literature. Some critics also call it the book that laid the foundation for the Civil War. The language and tone used in the novel made it a snapshot of the times that it was set in. This was because the terms and dialogs that were used, and the stereotypes presented were all a reflection of the situation in America then. The language used by each character mirrored how actual people of different social stations spoke. This was a marked departure from the prevalent use of language in literature.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1885Excerpt: "I didn't want to go back no more. I had stopped cussing, because the widow didn't like it; but now I took to it again because pap hadn't no objections... But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick'ry, and I could't stand it. I was all over with welts. He got to going away so much, too, and locking me in. Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome."
Why the Language Works: This book is heralded as one of the first works in mainstream American literature that was written in the vernacular. It paved the path for other writers. The use of language in the novel was such that it established a sense of freedom and ease. The rhythms of talking were maintained by creating word groups and ensuring that sentences were simple and direct. The novel was responsible for breaking the mindset that literature had to be written in a flamboyant manner. It made literature more all-encompassing.
The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger, 1951Excerpt: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
Why the Language Works: The novel is full of colloquially used idioms that work contextually. Without these idioms and slang, the complete effect of the novel would be lost. The writing style of the novel was so informal that it struck a chord with a large majority of the populace. Of course, with the offensive language that was strewn across, it did raise quite a few eyebrows. However, it was its language that primarily made the novel a definitive coming-of-age work.
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, 1993Excerpt: "Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae's behaviour is outside its mainstream. Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah'm gaunnae huv a short life, am ah sound mind, ectetera, ectetera, but still want tae use smack? They won't let ye dae it. They won't let ye dae it, because it's seen as a sign ay thir ain failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whut they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye've produced. Choose life. Well, ah choose no tae choose life."
Why the Language Works: The language works in the book because the author mainly talks about the absence of a sense of identity and true patriotism in Scotland. While it takes time to get used to the rhythm of the book, the Scottish influence gives the book a lilting tone that makes it almost poetic to read. The dialog of the book makes it what it is and it comes with a glossary that translates the words and colloquialisms used in the book.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960Excerpt: "So it took an eight-year-old child to bring 'em to their senses.... That proves something - that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they're still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children."
Why the Language Works: The style of the novel is majorly informal and colloquial. The main reason for this is that the narrator of the story is a six year old girl whose father is the protagonist of the story. In no way does the language compromise on the quality though. In a novel that focuses on racial discrimination, colloquialism serves to reveal the distinction caused by educational and societal differences. It also helps emphasize every character's distinctive behavior and their attitude to different issues highlighted in the novel.
Boxy an Star, Daren King, 1999Excerpt: "We me an Star are waitin for Boxy his head. Waitin standin in the fone box in the station of Wolfer Humpton holdin the letter what we have tapped in the number from. Tappin the number what Boxy had typed on the letter. Tappin it in on the fone pad. Tappin it makin Boxy come on the screen of the fone makin on the screen of the fone his head."
Why the Language Works: Boxy an Star caused quite a stir in the literary world when first published. Set in an undefined time in the future, the language is hypnotic and disturbing in equal measure. Unrefined yet effective, slangy yet proper, the novel can in no way be separated from the language used, and that is the effect of the colloquialism used. The words used express the directness, brevity, honesty and childlike effect that the characters stand for. Boxy an Star is a prime example of colloquialism in a book can affect the way people talk.
These are just some of the many examples of literary works that use colloquialism in good measure. Language is the starting point for any piece of literature and if it is not effective, then the reader is likely to take nothing from it. Using language that is grandiose may work in some cases, but it is the colloquial that forges a strong connection with your reader.