Narrative Form and English Dialect in Once Were Warriors

Irene Tung '00 English 27, 1997

In an attempt to embody the Maori spirit within literary text, Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors utilizes stream-of-consciousness narration, and his roving first-person narrators and their internal monologues create a voice intricately bound to the modification of the English language that occurs throughout the text. He omits using quotation marks for dialogue, as if the plot were occurring within a given character's head, with internal commentary interjecting all dialogue, action, and most description. This form breaks out of traditional Western standards for narrative format, perhaps as an attempt to embody the Maori carefree living in contrast to Pakeha rigid normativity.

Overall, this technique attempts to portray a vivid picture of the lives and moment-to-moment thoughts of the characters. Duff creates an atmosphere, a gritty kind of reality in an attempt to give voice to those who are not often well-represented in written text. In addition, this style puts the reader squarely in the present, thus conveying the ahistoricality of Maori life.

The actual modification of English occurs on two levels. First, Duff changes approximating pronunciation of words, for example by dropping "g"s in words ending in "ing". Second, also uses colloquialisms in grammar, diction and syntax and incorporates slang and obscenities. Visually, at any given page, the text is atypical, with the interspersal of sound-effects such as HAHAHAHAHA and YEOW, in capital letters, and the lack of separated-out dialogue. In addition he use words such as "enuff" (189), which is pronounced "enough".

The existence of an elusive narrator's voice, which refers to characters in third person in the midst of their internal monologues, also complicates matters. In addition, Duff interweaves snatches of standard spellings into the melee without a clearly discernable logic, such as in the following passage. "People doing scenes all over. All ov-ah. As though last throes, lst-minute acts before the curtain fell; or to complete something, satisfy sumpthin." (66) One of the themes of the book is the missing Maori language and the ability of characters such as Jake to communicate only physically, but not verbally. Jake says at one point in the bar, "a Man could see this. But he couldn't put words to it." (66) Jake must rely on the physical as a means of communication because he doesn't have a Maori language. At one point, he expresses his discomfort at the use of Maori language by the elders.

When Beth takes it into her hands to organize communal gatherings, Duff stages a marriage of the linguistic and the physical:

Their warrior ancestors were taught chants to gain strength from before them the English translation. . .and they hammered and labored and their chief sang this ancient war chant in the language of its origin. And even out there, in the wide open of the land an the vast expanse of blue sky up there, it seemed to be coming (messaging) down from yonder hilltops.

In The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro does a more graceful job in rendering an internal voice of the character onto the written page. For an American audience who in all probability has never heard the "authentic" Maori manner of speaking, this sort of approximation is not useful, and is perhaps distorting. For a New Zealander, perhaps the adaptation is unnecessary. Duff is not representing his own speech, but approximating the speech of another, which may be equally problematic. Achebe's use of pidgen English was more effective, perhaps in its limitedness.

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