The Role of Language in Roddy Doyle's "The Commitments"

Term Paper, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Dialogue as the driving force

3 Strategies
3.1 Use of vernacular instead of standard speech
3.2 Spelling
3.3 Vocabulary

4 Implications of the language used by the characters

5 Summary


1 Introduction

Roddy Doyle’s first novel The Commitments was published in 1987. The Commitments is the first literary work to portray the living conditions of the working class in Dublin in the 1980s (Ghassempur 2009, 17). Doyle has often been criticized for drawing a rather dark picture of the working class, although this had not been the author’s intention.

Doyle’s book, however, was by no means meant to be open criticism but rather a comic portrayal of Dublin and its people that, perhaps inevitably, provoked some sensitive reactions. (ibid.)

Together with his two subsequent novels The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) The Commitments is part of the so called Barrytown Trilogy all of which focus on middle-class family life in Dublin. Doyle won the Man Booker Prize in 1993 for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (BookBrowse 2012) and today is one of the literary stars of Ireland (Crown 2011). Moreover, he is said to be one of the greatest contemporary social analysts (Byrne/Coleman/King 2008, 269).

Doyle, who admits to love the English language and especially the way it is spoken in Dublin (O’Malley 2013), has also often been criticized for the language he uses in his writing (Keiler 2012). However, Doyle’s language not only plays a highly important role and helps to draw a detailed picture of the working-class characters (Powell 2004, 97), but also offers the reader something fresh and new in the literary scene.

Consequently, the aim of this paper is to have a closer look at language in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments in order to describe the strategies the author uses in terms of language to offer the readership a possibility to identify with the characters easily as well as to make the language appear authentic. These strategies affect almost all areas of language. Since dialogue is the driving force in The Commitments what in itself plays an important role, the language used in the novel is strongly oriented towards oral speech. Therefore, Doyle chooses to use vernacular rather than Standard English. Thus, in particular spelling and vocabulary tremendously differ from what readers normally expect to find in a novel. Moreover, the language used allows the reader to draw inferences about the characters. In the following I will discuss these characteristics by reference to selected examples and reason why and how they contribute to create authenticity and facilitate reader identification.

2 Dialogue as the driving force

In the so called Barrytown Trilogy Roddy Doyle first and foremost focuses on dialogue (Ghassempur 2009, 5). In particular, The Commitements use dialogue as the driving force. Therefore, relatively little descriptive text or authorial comment can be found in the novel. Since the novel consists of dialogue to a very high extent, the reader almost has the impression to hear the characters talking.

In an interview Doyle admits that he tried to keep The Commitments narrator-free and consciously only provided as bare as possible descriptions (Taylor 1999). Doyle himself states that, in his view, The Commitments does not make use of any narrator at all while others state that the novel has a third person omniscient narrator who uses the same language as the characters (O’Malley 2013). Even agreeing with the latter opinion, the fact remains that Doyle’s way of writing puts the reader very close to the characters. S/he might even have the impression to look over the characters’ shoulders and be only at a short distance to the plot. In consequence, it appears to be rather immediate (O’Malley 2013). This leads to the fact that the reader almost hears what the characters are talking and can identify with them more easily. Moreover, the absence of an omniscient narrator “leaves more room for self-interpretation since the narrator plays a minor role and does not interpret dialogues for the reader.” (Ghassempur 2009, 14) This can be observed in the following example.

There was a young guy who worked in the same shop as Jimmy. Declan Cuffe was his name. He seemed like a right prick, although Jimmy didn’t know him that well. Jimmy had heard him singing at the last year’s Christmas Do. Jimmy had just been out puking but he still remembered it, Declan Cuffe’s voice, a real deep growl that scraped against the throat and tongue on its way out. Jimmy would have loved a voice like it. (Doyle 1987, 11)

The example shows that the narrator, just as the characters, also uses “bad language” (here: prick, puking). The narrator only explains why Jimmy knows that Declan is a good singer and introduces the scene that follows where Jimmy talks Declan into the band. The narrator does not tell the reader anything that Jimmy would not know himself. The only insight into a character’s mind that can be found in this authorial comment is that Jimmy envies Declan for his voice. However, although such insights are rather rare throughout the novel some of them can be found.

More importantly, Doyle uses authorial comment to describe music and sound.

Then the horns started, the same note repeated (--- DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH) seven times and then James Brown began to sing. He sang like he spoke, a great voice that he seemed to be holding back, hanging onto because it was dangerous. The lads (in Jimmy’s bedroom) smiled at each other. […] Then there was a piano break and at the end of it James went: --- HUH. It was the best Huh they’d ever heard. Then the piano got going again. (Doyle 1987, 18)

Again, as with the dialogue, the description of music makes the reader almost hear what the characters hear. Since James Brown is very well known and had several international hits, almost every reader knows the song unconsciously hears it.

3 Strategies

3.1 Use of vernacular instead of standard speech

Non-standard language is typically a feature of spoken language rather than written language and, therefore, rarely occurs in literary texts (Ghassempur 2009, 1). Although often used in linguistics, the term “vernacular” is not clearly defined. It is often described as a variety that lies in between standard language and dialects. Although it contains certain regional elements, they cannot be found to such an extreme extent as in a dialect. Vernacular is usually used in informal, private situations and is not appropriate in official contexts (Bußmann 2002, 718). Thus, the use of vernacular in literary texts creates a private atmosphere in which the reader deals with the text and, consequently, facilitates reader identification. Moreover, informal dialogues such as in The Commitments are more trustworthy when written in vernacular since hardly anybody uses standard speech in private conversations.

Doyle chose not to have his characters use standard language. Instead, they accurately reproduce Dublin speech (O’Malley 2013). Thus, the characters can easily be identified as members of the working class. In addition, the use of vernacular makes the setting emerge automatically (Ghassempur 2009, 5). Based on the use of vernacular, the reader infers that s/he reads a novel which is located in a private setting. The informed reader who even knows which vernacular is chosen can even infer where the characters are from exactly, which social status they have, and so on. Consequently, there is little need for authorial descriptions. Doyle’s quote, which is taken from an interview he gave Caramine White (2001, 181 f.), puts the above discussed it in a nutshell:

I’ve always wanted to bring the books down closer and closer to the characters – to get myself, the narrator, out of it as much as I can. And one of the ways to do this is to use the language that the characters actually speak, to use the vernacular, and not ignoring the grammar, the formality of it, to bend it, to twist it, so you get a sense that you are hearing it, not reading it; that you are listening to the characters.

However, the language used in The Commitments cannot be classified as one of the traditional Irish dialects, which are much more conventionalized. Since the language in the novel is full of colloquial vocabulary and ignores standard spelling rules it represents a socially stigmatized register (Ghassempur 2009, 14). Although not mentioned explicitly in the novel (Doyle 1987, 11), it can be inferred that the plot is set in Dublin’s North. Moreover, at this point the protagonists identify themselves as belonging to the working class. This is certainly an explanation for the fact that the characters not only use vernacular, but also lots of swearwords (Ghassempur 2009, 5). Consequently, the vernacular used in The Commitments can be called “North Dublin working class vernacular”.

It is quite astonishing and rather untypical that even in the descriptive passages vernacular is used instead of Standard English. This leads to the creation of a very intense setting (Ghassempur 2009, 5 f.). Thus, the reader has the impression to be absorbed into the scene and to be an immediate spectator. Due to this, the setting seems real and authentic and the reader feels to be part of it which, again, facilitates reader identification.

3.2 Spelling

Doyle attempts to spell words in a way that they become almost a transcription of the vernacular used by the characters (Ghassempur 2009, 13). For the non-Irish and/or non-native reader the unusual spelling can make the text difficult to read. For me personally the first couple of pages were extremely hard to read and I had to read most sentences more than once. Only when I started to read the text out loud, it became easier and I got used to the unconventional spelling. As a consequence, I could hear the sound of the slang in my head when I went on reading the text silently.

The fact that all lyrics in the novel are written in capital letters makes it easy for the reader to distinguish what is said and what is sung. As a rule, capital letters are associated with screaming or shouting. Singing, in particular on stage, naturally is louder than normal speech. Therefore, what the reader automatically associates with a text written in capital letters is adequate for song lyrics and again makes the reader hear the song in his head as s/he feels to be part of an authentic scene.

In the following I want to briefly describe the major peculiarity in Doyle’s spelling: the dropping of final consonants.

- Am I wha’?
- In a group.
- Doin’ wha’?
- Singin’.
- Me! Singin’? Fuck off, will yeh.
- I heard yeh singin’, said Jimmy. – You were fuckin’ great.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Role of Language in Roddy Doyle's "The Commitments"
Klagenfurt University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Topics in Literature: Modern Irish Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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role, language, roddy, doyle, commitments
Quote paper
Bakk. MA Carmen Peresich (Author), 2014, The Role of Language in Roddy Doyle's "The Commitments", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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