Wankers, Burds, and Skag: Heteroglossia in Trainspotting


Mikhail Bakhtin, a twentieth century Russian philosopher and semiotician, was a theorist who worked heavily in literary theory, as well as the philosophy of language. One of his major concepts regarding the philosophy of language addresses the variations and dialects that occur in one single language. Heteroglossia revolves around the concept that multiple languages exist within one single language. Heteroglossia, according to Bakhtin, assists in helping the novel:

Orchestrate all its themes… the speeches of narrators, inserted genres, the speech of character are merely those fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia can enter the novel; each of them permits a multiplicity of social voices and a wide variety of links and interrelationships…These distinctive links and interrelationships between utterances and languages, this movement of the theme through different languages and speech types its dispersion into the rivulets and droplets of social heteroglossia, its dialogization—this is the basic distinguishing feature of the stylistics of the novel (Bakhtin 263.)

Heteroglossia is characterized by the concurrence of distinct assortment of languages under one, as Bakhtin calls it, “linguistic code.” British English, American English, and Scottish English all fall under the same “linguistic code,” namely English, but the variations in terminology, slang, and eventual spelling when translating spoken dialect to written language  make them quite disparate from one another. Bakhtin argues that a novel that employs various dialects achieves its power through the synchronicity and sporadic conflict between the voices of the author, narrator, and the speech of characters, both as a first person point of view as well as in conversation.  Quoting Bakhtin: “[heteroglossia is] another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (Bakhtin 324.)

There is perhaps no better novel to demonstrate the various elements of heteroglossia than Trainspotting, the 1993 novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh. Tracing the lives of various characters through their individual and sometimes varying points of view, the novel uses short stories and first person narration to weave together the main action of the novel: the work chronicles a group of heroin addicted twenty something Scottish citizens in the late nineteen eighties. The book succeeds in describing the “drug addled or otherwise marginalized and fearful characters in a manner that makes for a dissonantly vibrant expression of culture” (Carruthers 126.) The novel uses one interesting and distinct technique to effectively connect the reader to its characters: the novel is written entirely in a form of colloquial Scottish English, employing both phonetic spellings of words for an accented effect, as well as Scottish slang. Within this Scottish English are the voices of the individual characters and their own unique way of “speaking” through the phonetic Scottish accent spellings of their English. The “loose, episodic, observational nature of the novel” (Priestley 1) along with the employment of a several distinct dialects of English allows this novel to be examined quite extensively in terms of Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia. The language used in Trainspotting allows the novel and its central ideas—individualism, self awareness and responsibility for one’s self—“refract” the idea to the reader in a new light. By exercising  heteroglossia, Trainspotting achieves in what Bakhtin views as the main aim of the novel as a genre: to exploit the conflict between “voices,” between the author, narrator, and character, and thus exploit the reader’s reaction to the novel.

When the reader opens the novel to page one, the very first paragraph is quite jarring: “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.  Ah was jist sitting their, focusing oan the telly, tryin no tae notice the cunt.  He was bringing me doon.  Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video”  (Welsh 3.)  Immediately Welsh achieves a gut reaction, a feeling of uneasiness, from the reader— namely, confusion. What exactly is the speaker trying to say in these first few sentences of the novel? Though written in “English”, a glossary of terms is needed for quite a few of these words.   For a novel technically written in English to include a glossary of terms for readers is a testament to Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia, and is proof of Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia at work. Corresponding to the concepts central idea of a language existing within a language, the glossary at the conclusion of Trainspotting includes Scottish slang words such as “dosh,” (money) “skag,” (heroin) and “swedge” (bar fight), as well as explanations of the written Scottish accent, such as “broat,” (brought) and “eywis,” (always). Welsh manages to create his own language based on Scottish culture, representing to the reader both the personality and culture of the country and its people.  Without this unique language, much of the uniqueness of the novel would be lost. This language is what makes the novel what it is. The glossary also clarifies aspects of European culture as a whole specifically for the foreign reader, making sure to includeclarifications of popular locations, publications and other entities that may be unknown to the foreign reader.

The inclusion of the glossary can have both positive and negative effects on the American reader.  It can certainly draw the reader into the plot, characters and culture surrounding the action of the novel.  Like watching a film, “hearing” the characters voice brings the “listener” closer to the story. Negatively, it can deter the reader from picking up the novel to begin with, as to many reading a book with a glossary is simply more work than they are willing to undertakesimply for entertainment purposes. Including a glossary also significantly slows the rate of reading down, as flipping back and forth between the narrative and the glossary takes some time.  Take the following example from the narrative: “The Fit ay Leith Walk s really likes, mobbed oot man. It’s too hot for a fair-skinned punter, likesay, ken? Some cats thrive in the heat, but the likes ay me, ken, we jist cannae handle it. Too serve a gig man” (Welsh 119.) If the reader has never heard a Scottish accent before or is completely unfamiliar with Scottish and European slang, he would have to utilize the glossary for approximately twelve words. Trainspotting is three hundred forty four pages long, written in true Scottish vernacular and accent– it takes time and dedication to complete the novel. But perhaps the idea behind Welsh’s debut novel is that it should be an all encompassing experience– that without the time and patience that it takes to read Trainspotting, the nuance is lost. The language requires the reader to be patient with the narrative as well as the characters. The work would not be as effective without seemingly gibberish narration, but in realizing that his work would be nothing but gibberish without some clarification, a glossary was created. Like the language used in the novel, the glossary serves its purpose not only for basic understanding of the basic story line and characters, but for the reader’s emotional response to the novel, as the initial reaction to the language evokes intimidation. It also deepens the understanding of Scottish slang and culture, because as the novel progresses, the reader uses the glossary less and less, learning the unique language of Trainspotting as the novel reaches its climax.

Though the unique dialect of Trainspotting has a lasting effect on the reader, it is the combination of this language and the character traits that allow Welsh to exercise Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia and its related concepts. Spud, the narrator of several chapters and a main character in the story, lends comic relief to the novel, albeit in a twisted way. In fact, Spud constantly proves himself to be a parody of the stereotypical drug addict, complete with a fried brain.  In a scene in which Spud takes speed directly before an important job interview, he speaks in his unique dialect and written accent to demonstrate his character traits, as well as demonstrate the conflict between the different voices in the novel. The rate of “speech” is representative of Spud’s drug experience and thus is demonstrative of heteroglossia.

It’s cool man. Ah’m relaxed.  It’s jist that ah really want this job, likesay. Couldnae sleep last night though. Worried ah’d sortay blow it likesay, ken? Its jist when cats see ‘Craigroyston’ oan the form, they likesay think, well everybody thit went tae Craigie’s a waster, right?  Be eh, ye ken Scott Nisbet, the fitba player likesay?  He’s in the Huns…eh Rangers first team, haudin his ain against aw they expensive international signins ay Souness’s, ken? Hat cat wis the year below us at Craigie’s, man (Welsh 66.)

There is something likable in Spud’s seemingly nonsensical answer to a job interview question regarding employment discrimination, and though you want to condone him for ingesting speed before a job interview, his jocular, unique way of speaking preserves an agreeable quality in Spud’s character. He is a parody—Spud is comic relief. This is a key element regarding the novel as a genre to Bakhtin:

Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it.  Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it (Bahktin 23.)

Bakhtin would approve of Spud, for his character embodies what the novel as a genre needs in order to function—variety of voice and a sense of humor.

Spud’s is the hardest voice to decipher without a glossary, but it is also the most effective in portraying the character within the novel “express[ing] authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (Bakhtin 324.)   Because of the unique dialect involved in Spud’s character, his speech takes on many meanings.  Bakhtin would postulate that Spud and his speech is the perfect place to uncover meanings behind the novel.  The dialect of the characters in Trainspotting achieve in making the characters come to life, but Spud and his blubbering speeches make his particular stories stand out from the rest. There is something special about Spud, something genial and innocent about  him. Spud and his personal dialect achieve not only entertainment value, but symbolic meanings embedded in his speaking. In the story, Spud represents the child—even though he is as addicted to drugs as the other characters in the novel, he represents the innocent. Spud also offers a special point of view—through Spud readers get to experience drug use, and as a consequence of the language the reader feels that they themselves are on methamphetamine. Experiencing what goes on in the characters head in their dialect and accent allows the reader to fully involve themselves with the character. Bakhtin explains how he sees the point of view in a narrative as functioning: “The author manifests himself and his point of view not only his effect on the narrator, on his speech and his language (which are to one or another extent objectified, objects of display) but also in effect on the subject of the story—as a point of view that differs from the point of view from the narrator” (Bakhtin 314).  By being on paper, the words themselves become “objectified,” but the subject of the story, Spud in this case, jumps from the paper and into the readers head. The effect of the rushed speech of Spud transcends objectification, as though the words are deciphered and read, every reader will have his or her own experience on “written drugs.”

One of Spud’s best friends and the main character in the novel, Mark Renton “most frequently narrates events… he is the most articulate and arguably acts as the moral locus of the novel” (Priestley 1.)  His speech is also unique to his character, and while he may not as be as raw and entertaining as Spud, Renton could be considered an example of hybrid utterance, a concept within the theory of heteroglossia, but his speech as authoritative discourse, another concept, is debatable. describes hybridization as the “…mixing of accents and erasing the boundaries between authorial speech and the speech of others… the way characters overlap and infect each other…the main thing being how the  authorial context succeeds in exploiting the various means for replicating frames and re-stratifying them” (Bakhtin 320.) In one scene narrated by the main character, Renton describes an encounter with a drug rehabilitation therapist: “success and failure simply mean the satisfaction and frustration ay desire. Desire can either be predominately intrinsic, based oan oor individual drives, or extrinsic, primarily stimulated by advertising, or societal role models as presented through the media and popular culture” (Welsh 185.) Bakhtin describes authoritative discourse as something that cannot be “represented—it is only transmitted. Its inertia, its semantic finiteness and calcification, the degree to which it is hard-edged, a thing of its own right, the impermissibility of any free stylistic development in relation to it—all this renders the artistic representation of authoritative discourse impossible” (Bakhtin 344.) In other words, authoritative discourse is meant to be absorbed as didactic—the reader should be gleaning a lesson from Renton’s words. In the same scene involving the therapist, only employing three Scottish accented words, this short passage is relatively easy to understand, and it is almost informative in its tone.  But is this speech for the “listeners” benefit, or is it just another mode of expressing Renton’s character?  Renton wants to be taken seriously, but conversely it is not an effort for him to use such rich verbiage. It is because of this ease that Renton cannot be interpreted in any other way other than expressing how he feels about his situation as a heroin addict. Regurgitating the information he gleaned with his physiatrist is simply being expressed as his feelings—he is simply informing the reader in a fancy way that desire is the driving force for him in his life. If Renton is teaching the reader anything in this passage, it is about himself as a character. As Bakhtin puts it, authoritative discourse requires “that we make it our own; it binds us, quite independent of any power it might have to persuade us internally; we encounter it with its authority already fused to it”  (Bakhtin 342.) In this passage we are not persuaded by anything except the fact that Renton, though a heroin addict, portrays himself through his speech as an intelligent human being, and thus can be regarded as the most reliable of all narrators in the novel. The author writes Renton’s character using both complex, scholarly words along with Scottish colloquialisms and accents, an example of hybridization but not necessarily authorial discourse. Bahktin observes that the blending of languages, as demonstrated in this excerpt, is essential for the means of developing a unique heteroglossia. “The dialogic opposition of pure languages in a novel, when taken together with hybridization, is a powerful means for creating languages. The dialogic contrast of languages (but not of meanings within the limits of a single language), delineates the boundaries of languages, creates a feeling for these boundaries, compels one to sense physically the plastic forms of different languages” (Bakhtin 364.) According to Bahktin, combining hybrid discourse and dialogic opposition is the way to create a unique language. The didactic excerpt from Renton is demonstrative of this idea, but the chapter it is found in, “Searching for the Inner Man,” is an extreme example not of exact hybridization (as the hybrid utterance must be spoken by only one character) but of dialogic opposition. Even though two characters are carrying on the conversation, the combination of the two language types makes for a striking opposition of language. The chapter is an exchange between Renton and Dr. Forbes, the therapist assigned to Renton for means of rehabilitation. The conversation on paper reads as a tennis match between Renton’s unique dialect and Dr. Forbes slang free, “normal” speech:

Dr. Forbes: Mmmmm.  Can we go back to your brother, the one with the handicap. How did you feel about him?
Me: No really sure…look, the guy wis jist ootay it.  He wisnae their.  Totally paralysed.  Aw he’d dae wis tae sit in that chair wi his heid turned tae the side. Aw he could dae wis blink n swallow.  Sometimes he made wee noises…he wis like an object rather than a person….I suppose ah resented um whin ah wis younger.
Mr. Forbes:  So you felt a resentment towards your brother? …have you talked about these feelings before? (Welsh 183).

The conversation continues between Dr. Forbes and his basic, familiar English and Renton’s slang ridden accented Scottish dialect. By placing Renton’s unique speech side by side with Dr. Forbes plain, understandable language, Welsh succeeds in creating the image of Renton—an intelligent, yet troubled individual with a unique way of seeing life. The main drive of heteroglossia is to question authority, so how can our main character, the driving force through the novel, be considered authoritative? While Spud may be the most raw of the bunch, Renton is most complex and reasonable voice, and his language is comparative of the complexity of heteroglossia.

It is quite obvious that heteroglossia is alive and well and being practiced in Trainspotting, but what does this use of language do to the way the novel as a whole is interpreted? According to Grant Farred, “Trainspotting is the voice of the disaffected, postmodern, postindustrial Scottish junkie-as-critic who rejects the romance of his nation’s history in favor of a scathing attack  on Scotland’s historic anti-Englishness.” With the use of colloquial language and its sometimes harrowing situations, Trainspotting is a study of Scottish national angst—the dialect and accent used in the novel simply add to the postcolonial nature of the work. While the main characters of the novel are not rebelling against the typical colonial oppressors, they are rebelling against society, their surroundings, and themselves, as well as the dichotomy between the upper class Edinburgh and the nearby suburb of Leith. Trainspotting is postcolonial not because it directly examines textbook colonial oppression, but because it examines societal oppression of Scottish young adults born into a colony-like environment. The language used is so specific to the “Leith colony” that heteroglossia lets the reader figure out connections about Scottish society that would normally not be there without the extreme use of Scottish dialect and colloquialism. With the language in Trainspotting, the reader feels the angst rather than just reading about it. In one particular scene, Renton reflects to his friends on his place within the failed Scottish culture:

Fuckin failures in a country ay failures. It’s nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat. Ah hate the Scots.  (Welsh 78)

Self effacing and degrading not only to Scotland but to himself, this passage shows Renton’s desire to vacate his own post colonial personal hell. If this passage were translated to “plain” English, the idea would be there, but the passion and ferocity would be lost. Bakhtin states: “It is necessary that heteroglossia wash over a cultures awareness of itself and its language, penetrate to its core revitalize the primary language system, underlying its ideology and literature and deprive it of its naïve absence of conflict” (Bakhtin 368.) The heteroglossia in Trainspotting, and specifically this excerpt, show that the feelings of Scottish twenty-something’s “wash over” their culture. Though Renton and all his mates are not formally colonized by a major country, they were formerly colonized by their own personal colonizer and they use expressions that mirror this “colonization” along with heroin to escape this feeling of perceived imprisonment and eventual abandonment. To Renton and his mates, the “colonizer” at work could be their parents, their schools and institutions, or the justice system, but in any case, the characters in the novel are escaping some larger oppressor. The heteroglossia in the novel is merely one way to insert the reader into the dealings of a group of young adults looking for an identity. It is through heroin use that the characters manage to escape their drab lives, and it is through the varying dialects from character to character that the reader manages to escape from their lives into the work.

Though Trainspotting is mainly written as short stories from a first person point of view, there are breaks in the story where the narration switches to a straight forward accent free third person point of view. What does this do to the concept of heteroglossia in the novel?  It actually lets the heteroglossia shine, as when the story switches to third person; it removes the reader from the normal action. This language break from the usual slang and accent helps orchestrate one of the many themes of the novel: the battle between person and heroin. Take the earlier described scene in which Renton and Spud are preparing for the job interview. Broken up into stages, “preparation,” “process” sections for both Renton and Spud, and “review,” the chapter describes the characters experience whilst looking for a job. The only stage which features a third person narrator is “preparation.” “Spud and Renton were sitting in a pub in the Royal Mile. The pub aimed at an American theme-bar effect, but not too accurately; it was a madhouse of assorted bric-a-brac. ‘Fuckin weird man though, likesay, you n me gittin sent for the same joab, ken?’ Spud said, slurping at his Guinness” (Welsh 62). The third person narrator is devoid of accent, and is therefore devoid of any real emotion. It only acts as a frame for the heteroglossia. The “preparation” that Spud and Renton take part in is to ingest speed. Once the characters are under the influence, the language changes to solely Scottish accent and vernacular as the characters then narrate their own experiences in the job interview. The language is demonstrative of the physical and mental states of the characters and, and with the expository third person narration, the narrative manages to allow the reader to experience firsthand the effects of drugs on the main characters. The “plain English” allows the reader to compare side by side being “sober” and being “under the influence.” Thus the narrative succeeds in entering “the capacity of another language carrying its own particular points of view” (Bakhtin 287)—the view of a drug addict.

How does the experience of reading Trainspotting affect the non-Scottish reader? How does the heteroglossia of the novel affect the reader’s ideas of heroin addicts and the Scottish in general? The narrative is jarring and it intimidates the everyday reader to not only learn a new language, but to be absorbed into the lives of these addicts through the language. It is as if the reader is transported into the story because of the language. The difficulty also lies in Irvine Welsh’s ability to use the language to craft situations that are real and uncomfortable to the reader, including heroin overdoses and dead babies. Unpleasant without the Scottish accent, with the heteroglossia in the novel the vernacular employed fully absorbs the reader. According to Irvine Welsh, the novel would not have been the same without the unique “speech” of the characters, that the language is what makes Trainspotting effective.

Standard English is an imperial language. I wanted something with more rhythm, I actually tried to write Trainspotting in Standard English and it sounded ridiculous and pretentious. The vernacular is the language in which we live and think. And it sounds better, much more real…you can’t think of these things when you write or you’d be so self-conscious that you’d get nothing done” (Peddie 1.)

When it comes down to it, Trainspotting is effective because, as Welsh puts it, the language is “real,” the language is effective, and the language is a true reflection of the author’s artistic process. Bahktin would approve.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. 15th ed.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Print.

Carruthers, Gerald. “Fictions of Belonging: National Identity and the Novelin Ireland and Scotland.” A Companion to the British and Irish Novel: 1945-2000. 1st ed.. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print.

Ferrad, Grant. “Wankerdom: Trainspotting as a Rejection of the Postcolonial?.” South Atlantic Quarterly. 103.1 (2004): 215-226. Print.

McLeod, Lewis. “Life Among the Leith Plebs: Arseholes, Wankers, and Tourists in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.” Studies in the Literary Imagination. 41.1 (2008): 89-106. Print.

Peddie, Ian. “Speaking Welsh: Irvine Welsh in Conversation.” Scottish Studies Review. 8.1 130-39. Print.

Priestley, Brenton. “Trainspotting: Novel to Film.” (2002): n. pag. Web. 9 Dec 2009.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. 2nd ed.. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Welsh, Irvine. Trainspotting. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. Print.


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