Thursday, April 14, 2016

L is for Language and Dialect

If your story is set in a foreign land, or your characters visit another country, the inhabitants of that country will probably be speaking another language. To provide authenticity, authors often sprinkle dialogue with a foreign word or phrase, or attempt to use the local dialect. And when it comes to writing fantasy or science fiction, or sometimes paranormal or urban fantasy, you may even wish to invent your own language.

An invented language can be a good tool for exposing the traits of a culture. Different languages not only sound different, but they feel different. They shape ideas differently. They are also shaped by their environments. The way a language works can help illustrate the thought processes of the people who speak it.

Keep a list of invented words. It’s all too easy to forget how you spelled something you made up. If you keep this list in alphabetical order, you can use it as a glossary later. When you add a word to your list, don’t forget to add it to your word-processing program’s dictionary. This will ensure your spell check keeps you on track.

When using an invented language, a word or two here and there is far more effective than whole paragraphs. An entire sentence will need translating; a word or two can be put in context so that the reader can quickly figure out the meaning.

Dialects can also be effective, but you need to be careful, if dialect is used incorrectly it can ruin the story.

Here are a few tips when using dialects:

Try not to stereotype. Not everyone from the South uses “Y’all”, not every Canadian says “eh?”, and not every teenager uses slang.

Make sure when you use regional speech patterns and accents that you’re accurate and consistent. Don’t have your cowboy suddenly sound like he’s from England.

If possible, try to listen to people with the accents and speech patterns you wish to use so you can learn what sounds authentic and what doesn’t. It would be even better if you can actually have a conversation with them.

Try to make sure you’re using the right terminology for the dialect you’re using. There are many regions and subcultures, all with their own slang. To Americans, chips are a snack food that comes in bags and a boot is something to wear on your foot. But in England, chips are julienned, deep fried potatoes and a boot is the part of the car to put your luggage in.

Dialects for historical and foreign characters can be even trickier. A few writers will use a complete sentence in a foreign language followed by a translation, but that can seem a little unwieldy. Smaller words or phrases, such as “Ach!” “Mon ami,” “Cara mia,” etc. can be just as effective when scattered through the dialogue and don’t need translating.

If you're thinking of using a made up language of your own and don't know how to get started, I recommend checking out some of these made up languages:
Learn Klingon at the Klingon Language Institute
The language from the movie Avatar is Na'vi
If you're a Lord of the Rings fan, you can learn to speak Elvish
Star Wars fans can learn to speak Ewokese
Game of Thrones fans can learn to speak Dothraki

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great advice - you really do have to keep track of things carefully when writing a novel. Not just made up words and world features but even relationships among characters, action, etc. I can't imagine trying to write characters that speak in dialect. I'm sure I'd get it all wrong.