>Eating Our Words


Before I go into how to make up an alien language that at least superficially makes sense, before I go into how to sprinkle this into your writing, let me explain why – for me at least – a little of this goes a long way.

To me – and this is perhaps a philosophy not many agree with – the language you use in a story should not be a barrier to the understanding of the story. The reader is not approaching your story with the burning desire to work hard, he’s approaching it for entertainment. A strange or intruding use of language must have enough value-added to pay for the extra trouble you’re giving the reader.

This is a very important thing with me, because – having learned English abroad, primarily in the British variant and in a classroom – the word that comes naturally to me is often the ten dollar word, not the twenty five cent one. So I fight it constantly.

Even in English, not going into invented, foreign or dialect type of expression, the “look at my humongous vocabulary” author tends to put me off, partly because I can see them strain to do what to me comes naturally and I fight. Now, there are some that don’t strain, and whose language does provide enough value-added to me, though the only one I can think of right now off the top of my head is Ray Bradbury.

Beyond being a speaker of English as a second language I – being the gift that keeps on giving – am hearing impaired. This means if you try to reproduce dialect on the page, you’re going to bring me to a screeching halt. There are entire bookshelves of authors of the picturesque/regional variety I can’t read. It would be like reading in an archaic language and working it out word for word. In earlier days – when I was merely a graduate student of English, having lived only one year in the US – a word in a Heinlein book popped me out of the story, because it required I pronounce it aloud to know what it was. The word was “purty.”

So, my feeling – mostly – on invented and foreign languages in writing is “don’t.” That said, I’ve seen it done very well and even I admit that particularly in sf/f giving your alien/different Earth characters or places a set of names that are linguistically cogent with each other is important. So I’ll go into that next time.

Meanwhile, what are your pet peeves on dialect use? Do you disagree with me? (It’s okay if you do, I left the hand-smacking ruler in Texas.) Are people like me such an outlier that the author shouldn’t worry about them?


  1. >Ve must have only ze right amount?Dorothy Sayers comes to mind as a writer who does not try to reproduce the various British accents. But she assume we're all properly educated and puts in French and Latin without even a hint.Dave Weber's Safehold series assumes reasonable language drift over 800 years of isolation with no recordings. And he just shows that in the names, not the dialogue. I can deal with it, but you're right, it is work. Tom quit. He found the first one on audiotape and enjoyed it, but he won't even try the rest in print. So you are not alone in being seriously bothered by oddities.From the other side, I'm trying to do something of the same. Multiple parallel worlds with drift from (mostly) English. I find it hideously difficult to be consistent. I'm thinking just mentioning, "Fast, with a tendency to soften final r's" verses "So slow he had trouble packing the words together enough to figure out the words." And not writing them out. Because I've tried to talk to some ol'Texas boys with Real Accents. Yow! I recall a gentleman met at the curb in the AM. It took the poor fellow three tries before I figured out that he was looking for his lost dog. Yall Ur Lay Ab just didn't get translated to yellow lab in my brain. I'll have to keep that in mind and be kind to my (hopefully future) readers.MataPam

  2. >Pam,You can also do a lot with cadence with no direct transcription. It's harder, I grant you, but you can. Take these:Look honey, ain’t nothing special about what I do. I wish there were. I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last southern girl whose mama taught her to pack her exorcism kit in her purse whenever she went out for a big date. You got your protection – in case he forgot – and your other protection all tucked into that little purse of yours, and you don’t admit to either because well, it is all about butter not melting in your mouth, ain’t it?and: My name is Hui and my surname is Fang. I was born in the year of the Fire Pig, at the time of the Quin Shi Huangdi Emperor, on the banks of the Yellow river, in a village of no significance.and: It was the moon after the harvest, the year of the great plague. Lyda, she who walks between worlds, she the daughter of the great king of the golden hair, the son of gods, spoke up and said, “I’ve appealed in the world of the gods for help, and a god of justice heard me. He shall raise our people from fear and shelter us from destruction.”

  3. >I'm with Sarah here – I try to get as much as possible in word choice and cadence. Of course, since I speak American as a second language, being a native Orstrayan, I do have to stop and think sometimes.

  4. >I think you hit the nail on the head, Sarah. Some of the best stories I've read are the ones where the language gets out of the way and lets the story shine through. Good prose, whether flowery or workmanlike, always compliments a story — it should never overshadow.I think of language in a story they way I think of background music in a movie; it should stay in the background. If it overpowers the dialog and the sound effects, or doesn't jive with what's happening on screen (upbeat music during a tragic scene, slow and soothing during an action scene), it takes away from the rest of the movie and ruins the experience for the audience.

  5. >Robert,Exactly, the prose should fit the story not be a flag put in "Look, mr. Reviewer, I know lots of words" THAT causes book to take flying lessons. Wheee.

  6. >That's in the same league as the "literal" version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" that Sarah linked to on her blog a few months ago.Classic! 😀

  7. >Jim once made a comment to me that foreign dialects/accents were best kept to a few repeated words, so as not to slow the reader down.

  8. >Oh, I'm up to it. It's just Milehi. No travel. But I'd best answer soon and keep it to a couple of panels over two days. And I might not be THERE the whole time. Just some of it, the rest being spent at places like the Natural History Museum… ;)BTW, the artist GOH at Mile Hi is fabulous.

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