I started reading a book not that long ago, and two things sort of reached out and grabbed me while I was reading. One was a failure in foreshadowing, and once I got over my initial WTH? reaction, I was ok with it. The other… was very subtle, and one I can see in many books. 

The main character in this book is supposed to be a barely-above-teens gang kid (on another planet, true) who lives in a ‘nest’ a house in a city where it’s sort of post-apocalyptic… Anyway. He talks like a well-educated middle-aged man. The internal dialogue rambles on about his inexperience and naivety, but that he’s even self-aware of it, let alone talks so very well – it’s cogntive dissonance, I realized thanks to another book I’d read while taking a break from this one. 

Linguistics, a field in which I have only dabbled, but Sarah has promised to come heckle me about, can tell a lot about a person. For instance, I can tell a lot about someone from their facebook postings. I can tell in a private chat if a friend is in pain or distress from their word choices. I suspect if you focused on it, you would realize you can do the same. 

In text-based communication, you don’t have body language to rely on, and whether we realize it or not, most of us (even the socially oblivious) read another person like a book during a conversation. Some people are very good at it. I’ve never been formally trained in cold reading, but I sat through a lot of material on it while my ex was. It’s… fascinating. 

However, on the pages of a book we rely on the words. And a half-educated (at best) kid is not going to use the same words, or string a sentence together neatly. It’s easier to simply write without contemplating the semantics of a world that doesn’t exist, but a little bit goes a long way. On the other hand, you don’t want to be writing in a lexicon that means you need a massive glossary for your readers. 

The judicious use of a few made-up words, some mangled dialogue, and perhaps the removal of internal dialogue to third-person narration would have made my experience with this book a lot easier, wrapping my head around the character. And maybe have him do a ‘quick-learning’ session that we all know and love from classic SF. I know I could use those right now, as the semester is coming on like a frieght train. 

I’m keeping this short today, I need to go watch Spanish videos (slow learning!) and amuse myself with how much literal translation of Spanish to English sounds like Yoda-speak. Which reminds me, an excellent example of the use of linguistics to convey character backgrounds would be either Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. No, don’t ask why one thing led to another… my brain is leaping around like a grasshopper on a hot skillet today. 


  1. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway used a brilliant technique for the Spanish speakers. He took some cognates and some close approximations to render the Spanish in English, and if you knew Spanish you could see it. The one I remember best was someone speaking of being “molested” by something, but just meaning “bothered” or “disturbed.” From molestar.

  2. Such things add distinction to your character’s voice. A long time ago I did this in a story (unfinished fanfiction) where I must have been juggling 16 or so different characters for a couple of chapters- each with their own individual speaking styles and quirks (including a character who had what seemed to the rest of the cast a very stilted and overly formal mode of speech on account of his interactions with humans being rather drastically out of date by several hundred years.) I’m not sure I could do it again, honestly; it was an exercise in schizophrenia, although my readers were very appreciative about it.

    I still occasionally get told it is very well written, though by my standards now I would have done a few things very differently.

  3. IIRC one of Sherlock Holmes most famous stories starts with Holmes catching a native German-speaker’s grammar slip – the primary verb was at the end of the sentence. Again, subtle but if it happens often enough, it’s a definite tell.

  4. I’ve never been formally trained in cold reading, but I sat through a lot of material on it while my ex was. It’s… fascinating.

    *mischief* Never stops folks online from telling me all about myself, things that I never new– and some of them quite shocking, like that I’m an elderly male! *grin* That said, I notice that when I’m being careful, my vocabulary inflates. I use a lot of big words– because I’m trying to reach a very specific meaning. This can mean that I’m angry, or that I think the topic is delicate, or it’s important, or that I think someone who’s reading will be interested.

    Example of linguistic things that became a trope: the “doesn’t use contractions” thing made famous by Worf and Data. It’s amusing to realize that my kids do use contractions, including the two year old making up the word “Willn’t.” As in, “I willn’t do that, mom! Pwomice!”

    1. *sigh* You wanna know something sad? I was in a random party once some years back, and one of the players there suddenly said to me, “You’re not a real girl, you’re a guy.” The person in question had just spent the last half hour bitching about her boyfriend, and I’d stopped interacting except to relay instructions or info. I asked her why she thought that. She said it’s because I typed whole sentences and used ‘big words.’

      The party leader kicked her shortly afterward, stating that anyone that stupid was likely to get us killed very, very quickly.

            1. I think the issue is that folks don’t draw a distinction between “using big words for an exact meaning” and “using big words to sound important”?

              Kinda goes with the conversation I’m sure we’ve all had variations on, where folks say something, and when you point out that it’s something only vaguely related they throw a fit? (Even if you didn’t use the Inigo Montoya quote.)

              1. Except in this case the ‘big words’ being used were more in reference to my not using shortcuts to further shorten my sentences somehow. Oh and proper spelling. e_e

                Something to the effect of:

                (other player in party) “So what weapon/SA (special ability) do you guys think I should upgrade to?” (let’s pretend the person asking is a dagger class)

                Me: I heard that Dynasty Light w/ level 2 pads and Dynasty dagger with the Crit SA is popular.

                Dagger: Ooh, is that expensive?

                Me: Can be, it depends on the market. You might get lucky crafting. Hey that group over there is a cluster, be careful in pulling it.

                Dagger: k.

                (crazy person talking to another player in party): N he nvr calld me back, he sux he promisd 2! (suddenly addresses me) Ur a liar ur nt a grl, your a guy.

                party: wtf?

                (The conversation about gear is a common one and probably close, and I couldn’t hope to try mimic that girl’s method of communication, such as it were…)

          1. I found out later on that ‘using big words and full sentences online’ was ‘mansplaining.’ My response was ‘what the -insert string of expletives- is “mansplaining’?!’ I’d never heard of it before.

            Several of the women I play with found that ‘reasoning’ also incredibly stupid. You cannot role play using txtspk.

  5. Funny you say that. I’ve had readers tell me I’m a female from what I write before. So while I love Linguistics (Have to, having learned 6 languages, 2 of them long dead), I can honestly say the tells are not an absolute. 😉

  6. Great piece – linguistics and sentence structure are so often overlooked by writers of all levels, who often seem to think that apostrophes, phonetic misspellings, and a sprinkling of foreign or idiomatic words will do all that’s necessary to set dialog apart.

    It won’t. Dialog is an art that requires lifelong study and attention.

  7. I still recall when Mistress first came out, one reviewer was highly critical of the book, couldn’t believe Heinlein’s poor command of english or how it possibly got past a competent editor.
    Great review, convinced me beyond any doubt whatsoever that the reviewer was a bigoted fool with an anti Heinlein agenda, and that I could ignore anything he wrote from that day forward.

    1. Lol. Maybe he just wasn’t very smart. I was 13 when I found Mistress (an Air Force base dumped its library on the missionary school I attended in Northern Thailand), and I understood what Heinlein was doing–even though 13 is not one’s smartest age.

  8. That’s something I probably messed up a bit in “Necessity”, Because I don’t do a LOT of first person writing. I tried to give her a few speech patterns but my vocabulary showed up a lot, even though she distinctly didn’t know a few words that led to misunderstandings (Astute, and Bureaucracy).

  9. I still believe the great orators should be required reading for writers, because they put into (spoken) words anything from the key issues of the day to the most trifling matters, and did it elegantly and with exquisite grace. My favorite example remains Winston Churchill, because we have recordings of so many of his speeches. His command of the language was superb. Witness his summons to battle in 1940:

    Where shall we find his like today?

      1. Everybody used to study the great orators in school, both by reading and by doing recitations from their great speeches. We really miss out these days by segregating recitations to speech teams and theater classes.

    1. YES. Some of my favorite writers were known for their oration craft. (St. Augustine, Cato, (heck soooo many of the great Greeks and Romans!) That is why rhetoric is SO important. What is spoken is close cousins with what is written.

    1. Babel-17 and Languages of Pao … one of them gets some crucial terms exactly opposite. And I read it right before a test for Linguistics class.

      Man, there’s no disillusionment like learning you can’t trust sf writers to teach you science anymore.

      1. > Man, there’s no disillusionment like learning you can’t trust sf writers to teach you science anymore.

        I used to read Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Niven and such with a dictionary nearby. Sort of like Wikipedia but not. I learned a lot that way.

        This is such a sad discovery to make about SF- it’s not really all that S anymore.

        1. One of the reasons for the current popularity of steampunk. It’s a lot easier for a lazy writer to boldly predict the latest gosh-wow advances . . . in 19th-century science!

  10. I’m reading a book that was written by a person whose first language is Spanish. For the book it makes sense, because all the people involved are speaking Spanish. They even pick up that a spanish speaker in the 16th Century would speak differently than one speaking in the 1960’s (which is yet again different from a modern speaker. It’s pretty awesome when you can pick that up in they way he writes ENGLISH!) Also, the writer is clearly gifted writer of English, too. But I swear I can still tell that they learned Spanish first, as artistically nuanced as the descriptions are. OTOH, I didn’t notice Sarah was not a native speaker until I learned about it first, then went looking for it.

  11. Oh. I know we’re past the statute of limitations on blog responses, but for some reason I happened to think of Null-A, and General Semantics. A. E. van Vogt? World of Null-A.

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