Say it again, louder

We always keep things that work perfectly. That is why despite all this progressive nonsense, all people everywhere, young and old, conservative or left-wing, still deal with uncomprehending foreigners in the same, time-honored fashion.

They say the same thing again, only louder and slowly.

No, really, they must be doing it because it works.

er. Not.

Of course they just don’t have it completely right. Like socialism… despite failing every time – it would work if  did it right. Barbara’s Grandmother (whose home language was English, but, typical of South African rural land-owners of her time and place, had grown up with farm workers who didn’t speak English) actually had the perfect answer (which I am sure would transfer perfectly as a method of making socialism work the next time). When confronted with Italians or Frenchmen looking at her in puzzlement as she said it again, louder, in English… she would then do the same again, but in Zulu.

This OF COURSE worked perfectly. Zulu, which has even less in common with French or Italian (like nothing, barring a few loanwords… via English or Afrikaans) would naturally be more intelligible. I am sure you can see how well that would work for socialism, next time.

It’s nearly as brilliant as the ‘sounds like’ method of comprehending foreign languages. The delightful tale of the non-Zulu speaking lady-of-the-house walking around her pride-and-joy garden with the new gardener, instructing him on what needed weeding and what didn’t. Communication was not going well, even with the best will in the world and increasing the volume, saying it slower. Finally, the puzzled gardener looking at something that plainly was inedible and terrible grazing – full of thorns and no recognizable fruit (AKA ‘A rose’) asked her if he should ‘Khipha* lo?’ * (pronounced, more-or-less ‘keepa’)

Well, it sounded right, and so the lady was able to go around her cherished garden, telling the earnest young gardener just what to ‘keepa’.

As you can imagine this exercise in ‘sounds like’ worked out very happily. It’s the kind of thing that I can highly recommend with dealing with incomprehensible foreigners. Especially heavily armed policemen or suspicious looking customs officers. I’m sure it will work just as well as this did!

So what the hades does this all have to do with the business end of this blog: writing… I mean besides giving you some choice examples of why babelfish might start more and bloodier wars, but at least keeps the volume and repetitions down?

Well, those of you who have been asked to critique in writers’ groups may possibly already have worked this one out – because there is always at least one of these in any writers’ group. It is our natural way of dealing with puzzlement (or total incomprehension) from the reader of our prose. It’s natural… and about as useful as panic, which is also instinctive and natural. That is to say, it may, occasionally solve the problem (running, screaming or hiding are often the logical thing to do, even if they are also normally not inspired by logic) – but can also make the mess you’re in MUCH worse, or do nothing for it.

If the reader doesn’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to say (or achieve)… it’s not that they’re stupid, and that repeating it louder and louder (a typical feature of most SJW message fiction. Trust me on this: I’m not going to suddenly ‘get it’ if you say it louder for the 200th time in a book. If I thought it nonsense the first time my opinion is not changed by endless identical repetition. ) Of course you can always try saying it Zulu instead. It may make more sense to a few readers – but generally speaking this not a winning formula.

So what is? (And I speak here with experience, and with limited skill at getting myself out of this mess). Firstly (and this is hard) try and speak the ‘language’ of the audience you’re writing for. There is more to that than merely ‘English or French or Zulu’. Even within a linguistic group we’re a massively fractured audience – both in what the reader understands and knows and what the author understands and knows. To take an extreme example – Two mathematicians would have a reasonable chance of following the other when talking about Math – or in fact if one talked about Gender Studies to the other (I can imagine the conversation right now. “So you see dude, they say there’s like 23 Genders.” “Uh. Like xx = xy-y+x…” ‘More like add another 21 axes…’). Two Gender Studies students would probably understand each other (one hopes) if the one was pontificating about their subject… or some bizarre reason about Math. But we’d rapidly be into louder and repeat if we had Gender Studies student talking about her subject to Math student – and vice versa. It could move into the ‘khipha’ zone if either the Gender Studies student was trying to talk Math to the Math student or vice versa. (The mental images of this lot beg for story, don’t you think?)

It’s seldom quite that extreme – ok, I take that back, thinking about it. Put it this way, it’s more likely to genuinely popular and successful if the target audience understand it. So if your target audience for instance are modern NY metrosexuals – the typical NYC editor for example — and you’re writing a high fantasy and you too are a NYC resident to whom horses and agriculture are as alien as Klingons, you’re golden. Of course when your book gets out into rural middle-of-nowhere, they’ll laugh at you. If you’re someone who has mucked out stables and tried to grow and raise your own food…

You’re left with a problem if this is important to your sales. Seriously, because our experience varies so much, and there is a natural tendency to write about what you do know (it’s good advice, often given – but it has this weakness) this is a widespread problem. When someone test reading your work – or you’ve given it to a crit group and you start getting ‘I don’t get this’ – to what to you seems plain and clear English, there is a reasonable possibility you could be dealing with this. Saying the same thing, slower and louder… isn’t going to help.

You could toss it.

You could realize it’s just not for this audience.

Or you could fall back on redoing it… not louder, but with suitable mime. Yes, I mean exactly what I say there. Mime is action ‘show’ often filling in or replacing speech. And, of course it crosses language barriers quite effectively. Ok it can sometimes get your roses dug up or you arrested because you really didn’t know that gesture meant that to a different culture… but as general principal, if the reader doesn’t get it – that’s where you should go. Show at least some of what you’re trying to say. The reader will often extrapolate from there.

It’s that, or say it loudly, in Zulu, and hope that works.

*Take out


  1. *chuckle* I remember once, a long time ago, shortly after my brothers returned to the Philippines after living in France for several years. Their English was fine; but they ran into issues with idiom – especially my youngest brother, who was grumbling about the general inaccuracy of Filipino to English/ English to Filipino translations and dictionaries – they were bad enough that often he couldn’t deduce the meaning of words or whole paragraphs… from the rest of the page.

    “They need to be more precis.

    And yes, he said the last word in French.

    I still can’t hear myself as ‘wrong’ when I occasionally slip into what my husband calls ‘German grammar.’ Apparently it sounds wrong to both himself and Housemate, but it’s something I can’t recognize.

  2. Second attempts, of course:

    The Progressives tend to borrow a page from Goebbels and repeat the Big Lie of the day.

    Having a Southern US accent, I tend to repeat the same words, but more carefully enunciated. But it seems that the most common reaction to “Huh?” is to say it again, louder, because we more often run into it with those who have trouble hearing anything at all.

    OTOH, working with the public, you struggle to find that common ground by changing terminology. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

    In writing, i look at a failure to convey what I wanted to the reader as a failure on my part – usually. Sometimes you do run into someone so clueless that they couldn’t pour a certain bodily fluid out of their boot if the instructions were on the heel, but not all that often. When a beta reader takes something completely different away from the story, or doesn’t see what I think is obvious, that’s my failing. OTOH, if what the beta reader takes away is better than what I intended, I just keep my mouth shut.

    1. Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a school teacher who had a very particular understanding of English (his native language, yes really). And a class that had many with a rather different view of things. At least once I acted as translator from… English.. to… English.. by asking the same question as the last person, only phrasing it a bit more formally. I’m still not sure if he ever caught on to that.

      1. I once had a conversation with an elderly fellow whose mother tongue … I’m guessing was Gullah. His words seemed to be English, but I couldn’t extract meaning from any of ’em. His companion (who had a heavy accent, but still within the realm of modern English) had to translate so I could understand. They did this in good humor, apparently being used to it.

      2. My mom once acted as a translator from Chinese-accented English to British English and back. It was really weird watching her repeat exactly the same thing back and forth that the parties involved couldn’t understand.

        1. I have to do this for Peter, when ordering at Chinese restaurants! It’s okay, and I’m absolutely certain we’re going to find other accents where he’ll be the translator, too.

    2. Kevin, the boot problem is that when the boot’s full of liquid, the instructions need to be seen from the top. On the other hand, if the holder is thaaaaaaaaaaaat not-smart, said holder wouldn’t likely look on the heel for instructions. Many of us DO need a clue-bat.

      1. It’s northeastern German or Dutch, as written, at least to my ear. There is a Scandinavian influence on some regions of Scotland, as in northern England (kirk for church is a famous example).

      2. I don’t read or write German (Which really goes to prove AGAIN) that Vox Day is wrong about race trumping culture, and immigrants not assimilating to American culture. The U.Sm proposition is a huge contra entropy endeavour, but like Christianity, it works)

        I stayed with a friend’s family for two weeks in Vienna, and did my best to learn the bare bones on the fly.

  3. “Show at least some of what you’re trying to say. The reader will often extrapolate from there.”

    As a course developer, I agree. Don’t say when you can show. Don’t show when you can have people do it for themselves based on your instructions.

  4. “Talk Slower And Louder”?

    Sometimes, I think “Baby Talk Is Too Difficult for some”.

    On the other hand, “Baby Talk” works as well as speaking Zulu. 😈

    On the Gripping Hand, I don’t know Zulu. 😆

  5. There is a good reason folks do that– it works for overcoming accents, hearing difficulties and “huh, wa? I was chasing butterflies.”

    Of course, after you’ve established it doesn’t work, then you try other stuff. 😀

    1. I’ve noticed this too. The whole “saying it louder and more slowly” thing is something that we like to make fun of, but there is a reason for it. If someone genuinely does not speak the language at all, then no, the loud, slow version won’t be better. However, if someone sort of speaks the language, then annunciating clearly, being sure not to mumble (which usually translates to “louder”), and making sure there’s a pause so that each word is distinct (i.e. “slower”) often does help a beginning-to-intermediate speaker puzzle out your meaning.

      For my own part, even after about 6 years of classes, I don’t speak Spanish–but I can manage in loud, slow Spanish.

      1. Reminds me, I need to look up the word for “flunked” in Spanish– I can manage “no se habla, quatro an-yo de es-pan-yo’ll, no bueno” and it usually makes those not running for the hills at my accent laugh, but…..

        1. Hey, I’ll help 🙂 I mean I know sea Spanish. Paella! (It’s a really useful word, means everything) Oh. I know another word too. ‘Si’ I think it means ocean. Spanish speakers like the beach…

      2. For a long time the sentence I said most in Russian was “Escho raz, medlenee pozhalsta.” which translates to “Once more, slower please.”

      3. Yeah, my Spanish is in the same earhorn… I’m just deaf enough that my ear can’t untangle one word from the next unless it’s …eNUNciated. So I understand Mexican radio announcers, who usually speak in an exaggeratedly enunciated fashion, but not everyday speech.

      4. Zsusa -there is a reason for it… just like there is a reason for panic. It’s just knowing when it’s a good to time to do either or both…

  6. Maybe stupid people would have a hard time designing a complicated set up with too many parts. I don’t have a strong opinion on that. Things that are more complex than they need to be are not the most challenging thing. The true test of intelligence is explaining some unholy mess clearly and simply. Or simplifying it so that you can more easily explain it. Even where explaining some thing isn’t needed to do the thing, you can do it better, more reliably and more easily fix what goes wrong if you can explain it.

  7. “Two Gender Studies students would probably understand each other (one hopes) if the one was pontificating about their subject…”

    I wonder sometimes. There’s an xkcd about talking to grad students from different subjects and seeing how long it takes them to figure out that you aren’t an expert in their field. I have this feeling that Gender Studies would be in the “Half a dozen papers and two monographs and they still haven’t figured it out” category. (“I’ve never heard of ‘ectoplasm’ being a gender before, but if Bob says it is, who am I to deny it? I’d probably be plasmaphobic if I did, and that’s the last thing I want to be!”)

    1. “You are phobic of the homophobe gender.”

      In all seriousness, they’d detect me pretty fast, because it is all a set of double standards based on whose ox is gored. Gore the wrong ox, and you are obviously incorrect. When they get in to fights, because they gore each other while goring acceptable oxen, it seems to be settled based on political utility.

      * Studies degrees are basically a divinity degree for denominations of the state cult of the USSR. The theology is defined by the same processes that defined the USSR’s state theology.

  8. People read into a thing what they want to read into it. When they read-in something and then complain to me that such-and-such is Wrong! I usually reply: “This -is- fiction you know. Of course it’s wrong, I made it up out of whole cloth.”

    My favorite element on the periodic table is Handwavium. Right next to Unobtanium down around 185 or so.

    1. That’s why I have a ‘rule of three’ – If one reader struggles with a piece… I’ll look at it. 2 and there’s a problem, probably needs change. 3 and it’s definitely a major issue and needs to come out and be entirely re-written with more ‘show’.

      1. Luckily, no two readers have had the same problem so far. I view that as a qualified success.

        No doubt that will change on publication. ~:D

  9. “Say It Louder And Slower” is exactly what turned me away from so much of Heinlein’s later works. Mannie’s line marriage in “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” worked perfectly well, it was a family that was very different from any traditional family structure, but what was important and made perfectly clear is that Mannie’s family was as important to him as the reader’s family was to the reader. It wasn’t preachy and it didn’t need to be preachy to get the point across–that revolution isn’t an abstract political ideal, it is fighting for the ones you love.

    But then we got books like “Glory Road” and “Stranger In A Strange Land” and “I Will Fear No Evil” and “Time Enough For Love” that turned into extended infomercials for polyamory loosely wrapped in some SF tropes.

  10. My mom not only does “speak slower and louder” at my kids, but when that fails to work, she’ll speak to him in what she thinks is French. “Merci boocoope mangehr?” is about the level of it.
    My poor kids. They try to guess what the hell she wants from the action around, and when that fails, call me in a panic.

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