Words And The Lonely Writer IV – COMMUNICATE!

Now we reach the part of our program in which Sarah gets testy.  Yeah, I know, that’s such a rare sight that you’re all going to be awe struck.

No, seriously.  Stop laughing.

One of the weirdest things about writers it’s that we love language, and we study it and pet it, and take it home, and call it George.  What we tend to forget is that Language is really used for ONE thing: communication. Look, I yield to no one the honor of being the stupidest apprentice writer ever.  To get to my current semi-proficient point, I made every mistake. Twice. Uphill. In galoshes. With lead soles.

One of the mistakes I made was to try to make my worlds and stories “real.”

Look, guys, you want real go to … No, wait, not the newspaper.  So…. you want real, open the door and go outside (trust me, there is a world out there.  The images through the window are not advanced CGI.  Yes, I know, freaky.)

Writing is not reality, anymore than any art is reality.  In a way, it’s enhanced reality, with the boring parts  cut out and the interesting parts made more exciting or emotional, depending on what you’re trying to do.

Due to the medium, the timing, the time it takes your readers to consume the art, etc, you cannot package a story realistically.  Realistically, with every detail in, Lord of the rings would take years to get through.  Heck, even the exciting parts would probably take a year. And you also don’t want to go through such things realistically. You want just enough, in just the right way.

Took me years to figure this out and also that characters had to be exaggerated to read “right” on the page.  And events had to be more dramatic on the page, not to read boring, and…

And language had to sound real, without being real.

The first sin of that is possibly the only one I managed to avoid: I never fell into the trap of dialect.

And that’s the testy part: please remember when you put lovingly transcribed dialect in a book you’re losing readers for whom English isn’t a first language, and also readers who have any hearing defect.  Okay, it’s a tiny number, but I have a double whammy, since I’m both ESL and have mid-range hearing loss.  Which means I don’t get most of what anyone says if they have a strong accent. (Yes, you may laugh.)

Any book that has long paragraphs in lovingly transcribed dialect is going to lose me.  Why? because I have to read it aloud, and even then I’m sometimes puzzled about what they’re saying.  Which completely pops me out of the story.

To put it to you in a way you’ll get: when Heinlein used purty in a story, I stopped dead and had to pronounce it aloud to know what the word was. So, the people who praise writers who have pages and pages of photogenically transcribed dialect? I’m so glad this rocks their world.  But you’re going to lose readers like me sitting there going “what? And come again?”

It’s like the minister at our current church, an Italian who learned his English in Mexico.  People would sit during the sermon going “what did he just say about Cthulhu?” And “I was with him until he got to Saint Dead Pool.”

Finally the church broke down and started handing out what my husband calls “cheat cheats.”  I.e. printed versions of the sermons.

While it doesn’t fix it — look, the man is Italian — because he completely goes off script and improvises (and people in the pews turn the sheet frantically over and back) it at least gives us an idea what he’s trying to do and cut down on the people falling asleep while he talks, because it beats trying to guess the words.  (I once read my blog post on my phone. My own blog post. Because it all I had there.  And it kept me awake.)

Don’t do this in your book.  Not understanding or even — in a book — working even slightly hard to understand makes the reader give up on a book.  At a subconscious level, it makes them mad at you for holding the story away from them.  You diminish your chances of selling to them again.

But what if your characters really have a dialect?  Listen to the dialect.  Find a recording and listen to it.  Find a word that is unusual or constructions that are out of the way. Then use that.  Sprinkled in the middle of normal English, where the meaning can be guessed by context, you can give the flavor without making it unreadable.  And be of good cheer, people add the accent in their own heads.  Or at least I do.

One pet peeve, which when I’m in Regency-reading mode has caused me to wall books: servants don’t talk agrammatically or like children.

There might or might not be a dialect in England where they use weird forms of the verbs, but I doubt it.  (Other than was for all persons.  I was, you was, they was.) I think it’s writers trying to make up what they think regency servants sounded like.

Peasants or servants are more likely to speak an ARCHAIC version of the language.  The “updated” language is often (particularly eighteenth and nineteenth century) a literate affectation, popularized in novels.

In the north of Portugal this archaic language often takes the bizarre form of what I consider ENGLISH affections/accents.  Like an a suffix to indicate something happening right now.  “Eu avinha-me” (I was a-going.) or similar. I don’t know if it’s a similar underlaying Celtic structure or the influence of the Napoleonic war soldiers.  (This would work with upa (pronounced oopa or oupa) for up as slang, and other stuff.

But another thing that they do is revert to earlier ways.  For instance one of the things peasants did when I was little was refer to sisters as “Irmao.”  As in “a minha irmao” (My — feminine ending on mine — brother.)  I suspect this was part of an earlier spoken dialect, that had lost the gender distinction for sister (Irma.)  They also used a ton of Spanish words, because archaic Portuguese is basically Spanish.

I haven’t made a study of servant dialect in Regency times.  I rarely write it, and if I start doing it (was attacked by a plot early this morning) I’ll figure it out.  But I’ll do my fricking best not to make them sound like idiots or children.  Because that’s painful to read.

Anyway, when I read it well done, it just takes a word or so for me to hear the whole thing in the right accent.  No, I don’t have examples, though I’ll search and do a post later, if you want me to.  It would take going over a bunch of books.

The technique for doing your very own made up language is about the same, but still, you’ll have to be careful on what your language says or implies.  They don’t come out of nowhere fully formed.  What a language has or doesn’t have words for is a good way of world building, one you shouldn’t neglect.

So, onward next week, into made up languages, and how not to get so caught up in them you write them entirely int his language and publish them with a handy dandy dictionary for the reader’s convenience.

Until then!





34 thoughts on “Words And The Lonely Writer IV – COMMUNICATE!

  1. I think you can make dialect work, but you need to do it sparingly. When I teased a cousin about a local politician, he told me, “It warn’t laik none of us nuver voted for ‘im.” That’s accurate but inaccessible to most folks (even natives will have to read it aloud since we’re not used to seeing it written). Something like “It ain’t like we voted for him” would get the idea across without being so challenging. Just a touch of it can spice things up; too much will poison a story.

    I’ll add that I don’t think it makes much sense to construct an artificial language for a story. If the story has much more than a sprinkling of words in your new language, it’s not likely many people will want to try to read it, but if it only has a sprinkling, then all your work on grammar will largely go to waste. On the other hand, a sprinkling of alien words can make it seem more real. Again, a little bit can add flavor, but it really does need to be a little bit.

    Of course Tolkien has already proved that the reverse can work: making up a language for fun and then writing stories about the people who speak it. 🙂

    1. Sure. Which is why I said I’d need to hunt down examples. And also that “folk dialect” doesn’t mean make them sound stupid (Which is a pet peeve, because I grew up among people who worked with their hands. I don’t mistake works with hands for stupid.)
      The thing to keep in mind is that EVERY time you put in some dialect in more than one word lumps you lose some readers. Now, it’s a tiny percentage, but what if those were the people who would become your biggest fans and handsell you to everyone they know?

      On making up languages: ALL of us linguists spent years making up several for several purposes. … the trick is not to get carried away.

      1. And if you do use a phrase or more, make sure you immediately “translate” it. Something like “he didn’t know why /character/ was asking for money, but the fact he was using /obscure dialect/ to do it was intriguing.”

  2. I’ve got a WIP myself whose two main characters speak with Aussie and “Scots” accents, respectively, and sometimes tease each other about them. As I’m neither Australian nor Scots, I already wonder how many of those dents I need to hammer flat entirely.

    I watched a video just today of “Irishmen commenting on Boondock Saints,” and one line that stuck out was the remark that the characters’ accents sounded like Sean Connery trying to sound Irish, or the actors trying to imitate Connery.

  3. a) I now desperately want a St. Deadpool votive candle, complete with prayer on the back. I wonder what he’s the saint of, breaking the 4th wall, inappropriate humor, and scar tissue?

    2) I learned differential equations from a (very) Italian professor. I still have difficulty pronouncing the term “Wronskian” because I heard it from him first. We would also consult each other in whispers during his lectures to decipher what the hell he was talking about. Good times, good times…

    1. I had a physics prof some years ago. He was French, and had just come from teaching 20 years in South Africa. Made listening a touch difficult.

    2. I encountered a professor of economics who came from Egypt, but he sure sounded German. I never asked who taught him English.

      And I knew a fellow who admitted it took him over a week to realize a different professor of economics wasn’t talking nonsensically about racehorses, but was saying ‘resources’ which made much more sense.

      1. College friend took statistics from a visiting British professor. She spent a couple of weeks looking for a definition of what she heard as “Kaminogadin functions” before realizing he was actually saying “common or garden functions.”

        1. When I worked retail for a few years back in my early twenties, I had a customer complain he couldn’t find the “long ladders” so I pointed him towards the direction of the back wall of the hardware department, telling him he couldn’t miss them. He came back annoyed, saying he couldn’t find “ladders” anywhere over there. I told him the only place in the store that carried any sort of ladders was hardware. He then told me wasn’t looking for ladders, but for the “long ladders” used to light the BBQ grill. The accent/drawl was so severe his pronunciation of “ladders” and “lighters” was indistinguishable to my ears.

      2. Small cousin, being raised in North Carolina by parents from New York.

        Talking, she sounded like New York. Reading aloud, she had a southern accent, albeit not pronounced.

      1. Well, there are a few saints who started out as assassins. Make the mistake of killing a saint, and you never know.where it might lead.

        Blessed Carino is one of the two guys who martyred St. Peter Martyr, aka Peter of Verona. Seveso has the weapon he did it with. But he spent 41 years repenting.

  4. > In a way, it’s enhanced reality, with the boring parts cut out and the interesting parts made more exciting or emotional, depending on what you’re trying to do.

    I recall the late Dr. Pournelle reviewing a computer game in his Byte column many years ago.

    The game was set in the Age of Sail, and, as I recall, touted itself as “the most realistic sailing simulation EVARRRR!!!!11!!!!” (or words to that effect), and, apparently, it was.

    The problem with that was that the vast majority of days on board a sailing ship of the time were utterly boring, so the “game” was like:

    Day 1: sail for 24 hours, averaging 8 knots, doing routine trimming of sails occasionally.
    Day 2: sail for 24 hours, averaging 5 knots, doing routine trimming of sails occasionally.
    Day 99: pirate attack!
    Day 100: sail for 24 hours, averaging 7 knots, doing routine trimming of sails occasionally.
    Day 150: make landfall on an inhabited island.

    No way to skip past the boring parts. You had to laboriously play through days 1-98 before getting to the pirate attack, then play through days 100-149 before reaching the island.

    Dr. Pournelle’s review was… not kind.

    > I learned differential equations from a (very) Italian professor.

    My inner voice when reading a math text still has an Indian accent, lo these many years later.

  5. In _Elizabeth of Vindobona_, I had one or two sentences in dialect, and the POV character sorting them out. Then I reverted to standard English. In _Elizabeth of Starland_, the POV character sounds out a document. This let me play with language shift over time, but I only did it once or twice. (OK, aside from deliberate futzing of plant and object names, but that was consistent through all the books in the series.)

    1. I am for the first time writing a book (well not first time, but first time as a pro) where the character’s implanted “translator chip” is looking for a language analog for the sounds heard (It’s English. with 10000 years of “evolution.” Yeah.) and will have to reproduce some of them. But, yeah.
      10,000 years literate, so some of them/a lot of them recognizable English words (I have a pun between two characters in first chapter) just not …. recognizable by EAR.

      1. Hasn’t it been about 10,000 years since the Indo-European root language started evolving into everything we have in Europe and America today?

  6. I confess to using mild dialect for certain characters, and writing certain words they use as they sound. Can’t help myself – I can “hear” my characters of a certain ethnicity and background when they speak, even if apostrophes for missing letters are involved. (I keep this tendency under control, mostly.) OK, so twenty lashes with a wet noodle. What is a little more … artful in creating dialog is to use peculiar turns of phrasing, archaic language, regional slang. In several of my books (I don’t know if any readers noticed) I had a bilingual character; a German/American. When he was speaking in German to other German characters, I deliberately wrote his dialog more formal, correct, and rather stiff. When he was speaking in English to his Texian peers, his dialog was slangy, informal and casual.
    YMMV, of course.

    1. Alas, I forget the show (and character) but I have heard some radio show where a character that clearly “low brow” by behavior was affecting ‘high brow’ and it took a bit to realize what was going on. His dialogue was not written with so much a different vocabulary than such a lowbrow might use (and be fit for broadcast) with perhaps an occasional word or phrase he might have ‘picked up’ added, but his dialogue had been written to never use contraction. He would not say, “I wouldn’t do that.” but rather, “Now, this I would not do.” and the like.

  7. I had an alien in one story I wrote that was supposed to be from a subculture located on a relatively isolated world. To represent his dialect I swapped out two sounds – “th” became just “t” and in most cases a short “i” became “ee” (so “mining tin” would end up “mining teen”). When I wrote that character’s dialogue, especially in the beginning of the story, I made certain to limit the number of affected words in any given sentence; except for when he got excited about something later on in the story. It seemed to work pretty well, at least readers found him amusing rather than annoying, but I’m not sure if it would have worked in a longer story or for a character with a lot of dialogue. In either of those cases I’d probably just swap out one sound or make a note of the accent in the narration.

  8. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter mysteries use dialect here and there, and grammar differences more. She had a good ear.

  9. Any book that has long paragraphs in lovingly transcribed dialect is going to lose me. Why? because I have to read it aloud, and even then I’m sometimes puzzled about what they’re saying. Which completely pops me out of the story.

    This is why it took me a while to get into the world that Kate Forsyth built. It took me a bit of work to sink into the …. Scottish? Celtic? Irish? dialect everyone was using. I ultimately ended up reading more of it, but it took me a bit. Consistent though.

    1. When I was small, I read Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books. One tale was not translated but left in the original Scots. That was a terrible thing to do to a small child

  10. As a reader, I learned with the unexpurgated Uncle Remus stories to read them aloud. That helped me catch the patterns of speech, then I could read them silently.

    Zora Neal Hurston’s transcription of the life story of the last slave brought from Africa to the US is in dialect. It takes some work to get into, but it has been worth it thus far. (Slow going because of a lot of other things going on.)

    1. How very un-PC!

      BTW, I picked up an beat up old unexpurgated copy at a library book sale here in PC territory — I think I’ll have to try reading aloud, reading silently doesn’t work for me.

  11. The way i had it stated in my screenwriting classes was that dialogue is not a real life conversation, it is a edited abridged version of the conversation.

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