The Tower of Babel (Etemananki) has made life that much more difficult for us story lovers. We miss out on a lot of great books that never get translated overseas. We have to get our own works translated to see the broader world market. And us writers, depending on the scale of our stories, are forced to consider that people in different countries often speak different languages and use region-based dialects.
[The whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Šin'âr, and they dwelt there. (…)
And they said, "Come, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."]
Talk about foreshadowing– I’d smack whoever said that last line. (Actually, it sounds like everybody said it at once. …)
I appreciate it when movies and books go that extra step to acknowledge the language barrier exists (you know– when they don’t have those scenes in another country where everybody’s casually speaking English). It goes a long way to help realism.
In Five Rings, I tried to solve the language barrier problem by taking the time to explain why everyone might share a common language in Lura. (Lots of fantasy books do this and call it ‘Common’ or ‘Common-tongue’. I call it ‘Pangeac’.)
But Kassara is separated by vast terrain, including a large mountain chain that literally splits the continent in half. People spread across three different countries simply aren’t going to speak Pangeac the same way. So, yes, I use dialect.
According to the Princeton online dictionary:
['Dialect': The usage or vocabulary that is characteristic of a specific group of people; ]
There are many ways to achieve dialect in writing.
One easy way to differentiate speech patterns is to use mild colloquialisms like ‘yeah’ and loose contractions like ‘That’d’. But subtlety is key.
I used to think dropping out contractions entirely was a good idea for the speech patterns of characters like nobles and kings, but it ended up sounding too mechanical, like robots were talking. So dropping out all the contractions is a lazy, artificial, overused way to achieve dialect.
At the heart of jargon is culture.
There is an umbrella culture, Lura. Beneath it are the sub-cultures of different continents. Kassara is one of them, where everybody speaks Pangeac. Beneath that is the sub-cultures of different countries. And beneath that is regions, professions, and so on.
Culture is often heavily linked to religion, so I think it’s a good idea to look at some of the religious terms and beliefs of a country to come up with jargon that stays in the spirit of planting your characters firmly in your world.
I’m talking about words like ‘shards’ and ‘anima’ and phrases like ‘The Storm’. And you don’t want to capitalize too much of your jargon, or it can come off as pretentious. You also don’t want to replace easily said words with jargon, either. Believable jargon should be efficient.
Accents are tough. Something is lost in translation when you transcribe accents to the page. A thick accent can turn readers off of prose quicker than anything else.
For instance, I’ll read through a character with a lisp, no problem.
But while I don’t mind listening to Ebonics, if I have to phonetically read my way through Ebonics, I put the book down and walk far, far away—unless it’s a school assignment, of course.
The most subtle way to use accents is to slightly change the order of words, or perhaps drop some words altogether.
Rorshach’s dialect from Watchmen used word drops to great effect:
[“Funny, ancient pharaohs looked forward to the end of the world. Hoping the cadavers would rise, and reclaim hearts from golden jars. Must currently be holding breath in anticipation.”]
Another way is to state what country someone is from ahead of time, maybe even describe what their accent sounds like, and then, for the most part, you can treat their dialogue like normal.
CUSSWORDS AND EXCLAMATIONS:
Tricky. Use real cusswords and limit your audience? That’s the route I’d go if I was writing a modern-day tale. But this is fantasy.
So I can make up cusswords, sayings, and exclamations, or use the real thing. It’s easy to pick something that sounds too cheesy.
For instance, there’s the ever-common ‘frack’ ‘heck’, & ‘arse’; everyday words that people use to replace cusswords. Euphemisms. When writing those words, it comes off as if the writer is trying to avoid a mature rating. (I say don’t sacrifice the art for the audience. Write for yourself.)
So there’s the option to use real cusswords, only those words are derived from real culture.
The Wheel of Time series uses terms like ‘light!’ and ‘burn you!’, which are terms that have a lot to do with the world culture of Randland.
Each country in Five Rings, in addition to Pangeac, has its own language. So they borrow from that language liberally when speaking.
A southerner might say, ‘Jeelai’, which is a word used to express wonderment and disbelief in Shiiran.
Here it is in action:
["I am grateful-," he began, but the old man waved it away.
"Jeelai, just don't let it happen again."]
What are your thoughts on dialect? Like it? Hate it?
P.S.: I know it’s been a long, long time since I’ve talked about writing on here. I sorely missed it. (Thanks, gargantuan task known as EDITING!).