Critique Technique, Part 17: Dialect, Foreign Languages, and Jargon

This is the last post in the series on characterization. Next time we’ll move on to setting.

Confused person
Photo by Jeroen van Oostrom, via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’ve traveled around the country, or watched TV or the movies, or done just about anything other than live under a rock, you know that people speak differently in different places. They have different accents, different slang terms, and different styles of speaking. Compare the laconic Mainer or cowboy to the fast-talking New Yorker. And that’s just in the United States! Canadians, Britons, Scots, Irish, New Zealanders, Australians, and some Indians and Kenyans (to name just a few) speak English, too.

And they all do it differently.

England’s WWII Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill famously described America and England as “two nations separated by a common tongue.” Love that line.

The differences aren’t just geographic, either. There are differences between racial and ethnic groups, economic classes, age groups, education levels, and more.

And we writers want to capture them. After all, the way a character speaks says a lot about them.

But aye, there’s the rub. Several rubs, in fact.

Hard to Replicate

Dialect is hard to write and even harder to read and understand, especially in large quantities. Have you ever tried to write out a Bostonian’s accent? We all know “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd, Roberter,” right? Or that of someone from the Deep South? Y’all sho’ kin trah. Or someone from The Bronx? Fuhgeddaboudit. You end up doing all sorts of alphabetic gymnastics trying to capture sounds that are hard, if not impossible to represent just with English’s 26 letters and a few punctuation marks. And try to use all those special characters you find in dictionaries, the ones that are supposed to help you understand how to pronounce a word? That’s asking a reader to work way too hard. A writer might get away with that once. More than that and the reader is likely to put the book down.

There are better approaches. I’ll have suggestions on them later.

Disrespectful?

The second rub is that some writers, teachers, and critics think writing in dialect shows disrespect for characters, that it belittles them. There may be some merit to this argument. Think about it: How many characters have you read, who were supposed to have high cultural or economic standing, but spoke with a deep southern accent or a slow western drawl if the story wasn’t set in one of those locations? Not many, I’ll bet. That mismatch between how a reader expects a character to sound and how they actually do could make a character more interesting, but it could also be used to mark them in a negative way.

If a writer is creating this mismatch intentionally, they need to make that clear as early as they can. Note, however, that this might not be early at all if the author intends to misdirect the reader, the other characters, or both.

Foreign languages are also things to be careful with. If a character comes from a foreign country, it’s OK in some circumstances for an author to drop in an occasional foreign word:

  • If it’s the right word, or the only word, she can use to express a certain idea or concept;
  • If it’s a common-to-him word that he would naturally use in place of the English one; or
  • Just to establish the character as being foreign.

It can also be OK for an author to throw into a character’s dialogue enough foreign words to show her putting on airs or otherwise trying to be someone she is not.

Better ways to show that a character is speaking English as a foreign language are to use English words that are technically correct, or almost right, but are not the ones a native speaker would use, or to rearrange the structure of their sentences. Think about how Yoda spoke in the Star Wars movies, with his verbs at the end of his sentences.

Cover Other Weaknesses

A third rub is an author using dialect, foreign words, or jargon to cover up other weaknesses in the piece, particularly in characterization, or to show off their own vocabulary. A friend of mine once used the word mephitic to describe the smell of a men’s restroom. Sending readers to the dictionary is a good way to ensure they never pick up the book or story again.

When Jargon is Acceptable

If a character works in a field that has its own specialized jargon, which all do, then it’s appropriate for him to use that language. Of course, the author needs to use that jargon correctly, and in ways that would be natural for the character. People often forget that others don’t understand their jargon, which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Authors can and should take advantage of that, so long as only the other characters are confused and not the reader—at least not for long.

There’s a special proviso here for non-fiction works: If the piece is being written for a specialized audience (say for hunters and sport shooters in Guns and Ammo) or for a field’s professional magazine (for example, Cell in biology), then the jargon needs to be there. It adds clarity and accuracy rather than reducing it.

The general rule of thumb is that authors should use dialect, foreign words, and jargon sparingly, only enough to establish what they need to about the character. Once the character’s background, social standing, culture, heritage, profession, etc., have been established, the author should minimize how much they use those special words and phrases. If a character has been off-stage for a while, using a little dialect or jargon when they come back into the story is appropriate.

Questions for You

All right, then, time to put on your reviewer’s hat. Here are some questions to ask regarding dialect, foreign languages, and jargon as you review a work.

  • Is the dialect, foreign language, or jargon necessary and appropriate to the piece?
    • If it isn’t necessary, appropriate, or both, what should the author do to fix the problem?
  • Does the amount of dialect, foreign language, or jargon, or the way it’s being written, make the piece hard to read? Does it confuse rather than clarify?
    • If so, what should the author change or remove?
  • Does the author seem to be using dialect, foreign language, or jargon to belittle a character?
    • Is that appropriate for the story? For example, does he want the reader to not respect that character?
    • Could that be accomplished some other way, such as through the character’s behavior? Is that being done already?
    • If none of these are the case, what should the author do to fix the problem?
  • Does the author seem to be using dialect, foreign language, or jargon to cover up other weaknesses or over-impress with her vocabulary?

Used properly, dialect, foreign words, or jargon can add to a piece, giving it the flavor of a particular environment, giving a character an added or necessary dimension, or adding a degree of authenticity or authority to the story. That’s what you, as a reviewer, should be trying to help the author achieve.

What do you look for, and look out for, when reviewing how an author uses dialect, foreign terms, or jargon? Y’all kin ‘splain yore thinkin’ in that comment box down yonder.

One comment to Critique Technique, Part 17: Dialect, Foreign Languages, and Jargon

  • SplitSun  says:

    […] Critique Technique, Part 17: Dialect, Foreign Languages, and Jargon […]

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