Over the course of these several eFiles the topic of characterizing players has touched on physical and emotional aspects. This time I would like to discuss language. This can add a rich texture to a story or destroy it.
Unless you live in a vacuum and hear only speech of that area, you know that people sound different depending upon where they are from. Several years ago I was discussing a story with a colleague living in Edinburgh, Scotland and mentioned that one player would use a Scottish accent. Their comeback was, “Why would you want him to speak with a Scottish accent?”
“Because he’s from Scotland?” I said.
“We speak English.”
“Not the way I hear it,” says I.
The problem was that they never paid attention to the fact that their brand of English in no way, shape, or form sounds like English spoken in mainstream London, and certainly not Cockney. The same applies to me. I grew up in Wyoming. I have a “Western” accent, but don’t really hear it except in others. Because the United States is such a melting pot of nationalities, whatever region traveled through, you will hear distinct differences in the English language. Spanish from Bermuda to Mexico City is different, too. That lends itself to adding a rich texture to a story – so long as you don’t overdo it.
Over the course of the many published stories there have appeared a very wide range of characters: Australian, Asian/Filipino, Castilian Spanish, Caribbean and Mexican Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Dutch, Old English in1590-1650, (educated and less educated), various United States (mid-west and regional). How does a writer approach such variety without losing the reader? Work.
Oh sure, it certainly helps if you speak a different language or have been around people who speak with an accent. My German is not always very helpful for a story in the present time. It is called “Low German.” It was spoken when my ancestors migrated to Volga Russia in the early 1700’s and didn’t evolve into modern German. My French and European Spanish is marginal, Dutch non-existent no matter how hard I tried wrapping my tongue around those syllables. So, how do you pull off a respectable imitation?
Enter the Internet. YouTube provides great examples the writer can hear. Programs such as Google’s Translate are very important to get the right word in context and spelling, and then there are sites that discuss regional vernacular. When taking an acting class fifty years ago (I was playing with the idea of writing scripts) I discovered a book that still has a central place on the reference bookshelf addressing dialects. (Lewis Herman’s Foreign Dialects, 1943*) While Dutch remains a mystery despite having a Dutch exchange student in the home for a year, I am undaunted tackling dialogues in stories.
(From A Pirate’s Legacy: For Glory, Truth and Treasure. David has come to the Canary Island to claim an inheritance and is strolling through town with new friend Alejandro. Time period 2000)
“Eh! Alejandro,” a raucous voice called out from across the plaza, joined by a cluster of friends who laughed.
Even in the dim light I could tell Alejandro’s face turn a deep purple while casting a nervous side glance at me. “Oh, great! They would have to show up,” he muttered in Spanish under his breath.
“Cuál es problema, Alejandro? Usted no puede hablarnos? ” the short, rotund boy of eighteen continued to prod as he tried to swagger across the street, but only managing a ridiculous waddle. “Quién es el cerdo blanco?”
“Un visitante de los Estados Unidos,” Alejandro said, anger rising in his words.
“Oh, un imperialista norteamericano. Cuál es su nombre?”
“My name is David Dolephene, white pig from North America,” I responded in Spanish . . .
Non-Spanish speakers will generally pass over the exchange except for noting that whatever is being said is obviously not kind. In one short sentence, David explains that the remarks were insulting.
(From A Pirate’s Legacy: The Urchin Pirate. An old sailor has come to watch over Mariah’s family while her husband is off pirating. Time period 1600)
“I grow up on farm. I try dat, but too much bad weather. I took to sea ahead of debtor prison.”
“Then you know about farming?”
“And how to manage men?”
“Ja. I waren bosun most of time at sea.”
“And you know how to handle strong-headed boys?”
“Like Hassan? Ja. Ze be like young horse. Much energy, but do not know which direction to run so go in circles, cause lots of confusion.”
Mariah had not thought she could laugh at this time, but did. “I saw how you persuaded him to take a bath yesterday.”
“Ja. It waren necessary voor understanding. When captain gives order, a goede sailor obeys. M'Lady say voor boy to take bath, but he waren feeling a bit mutinous. I waren juist showing him da error of dat course. I heft not mean to offend m'Lady?”
By translating dialog into Dutch it was possible to extract words to give it flavor while not losing the reader. This was a long process to make adjustments and actually occurred during a third edit.
(From A Pirate’s Legacy: Order of the Brethren. Pirate ships tended to a mix of nations. Here we meet Cochran, an Irishman. Time period 1612)
“Now then, Bones, see that platform up there?" he said, indicating the crow's nest. "Yerself’ll take the watch. Climb up and have a seat an’ be sure an’ tie off to the mast. Don’t want yourself makin’ a quick trip to the deck. And when yerself has to puke, put it o'r the side and not on deck, or ye'll answer to those below." Jeremiah scanned the crew working about them, a rough looking lot who were staring, questioning their sudden appearance.
“You’re asking me to climb all the way up there?”
“No, I not be askin’ yerself to climb all the way up there, I’m tellin’ ye to climb all the way up there. Now, unless it be me boot yerself wants planted in your arse, be off.”
Cochran is an English-speaker born and raised on the west coast of Ireland. He would not generally use Irish words, but there is a speech pattern identifiable to that people.
(From A Pirate’s Legacy: Order of the Brethren. The Protagonist’s pirate mentor has unexpectedly appeared following a ten-year absence. Time period 1612)
“What brings you to El Hierro, Admiral?” François said.
Shaver threw back the hood. Now clean-shaven accentuated a weathered, heavily lined face making him appear far older than his forty-four years.
“Perhaps a cool drink and a bit of shade from this ‘ere sun would be appropriate to our conversation,” he replied. He spoke pleasantly despite a voice akin to someone dragging a heavy board over gravel. He had not completely forgotten the lessons of his youth, employing them when convenient. He’d obviously walked from the cove, not an easy task for someone with a bad leg. Whatever was on his mind must be important.
“Come aboard,” François said.
“Thank ye, lad,” he said, climbing the two steps with some difficulty, relying on the staff . “And this must be Lady Evreux.” Taking her hand, he kissed it. She didn’t smile. “Above all the treasures in the world is a beautiful woman. François is indeed wealthier than all the pirates and blasphemers in the Caribbean combined.”
Does the Admiral sound like a pirate? Not if you are expecting one of those types from grade-B movies. This gentleman, from a wealthy family, was educated. Think of Captain Hector Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean. Having a ship loaded with varying types the range of possibilities is endless, but again, don’t get carried away with the parts.
Other writers might have their own approach, but as stated, I generally write the dialogue in normal English during the initial draft, and then some time after the second edit begin making changes. Passages are translated into the desired language and double checked for accuracy, often using someone familiar with the specific dialect. Finally, the dialogue is re-written, extracting words and phrasing that would give the flavor of that language and not distract the reader too greatly.
Being an historical piece, word usage in dialogue needs to be accurate – ie., I don’t want to use words in dialogue that didn’t exist at the period in question. That means researching words in a good dictionary. For instance, could I use the word “telescope” in 1612? Yes. The word came into usage between 1610 and 1620, the instrument coming into use in 1608. If set before that? No.
That brings the discussion as to how it should appear in the manuscript. Using the Chicago Manual of Style** , the publishing bible, foreign words used the first time are in italics and thereafter in regular type.
CMS, 6.65: “Isolated words and phrases in a foreign language may be set in italics if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers.”
CMS, 6.67: “If a definition follows a foreign word or phrase, the definition is enclosed in parentheses or quotation marks.” Really? A writer is not inventive enough to provide the meaning without having to abide this rule??
CMS, 6.69: “Familiar words and phrases in a foreign language should be set in roman type. The problem [is] deciding whether a word or phrase is familiar.” If a word is found in a standard English dictionary, it may be regarded as having been adopted into the English language and need not be italicized. But of course, there are exceptions. Take a look at the explanation.
Last, how can a writer be sure his characters are speaking consistently? A good method is to give each character a highlight color in a copy of the manuscript. (Do this one character at a time so not to get lost/confused) From there, it is a matter of tracking that individual through the story to be sure they speak and act consistently.
* Foreign Dialects is still available, revised in 1997, the paperback sells for around $37.00 new with some used as low as $3.50. I have a hardbound, 1943 First ed. with dust jacket in mint condition. (And my wife says those old books on the shelf aren’t worth anything. Ha!)
** A used copy of the Chicago Manual of Style runs from $.01 for the 14th edition to around $25.00 for the latest. About the only difference is that the 15th ed. added an appendix for electronic publishing. Nothing else has really changed.