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.

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, 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 (eh?), Britons, New Zealanders, Australians, and some Indians and Kenyans (to name just a few!) speak English, too.

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.

Have you ever tried to write out a Bostonian’s accent? We all know “pahk the cah in Hah-vahd Yahd, Roberter.” Or that of someone from the Deep South? Y’all sho’ kin trah. Or someone from The Bronx? Fugeddaboutit. 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 linguists use, like œ and ₔ and ʸ? Be serious.

Dialect is hard to write and even harder to read and understand, especially in large quantities.

The second rub is that some writers, teachers, and critics think writing in dialect shows disrespect for characters, that it can be a way of belittling 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, who 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 cognitive dissonance between how you expect 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. Language can enforce stereotypes rather than upending them.

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, the character 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 dialog enough foreign words to show her putting on airs or otherwise trying to be someone she is not.

If a character works in a field that has its own specialized jargon, which most do, then it’s appropriate for her to use that language. There’s a special proviso here for non-fiction works: if the piece is being written for a specialized audience (say in Guns and Ammo for hunters and sport shooters) 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.

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. The saying “if you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with bullshit” shouldn’t be at work here but some authors will try it.

The general rule of thumb is to use dialect, foreign words, and jargon sparingly, only enough to establish what you need to about the character.

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

  • 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 make the piece hard to read?
    • 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?
  • Does the author seem to be using dialect, foreign language, or jargon to cover up other weaknesses or over-impress me with his 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. 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?

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