Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dialects and Voice - a 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout Report with Video

Boy, I had a great time at this hangout last week. I was joined by David Peterson, Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Lesley Smith. I apologize for the misspelling of the video title (Dialect and "Vice"?? yes, a typo I didn't notice until it was too late, lol).

I started out by asking David whether he works with dialects on any of his HBO shows. Basically, dialects do exist in the worlds he works with, but the extent he works on them depends on what is going to appear on screen. Defiance is localized to a single town, and therefore there isn't much diversity of dialect there, since all of them use the dialect of the local area. However, he has asked himself what might happen elsewhere, since the Defiance aliens are present all over the world. We imagined that pidginization (simply put, when populations take some words from one language and some for another to cobble together a workable shared language) would occur differently in each location, such as South America (Brazil), France, etc. and in those locations the influence of English would be much lessened. We also got a hint that a dialect might start to appear in Game of Thrones next season...

How do we define dialects, linguistically? Basically, when two modes of speaking are mutually intelligible (they can be understood by speakers of the different modes), then they are considered dialects. When they are unintelligible, they are considered different languages. Imagine that two modes of speaking might have the same grammar, and 90% of the same vocabulary - those would be dialects.

On the other hand, this most basic definition can change. There are some grammatical differences that occur across dialects, like verb endings in Japanese dialects. The biggest difference, however, is when languages are defined as "dialects" or "separate languages" for political reasons. Hindi and Urdu are very close in their linguistic features, but are associated with different countries and populations, so they have different names. Portuguese and Spanish were in the distant past mutually intelligible, but at this point are not. The different languages of China are mutually unintelligible, but because of the ideological importance of unified cultural identity in China, they are called dialects. At the Barcelona Olympics, an agreement was apparently made that people would only speak Spanish, so it raised some eyebrows when the Mayor of Barcelona got up and spoke Catalan. Arabic is spoken across great areas of the middle east and north Africa, but the Arabic dialect spoken in Egypt would probably be near-unintelligible to a speaker of the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, while the differences between Egyptian dialect and Tunisian would probably be less extreme. In the case of Arabic, the disparate populations are helped by their general knowledge of modern standard Arabic - which nobody really uses in daily conversation, but everyone shares. Japan also maintains a "standard Japanese" which is not really spoken locally, but which everybody learns in school and which is what is spoken on newscasts.

My own experience with the difference between standard and dialectal language was that I'd learned standard Japanese in class - since standard Japanese is the only one that gets taught to foreign speakers - but when I first went to Japan, I had a homestay in Kyoto. I landed and discovered that I was having terrible trouble understanding what people were saying, because I had learned none of the special features of the local dialect! Believe me, I put some effort into catching up on the differences after that - but my host families still refused to teach me to speak the dialect, because they felt it would be a problem for me (dialect is often criticized, especially in Tokyo).

Erin noted that sometimes people can "understand" related languages that are not their own, but they can lose nuances, and also they can fall into "false cognate" traps, where a word that sounds similar between languages has a very different meaning in the two different languages. (Wikipedia distinguishes between false cognates and false friends, but my own experience is that what they call false friends can also be called false cognates). The words "embarrassed" and "embarazada" mean "embarrassed," and "pregnant" respectively - and if you misuse them, you will end up pretty embarrassed!

When it comes to considering dialects, it is also important to consider sociolinguistic and socioeconomic dialects. That is to say, dialects don't just differ between regions. They can also differ widely due to social groupings within a single area. My Varin world has two dialects of this type: one is used by sailors and the people who interact with them in the city of Safe Harbor, and the other is a dialect spoken by the undercaste.

David warns that you should try not to use stereotypcially stigmatized variants of English as flags for dialects in a created world. Just because your people are high class doesn't mean you should write their language in an English accent; just because they are low class doesn't mean you should try to write in a Cockney style, or some kind of dialect that is seen as low class in your geographical area. Someone is going to end up insulted.

We noted that many films set in France have the actors using British accents. This is a kind of shorthand, since we know that there are different dialects associated with class in Britain. It can work decently well in a film, but it can also be done badly. I always wondered why the Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon would have Scottish accents, while the protagonist was American. One of my guests asked, tongue in cheek, "How else would you know he was normal?" This kind of thing makes me want to pull my hair out a bit. Lesley noted that the same thing was done in the movie Chocolat, which was supposedly set in France but could easily have been set in English. I believe it was David who found the method used in the movie Amadeus - where all the actors spoke in their own native dialects - very distracting.

We talked a bit about rendering dialect with spelling. This is not something I personally recommend, because it can make your dialogue hard to read, and has historically been used in some very insulting and racist contexts that you might not want to associate yourself with.

I asked a question that had come up in our last discussion, whether literacy and/or television slow down language change. David had a great way of thinking about this, which is that you maintain the linguistic structures in your head that are most useful to you. Thus, if you read a lot of classical literature, you will maintain classical linguistic structures in your head to help you understand it. If you keep up with a lot of international stories, you might maintain more British vocabulary. The simplicity of global communication makes a lot of different ways of speaking accessible to us. It is useful to talk to people in various areas rather than just people around you, because it will keep your language use diverse and complex.

Dialect also has a social value, because it marks insiders and outsiders to a particular language community. If you are writing in a context that requires you to use a particular existing regional dialect, be very careful and make sure you have done lots and lots of research - including running your work by (ideally) more than one person who speaks the dialect in question. You don't want to get it wrong, because people from that population will be able to catch your mistakes and will likely feel disrespected. I mentioned Stina Leicht's book Of Blood and Honey, because it's a really great example of a book that uses dialect well. The book deals with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and crosses them with fae folk in our world - and it's amazing. She did years of research and reading of Northern Irish literature, watching movies, etc. to perfect her language use, and the effect is amazing. I read a bit aloud, which didn't sound at all Irish because I can't do a Northern Irish accent - however, my intent was to show that she got the dialect across beautifully even without having to change spellings (she uses some special local words). When this is done right, readers will "feel" a dialect even if they are not familiar with it in the real world.

Using fictional dialects is different, because you have no accountability to a world population. However, it's a good idea to make sure that you don't accidentally have world accountability, as I mentioned earlier. Mike Flynn is an author who does this great. I read a sample of his work, showing how he uses just a few made-up words, and other words with older etymologies (words with an archaic feel) to create a mood surrounding the language of his stories.

Glenda particularly noticed the rhythm of the language in the Flynn story, and therefore we talked briefly about how meter, or rhythm, can be a really great way to create a sense of dialect.

Word choice is also very important. When we hear a word, it brings up all the contexts in which we have ever heard it, simultaneously in our brains (yes, it is cool). Thus, words that are associated with narrow contexts always bring up a sense of that context. When have you heard the word "unrequited" and not thought, "love"? Words that appear in lots and lots of contexts are the ones that become generic.

It was at this point that I brought up the idea of voice in writing, because for me, dialect and voice are closely related. Any story that uses a close point of view can (and in my view, should) try to capture the voice of the character in the narration. This can be done badly. However, it can also be done very effectively. As an example, I read the opening of Janice Hardy's book The Shifter (called The Pain Merchants in the UK). The main character, Nya, has a very distinctive voice that comes from several things - the mention of chickens, her frequent mentions of her grandmother, who goes by "Grannyma" (there's a dialect feel for you!), and her frequent citing of her grandmother's proverbs.

Dialect issues can cause book titles to be changed! I mentioned that I thought The Shifter was changed because marketers in the US didn't want to create an accidental association with drugs by using The Pain Merchants. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because marketers thought Americans wouldn't know what the Philosopher's stone was, and might get turned off by the word philosopher (sigh). We were all saddened by the perception that Americans are stupid and need things to be simplified for them.

I mentioned how one can change grammar to convey alienness and alien voice. The examples here were Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and my own short story, "Cold Words," both of which use wolflike aliens but in very different ways. You can learn more in depth about "Cold Words" and its language use here.

Lastly I read a piece of a work in progress, where I'm working on the dialect of the Variner undercaste. It involves a special use of plural pronouns instead of singular ones, which means that I can't entirely write the surrounding narrative in the dialect, because critical information about gender would be lost, making it hard to distinguish between characters. David mentioned that it's pretty common to use plural pronouns to refer to people in dialects across the world, because it's considered less direct. Indeed, the formal "vous" pronoun in French, which has analogs in many Romance languages, is a plural.

Someone recommended the play "Not I" by Samuel Beckett.

This was another one of those discussions where I felt we were rolling right along at a terrific clip, and could have gone on a lot longer! Thanks to everyone who attended and contributed.

Here's the video: