Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On languages and character development

Posted by: Angela Korra'ti
If you follow me on my blog or on the social networks, you’ll figure out pretty fast that one of my big passions right now, outside of writing, is language study. For the past many months, I’ve been putting a little bit of daily effort into studying both French and German, using an app called SuperMemo on my iPhone.

So because I post about language geekery a lot (especially on my Facebook wall, where a few actual Francophones follow me and periodically even let me make words at them in French, which is awesome), I got asked to post about how languages affect the shaping of an author’s characters. This could mean, either languages the author knows in real life, or languages they’re making up!

This, then, is a followup to my last post about reading fantasy in other languages. I’ll break the question down into two posts, actually. This one will talk about real-life languages influencing character development, and for my next Here Be Magic post, I’ll geek out about made-up languages.

I’m not a linguist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m simply a language hobbyist! I’ve always had fun playing with languages, dating clear back to when I heard an Elvis Presley song, “Wooden Heart”, and realized he was singing in German in the bridge. This in no small part influenced my decision to take German in high school, and in college, I took a year of French as well. I tried to take Russian, though to my eternal sadness I had to drop the class due to an overloaded schedule. I’ve toyed with learning Norwegian, Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Japanese as well, though to date I have very little practical vocabulary in any of those languages.

French and German, though, those are sticking with me. Quebecois French in particular is important to me, not only because of my rampaging affection for Quebecois traditional music, but also because there will be a French-speaking Warder character from Quebec eventually showing up in the Faerie Blood series.

Which means that I’ll have a non-native-English speaker in my cast, who’ll be interacting with characters who are native English speakers—because, well, I’ll be writing in English. So I’ll need to think about the character’s comfort level with English, and, if he’s not entirely fluent, how to believably and smoothly portray that in his dialogue.

Over the years I’ve seen varying reader reactions to characters who aren’t native English speakers. Two big complaints I’ve seen are:

1) Overdoing the accent

I’ve seen this often in the context of, say, Scottish historical romances, where a Scottish hero can’t make it out of a sentence without leaving dropped g’s in his wake, where every ‘you’ comes out as ‘ye’, and where it takes you twice as long to read anything the character says just because you have to spend time parsing every word.

Needless to say, I’m not a fan of that approach. Instead I try to be subtler, and reflect the cadence of an accent in word choices and occasional bits of description. I’ve been working on building a sense of how a Francophone Quebecer would speak in English courtesy of meeting several Quebecois musicians, and I’ll need to augment that sense eventually, via movies, podcasts, or whatever other recordings I might find.

Along with actual study of French, I’ve begun to develop an idea of differences a French speaker might have to deal with when he’s speaking in English. Which brings me to point #2!

2) Resorting to cliches

The second big complaint I’ve seen periodically on the Net is the frequency with which non-native-English speakers are portrayed in cliched ways. Things like, say, never speaking with contractions, or peppering dialogue with simple words in the character’s native language, by way of shorthand to show the reader that ‘hey, this character’s a Francophone’!

But the thing is, simple words like ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Those are going to be among the very first words that a newcomer to English will learn. Particularly if they are likely to have had English classes in school—like, say, a Francophone would in Canada.

Where a Francophone might have trouble—ah, now that’s the fun part. Only by putting some effort into understanding your character’s native language will you be able to discover things like how if an English speaker says “next Saturday”, what they mean is “not this coming Saturday, but the one after”. But if a Francophone says that, they mean “this coming Saturday”.

Or, nuances in verb translation—like how the verb “regarder” has a built-in connotation of “at”. If you want to say “look at the hat”, the translation is “regarder le chapeau”. There’s no equivalent of “at” in the phrase, because it’s built right into the verb. Which is a sneaky little detail that’d be entirely plausible for a Francophone to miss, when he’s trying to point out a particular interesting nearby hat!

Long story short, it boils down to the same thing any writer worth her keyboard needs to do if she wants to include anything realistically in a story: i.e., research.

In my case, that means language study, and it’ll eventually also mean seeing if any of my online Francophone friends are willing to chat with me about details of learning English that were difficult for them. Plus, since this Warder boy will be a Quebecer, it means I get to learn about Quebecois profanity, too! (Which is acres of fun all by itself. Seriously, it has its very own Wikipedia page! And a friend of mine in Montreal pointed me at a movie I'll need to hunt down, in which the main characters are cops and the Quebecer gives his Anglophone parter a lesson in how Quebec profanity works—while they're interrogating a suspect.)

How about you, readers? What drives you spare when you’re reading a character who’s not a native English speaker? Especially if you yourself are not a native English speaker? What do Anglophone authors get wrong that you’d really, really like to see us get right? Sound off in the comments!

Angela Highland may not be a linguist, but boy howdy she thinks words are awesome, because hello, writer. Keep an eye out for language geekery sneaking into her forthcoming book, Vengeance of the Hunter, next month! Come find out more about her work at angelahighland.com, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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