February 13th, 2010

wayfaring wordhack

The things I hear - Ayutthaya

First a disclaimer: I'm not sharing this to make fun of someone's level in English,* but because I think it could be helpful to the writers on my flist--that would be most of you. :P

So some thoughts on language...

Our hostess at the hotel was driving us to the bus station, and we were complimenting her on the hotel and how charming we found it, especially the bathroom.  She replied:

"Oh, thank you very much, but we need mechanic for repairs. It very hard find mechanic here."

When trying to make foreigners sound foreign in our fantasy books, we (er, I) often conjugate their verbs incorrectly, drop articles and prepositions (something I know was hard for me to master in French and is VERY hard, with phrasal verbs, for the French when they learn English), and so forth.  In the quote above, you'll note a verb is missing altogether, as is a preposition and article.

From the example above--even if you didn't know that I was in Thailand at the moment--you probably could have guessed that the speaker's native language is not English and that it could be, at the risk of sounding like an idjit by broadly lumping some pretty non-similar languages together, Asian. 

Why could that be a reasonable guess?  Because most of us have heard a real Asian accent before, and if not a real one, then a parodied one. Accents are easy to parody because the sounds and grammatical errors tend to be consistent. That's important for me, as a fantasy writer, to remember: for an accent to ring true, the same mistakes must be made *consistently.* And to know which mistakes would logically be made by my characters, I really need to know a little bit about how the foreigner's language works as well as the language that is "translated" into English on the page.

If, for example, prepositions don't exist in Derfan'qah but are in overabundance in Huri, it's a logical conclusion that their usage will cause all sorts of trouble when a Derfan'qahi princess tries to express herself to a Hurite prince. 

Ugh. Grammar.  Too much work. That's what some people think. (Not moi; I quite like it). But it doesn't have to be just about the grammar as our hostess so clearly showed me.  I do, on occasion, give my characters an apt "wrong" word like our hostess used, but not, I think, often enough. Not-quite-right words can add a lot of spice, and they are likely to be easier on your readers than pages and pages of grammatically incorrect dialogue.

Vocabulary can be a wonderful way to give someone an accent on the page, that and word order. You don't have to put apostrophes in place of your Gs and other dropped letters and resort to all sorts of wonky, phonetical spellings to get foreignness (or lack of education) across. Note that I did not resort to "imitating" our hostess's accent with "tank you vewy mush...it vewy har fi mechanic..." even though that's what it sounded like to my ears.

Our conversation with her continued, and we realized that she had misunderstood our compliments and was taking them as criticisms or suggestions.  We struggled to make her understand, and she replied:

"Thank you very much for your recommendations. We always try do better."

Yep, misunderstandings can also be good.  Not only do they provide conflict; they smack of veracity.  If you've never had a single misunderstanding while chatting with a non-native speaker of your language, then you are different and fortunate, indeed. 

Those are a few random thoughts I had on language.  Have any you want to share?
* As a speaker of a second language, I know what it's like to make mistakes, and I wouldn't presume to mock anyone who speaks in a language not their own, neither for their accent or their syntax.