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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.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 13th, 2010 11:19 am (UTC)
Being English, I have the inherent ability to make myself understood in any language, by simply repeating myself more slowly and a little louder each time.

hehehehe :)
Feb. 14th, 2010 12:52 am (UTC)
*rofl* I've actually met people who must have attended the same academy ! :P
Feb. 13th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC)
Another thing to remember is that language reflects culture. In her culture, perhaps compliments are handled differently; perhaps it isn't even polite to give them - that may be extreme, but possible.

Take a culture where group accomplishment is what's desired: giving what we would consider a compliment of "You did a wonderful job" to one person is not a compliment: it's an undesired singling out of a person and may have been bad because the *group* doesn't look good now.

I think this is what you are pointing at when you mention her response to your compliments, so I wanted to put in my 20 cents. :)
Feb. 14th, 2010 01:29 am (UTC)
Oh absolutely. For me, language and cultural are inseparable. One very much informs the other. I think when you design a language for one of your countries, you really have to take into account what kind of society they have.
Feb. 13th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC)
This is very true, and the more intimately you know a language, the more accurately you can imitate the common errors a native speaker makes when speaking a different language.

I actually see this a lot more often from the other side, from hearing errors my mother and husband make while speaking Hebrew that are "direct translations" from the English. For instance, using the Hebrew version of the proposition or helping verb one would use in English... when that isn't necessarily the proper one to use in that context in Hebrew. For instance, in Hebrew, "I don't believe you" is more literally translated as "I no believe to you".

However, this doesn't mean that an Israeli will say "I no believe to you". S/he is more likely to say "I not believe you." Why? Because if s/he knows enough English to know basically how to build a sentence and what the word "believe" means, s/he has probably heard enough to know that the usage of the word "not" is proper here (though s/he may not realize that it needs a "do" beforehand) and s/he probably heard the word "believe" in the context of a sentence, so s/he probably realizes that no proposition is necessary. Israelis' English on a large scale comes from TV, so some kinds of sentences they have probably heard a lot and therefore are less likely to make serious mistakes in those sentences.

Sooo... it also depends on how people learn the foreign language and what they are likely to have heard.

I agree with cathemery about culture. I've read about Chinese culture that criticism is an expression of love, it means you care enough about the person to want to help them. (I would certainly not take it this way, but...) Your hostess may have "turned around" your compliment because in her culture it is proper to be modest and accept everything as constructive criticism.

Feb. 14th, 2010 01:40 am (UTC)
Excellent points. Especially concerning how people can get complex sentences right because they've heard them a number of times and still mess up something that is fairly basic.

I'm going to try to ask a Thai person how they perceive compliments. I know that we've complimented several people on different things, and they were quite pleased (or they appeared to be). The reason I think the lady misunderstood us is because we were talking about the decor in the bathroom and the practicality of an open shower. We really liked the paint job (the walls looked cracked and the paint old--you know the effect that is quite popular? In Europe it is, anyhow). Because it is an "aged" look, deliberate though it may be, the lady may have misunderstood Julien when he asked if she had to paint it frequently because of water damage.

In any case, having a culture that deals differently with compliments, criticism, discussions on the weather, etc. is certainly fascinating to contemplate.
Feb. 14th, 2010 01:24 am (UTC)
Excellent post!
Feb. 14th, 2010 01:45 am (UTC)
Thank you. :) I only scratched the surface, but those are some basic things that popped in my head as we were driving along.
Feb. 14th, 2010 01:50 am (UTC)
I know it's a sore spot with me (::twitch::), but there are reasons that certain things are cliches. Theyhappen.

But then we all know that fiction has to be more real than real life. *g*
Feb. 14th, 2010 02:00 am (UTC)
*nods* Cliches CAN be used to good effect sometimes, especially if you set them and then pull a twist on them.
Feb. 14th, 2010 06:27 am (UTC)
The only thing I can add to this conversation -- and believe me, it's not very useful -- is that when creating the Klingon language, the Powers that Be with Star Trek intentionally left out anything that could be translated "to be." I think it had something to do with the Klingon code of honor and that you either are or you are not -- ("there is no try", to mix my references).

So when they were writing Star Trek VI, which draws heavily from Hamlet and quotes it several times, they were stuck -- because a Klingon had to say, "to be or not to be."

So yeah...

Fantasy languages, grammar, all that jazz. It would be so hard not to write yourself into a corner!

Feb. 15th, 2010 08:17 am (UTC)
Cool, I never knew that about Klingon! The things one learns... :P
Feb. 14th, 2010 10:40 pm (UTC)
From Robin
Hi there I truly enjoy reading all of your friends comments. Speaking as one who has lived in several areas around the world and regions of the United States,idioms and colloquialisms are not only national but also regional. This goes for cultural differences also. When visiting my Aunt and Uncle in California, I was asked by my cousin, their daughter, why I constantly answered her parents with yes ma'am and no ma'am and yes sir and no sir. At the time I was 25 and in her younger eyes on an equal footing as them. I, however was brought up by a very Southern Lady who instilled this as proper grammar to be used when addressing any one worthy of respect. That being said, I'm so glad you're feeling better and are enjoying this part of your trip.
Love you both
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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