Many of our books feature characters with languages other than English, but how can we be sensitive and avoid stereotypes in dialect? In this article, author Julie Tetel Andresen suggests that there are nuances to how we portray English variants and also other languages in our increasingly global world.
We live in a highly mobile, globalized world. As a result of this current reality, it is only natural for us novelists to want to create characters from different places, some of whom may have grown up speaking languages other than Standard American English (SAE).
It is also natural that we might want to set our stories in places other than the United States.
Given our webbed world, we can also now expect the audiences for our stories to be global. So, be aware that some part of your audience is likely to be linguistically sophisticated.
They know what it’s like to be bi- or even multilingual and can spot a supposedly bilingual character who doesn’t ring true. The same holds for creating characters who speak a variety of English other than SAE.
You’re writing a novel, not a grammar book or a travelogue. You don’t want to give your readers language lessons. But you do want your non-native SAE characters to sound authentic. And you do want to bring your foreign settings to life. A well-chosen word or two from the local language can help. In all cases, a light touch will do. Here are some tips from a linguist’s point of view:
1. Don't cut linguistic corners
Don’t put the words “oui, oui, monsieur” in a French speaker’s mouth or “sí, sí, señor” in a Spanish speaker’s mouth in the middle of an English conversation.
If you do, you will signal to the reader that: a) you don’t know any other words in those languages; and b) you have no idea how speakers adapt to a second language.
English is a global language. Everyone in the world knows ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ What non-native speakers find difficult are the idiomatic expressions.
Take the lines from the classic song America from West Side Story when Anita sings: “I like the island Manhattan. Smoke on your pipe and put that in!” The brilliant lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, could get away with rhyming ‘Manhattan’ with ‘that in’ only by putting the garbled idiom in the mouth of a non-native speaker.
2. Don’t guess at how speakers of non-standard varieties of American English speak
For instance, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has just as many rules as SAE. However, the rules are different.
The utterances: “He be waiting for me right now” and “He waiting for me all the time” are both incorrect according to the rules of AAVE.
The verbal form be + verb+ing expresses habitual action. The verbal form without the be expresses punctual time. Thus, when used correctly “He be waiting for me” has the idea that he always does so, and “He waiting for me” has the idea of right now.
3. Don't ignore the subtleties
If you create characters from the United Kingdom, don’t limit your representation of their speech to lexical items. Yes, the British say ‘flat’ and ‘lorry’ and ‘jumper’ for what Americans call ‘apartment’ and ‘truck’ and ‘sweater.’
However, the differences are more pervasive and sometimes subtle. The verbs ‘have’ and ‘do,’ for example, have developed differently. In British English, it’s perfectly normal ‘to do a weekly shop’ and ‘to have a think.’
And don’t deny yourself the pleasure of engaging with the delightfully British ways of insulting and swearing.
You may need to be similarly attentive to the nuances of the Englishes spoken in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India – and not forgetting Canada.
And Some Dos
Do have a clear reason why you have chosen to create characters whose first language is not SAE. Are they a main character, a secondary character or just there for so-called local color?
I would not write a main character from a linguistic background I myself do not know well. Nor would I write a secondary character whose linguistic background I am not well acquainted with.
I make this choice because the kinds of things these characters are most likely to come out with in their first language will be exactly the kinds of things that don’t exist or aren’t easily expressed in English. You can’t guess them, and you do need them for authenticity.
In The Crimson Hour, my heroine, Eloise, is Romanian-American. At one point she, her friend Leah, and her Romanian-born mother, Ruxandra, fly (and, in fact, flee) from San Francisco to Bucharest.
Throughout the story, I used Romanian very sparingly, and when I did use it, I made sure it was spot on. For instance, Ruxandra uses the perfect word pile ‘ins, connections’ to describe how she was able to get Eloise and Leah false passports on short notice. Eloise then turns to Leah and wryly explains the term with its shady connotations.
Write what you know. Part of what you need to know about a character is their first language.
2. Language serves the story
Do introduce non-SAE words in function of your story.
I wrote my Forest Breeze trilogy, which is set in Vietnam, after spending six months at Vietnamese language school in Saigon. Again, I used Vietnamese very sparingly. Of course, the well-known soup phỏ comes up. It would be nearly impossible to avoid it, since everyone eats it for breakfast.
The first story, Tied Up, is set during Tết, the Lunar New Year, so obviously this festival and some of its customs are relevant. Then, too, the story has a plot line concerning an orphanage.
So I introduced mồ coi ‘orphan’ and mái ấm ‘roof warm,’ that is, ‘warm roof,’ which is one term for orphanage. The words Mái Ấm Thiện Duyên (the name of the orphanage) are chiseled on an archway that the heroine, an international specialist in orphans and a non-speaker of Vietnamese, is able to recognize when she goes to visit.
The second story, Captured, involves a Motorcycle Club headquartered in the Mekong Delta. I naturally introduced the term xe máy ‘motorcycle.’ If you know nothing else about Vietnam, you’re likely to know that everyone there has a motorcycle, and families of four can be seen tooling around town on one.
The xe máy is an integral part of Vietnamese life. And because the Motorcycle Club is Australian, I also incorporated Aussie vocabulary and expressions where appropriate.
The third story, Knocked Out, is based on Mixed Martial Arts. Although it is still set in Vietnam, the exotic vocabulary comes from Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I loved having my heroine put her nemesis in a gogoplata, a serious chokehold.
3. Deep familiarity.
Do acquaint yourself with characteristic gestures and the extra-linguistic sounds speakers of languages other than SAE make.
I once got a fan letter from a French woman who told me how much she loved The Blue Hour. This story features both main and secondary characters who are French.
My fan pointed out, in particular, the pleasure she got from the passage that included this sentence: “Jean-Philippe’s soft bof was expressive.” This passage comes toward the end of the story when Jean-Phillipe, the villain, is in conversation with Val, the hero, and it looks like Jean-Phillipe is going to prevail.
Everything in his exchange with Val is exceedingly polite and exceedingly dismissive, including the bof. This characteristically French sound evidently struck a chord with at least one reader.
Do consult with native speakers.
Double-check and aim high. You might have only made it through high school Spanish, Level Two, but you want your readers to be convinced that your heroine from the Little Havana neighborhood in Miami knows her way around the street. ¿Oye que bola?
Are there characters in your books who speak other languages or who have English as a second language? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Julie Tetel Andresen is the author of more than 30 romance novels and three linguistic texts. A professor at Florida International University, her latest novel, The Hard Bargain, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Learn more at her website.