I heart languages. I majored in Linguistics in college, and as part of that I studied two foreign languages. I’m super excited that my library offers free online language courses (and am frustrated that they don’t use more technical terminology. I want to conjugate, darn it!). I transcribe things into the International Phonetic Alphabet. For fun.
But it wasn’t on a conscious level that I began using characters who spoke other languages in my works. I started with a native English speaker—but a native Irish English speaker.
This might actually be trickier than using a foreign language, because it’s easy to forget all the subtle differences between American and Commonwealth English. I mean, I speak English, how hard could it be, right? (Not as easy as you think.)
I think my next project will feature a character who speaks Russian as her native language. This will have more challenges for me because I want to learn all I can about the language to make her voice (in English) more authentic.
For example, in Russian, you can reorder the phrases of a sentence without changing the meaning. “To the store I went” and “I went to the store” are both perfectly acceptable. Moving a phrase to the beginning of the sentence adds emphasis. (So “To the store I went” is like saying “[No,] I went to the store.”)
Which brings me to a dilemma: in English (or just in “good writing”), we tend place emphasis on things at the end of sentences. So what do you think? Should I use the Russian emphasis pattern to stay truer to the way my character would think, or should I conform to the writing standards of English?
And if you have any questions about any of your foreign (or not-so-foreign) characters’ use of language, feel free to ask me!
More fun facts about language and meaning this week from Livia Blackburne
Photo by Eric Andresen