Language and narration

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

3 thoughts on “Language and narration”

    1. I’m actually kind of leaning the other way. I think it’s entirely possible to stay true to a character’s voice without actually phrasing things the exact way their thoughts might translate.

      A “character’s voice” is already an arbitrary construct. I mean, most people actually think in pictures, not words. And if my character is a native-born Russian, she probably thinks in Russian. Russian pictures != marketable English-language novel.

      So, translating thoughts into words and Russian words into English ones is, I think, a bigger change than rephrasing said thoughts in English.

      Another example: if the character’s native language (or just normal speech) uses bland verbs with lots of adverbs, does that mean I have to write that way? No.

      It is a fine balance. I’ve blogged about this before, too: and

      1. I think, too, it might actually be more loyal to the character’s voice to make sure that their thoughts are as eloquently expressed in English as they would have been in their native language—and that’s pretty much always going to require some rephrasing.

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