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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 13: Dialects and In-World Jargon

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 13: Dialects and In-World Jargon


Key Points: Accents and dialects are attempts to emulate the ways people speak. Changing the spelling can be hard to read, makes the prose obvious, and can irritate the reader. Word choice and word order also can be used to suggest dialect. Fake swear words and in-world jargon also can help. "Do whatever is honest for the character."

[Transcription note: Armando (Dan accented) and Haggis (Howard accented) have Spanish and Scottish accents. I don't think I'm going to try to mangle the spelling to match. Listen to the podcast and imagine.]

[Brandon] We have two guest stars this week. I'm sorry, but we are also starring...
[Armando] Armando Gonzolito del Cartio de la Fantissimo Bibliotheque. [Comments indicate this should be Armando Gonzalitos del Castillo de la Santissima Biblioteca]
[Brandon] And...
[Haggis] Och, me name is Haggis McShiny.
[Armando] That is a very nice name.
[Brandon] McShiny? McChrometop? McShiny?
[Haggis] I've forgotten me own name. You had to get me drunk, didn't you?
[Armando] That is not surprising to me. It seems like it fits you very well.
[Brandon] OK. I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] And I'm Howard.

[Brandon] Yes. We've got five people in the studio today, plus Jordo who hopefully isn't doing an accent. We're going to talk about dialects. So... why? Let's talk about, first, what? What dialect are we talking about, how do we do a dialect? It's kind of different for you, Howard, then it is for us. You said you just change a font?
[Howard] I used to just change fonts. What I have done with the most recent book... I cut down. I used to have like six or seven fonts that I'd switch between. I'm down to three. The artificial intelligence/computer font, the Schlock font, and the everybody else font. I may do away with the Schlock font in the next book. I don't know.
[Brandon] What in fiction generally we are talking about is when you are changing the words to emulate the way that someone speaks or sounds. If you read Huck Finn, you will see an excellent example of someone using dialect.
[Dan] An excellent example that I am not necessarily going to want anyone to follow. Because even Mark Twain, who was very, very good at it... it's still very difficult to read.
[Brandon] We'll get into that. Because there are different balances and styles. Mark Twain is respected as one of the...
[Dan] There are. The way he did it is different... There's a lot of different ways to make it work, different levels of how you change the language.
[Howard] Iain Banks did thick, thick Scottish accent in The Bridge. Where one of the points of view is from a barbarian or a Scotsman or something. When I first looked at it, I could not read it. I realized I have to start reading this out loud. When I started reading it out loud, I said, "I sound like a Scotsman. This is hilarious. Oh, my gosh, that was profane. That was obscene. Holy crap, this is filthy. But it's hilarious." Those ended up being my favorite chapters in the book, but I had to read them out loud with nobody listening.
[Brandon] Name of the Wind has a section where he lapses into dialect and he does it strictly in the same way that Twain did. I loved it. But let's get into what Dan said before. What are the dangers of using a dialect that way?
[Dan] The danger is first of all that it's going to be hard to read. Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, in the preface, he says that right out front. He says first of all, yes I did these all right. I'm smarter than you. Don't tell me they're wrong. Second, he said a lot of you aren't going to be able to read them and I'm sorry about that. For example, in Name of the Wind, that section where he lapses into dialect, that was the section where I almost stopped reading the book because it was so hard for me to get through it.
[Brandon] Why is it so hard?
[Dan] Partly because like Howard said, they only really work if you read them out loud. Once you start deliberately misspelling things in order to reproduce a sound, then it has an aural complement that doesn't work on the written page. It only really comes into its own when you're saying it out loud, for the most part.
[Howard] The two that are the most common, or the easiest to recognize, is the lisp where you start replacing "s"s with "th". A lithp is when you pronounce "likth" instead of "licks." [note -- hard to hear which word Howard is lisping. likes, licks, lips?]
[Dan] Oh, ith that what it ith?
[Howard] That works for somebody who has got an obvious speech impediment, but it's not going to carry your story very far. The other one that's not very well done and it gets cited as a bad example all the time is contractions. Replacing the "g" with an apostrophe. I used to do that one all the time. I still do it from time to time. But it's... I don't know how effective it is. I don't know that it really establishes dialect.
[Brandon] The reason I would say that we're having problems when we read with these dialects... a lot of us are striving for what we've called... we've talked about translucent prose. Storytelling... there are different types of storytelling. People are trying to achieve different things in their prose. Generally, in popular fiction, we are striving to have our prose be invisible, so that you can see through the book and see an image, a scene unfolding. When you have to stop and figure out what the words are, it's like the director freezing... the movie theater freezing the frame and popping you out. You have to cock your head and figure out what's going on again. It drop kicks you out.
[Howard] That Iain Banks book... Iain Banks writes both science-fiction and he writes literary fiction. He writes under two different names, one is Iain Banks, one is Iain M. Banks. The Bridge was literary fiction, where the authors experiment more. They're expected to. The prose is not expected to be transparent. The prose is expected to do interesting things.

[Dan] Now, there are other ways like we talked about. Deliberate misspellings to reproduce a sound is one way to do it. A less obtrusive way is stuff like taking off the "g"s, using words like ain't. Changing the word choice is often all you need.
[Brandon] Let's talk about that.
[Dan] For example in our writing group on Friday, there was one guy who submitted a chapter where there was a Russian character. I don't think he spelled any of those words differently. But because of the words he chose and the order he put them in the sentence, that Russian accent came across really, really strongly.
[Brandon] How do you do this? What are some specifics we can tell our listeners about how one can reproduce an accent without kicking someone out of the story?
[Dan] First of all, you have to know the accent really well. You have to do your homework. You have to research it. You have to listen to it. If you're going to try to do Irish, if you're going to try to do Eubonics, if you're going to try to do any of those things, you have to listen to it really closely.
[Howard] When you say accent, there's the sounds of the words which are important to an accent. There's also aspects of dialect where...
[Brandon] An accent and a dialect are separate.
[Howard] They're separate things. Word order... when you're speaking Spanish, the order of the verbs and the nouns is different than it is in English...
[Dan] When a native Spanish speaker then speaks English, that comes across and you can tell. [Armando] As Armando would tell you, if he were here.
[Brandon] He is here.
[Armando] He is here. But he is not talking to you right now.
[Brandon] The first level... the most drop-you-out-of-the-story level... would be misspelling words in an attempt to re-create the sounds. The next level would be changing word order and maybe dropping words and maybe the occasional letter drop in order to emulate the dialect without exactly emulating the accent. One thing I might suggest for this would be to go and watch a movie or listen to someone where they are speaking in this dialect. Then transcribe it. Transcribe it with the actual words. Drop all of the accent. Then look and see what are they doing. What patterns are they using? What articles are they dropping in order to create this dialect?
[Dan] One of the most famous dialects is Yoda. All they did for Yoda was they just changed the word order. He constructs his sentences differently than we do in English. The funniest one being in Clone Wars where he says, "Around the survivors a perimeter create." That's just "create a perimeter around the survivors." But he always puts his words in the same order. It is reproducible, it is very easy to do, and it's easy to understand.

[Brandon] Something else that we want to talk about also though is in-world jargon. We can start out talking about this as well.
[Armando] I believe that is a frakking good idea.
[Brandon] Thank you very much, Armando.
[Haggis] Och, yer using frakking wrong. Frakking's negative. That's shiny.
[Brandon] They did this in Firefly, which is what Haggis is quoting here. Firefly, they used shiny. We use this a lot in science fiction or even fantasy. They come up with fake swear words and things like this. How effective do you guys think this is?
[Howard] I've seen it done well and I've seen it done poorly. I loved the... I can't remember the characters name, but it was in a Ringo Weber book. One of the characters... all I can remember was his profanity, and his profanity was "pocking." Pocking this, and pocking that. You know exactly what word has been dialected, but it just worked.
[Dan] Battle Star Galactica of course did frak. I thought it worked really well. I know it didn't work for a couple of people. One of the reasons it worked really well is because we all knew what frak was supposed to mean and they gave it the right weight. One thing that they did, for example, is it was the rough characters who would use it and... I remember one episode where one of the pilots said it in front of the president, and she like went white. She had to apologize for saying that word. That let the audience know this actually is a big deal. It's not just somebody...
[Howard] I'm not throwing that word in order to be able to use profanity all the time in my book. I am throwing that word in order to establish that this character is profane and is going to get called on it sometimes.
[Brandon] Personally, I... pet peevy sort of thing, I don't like it when the fake swear words are obviously replacing a swear word we have, particularly when they're doing something like frak where they're just replacing a couple of the letters. That bugs me...
[Howard] The thing that I liked about pocking is that it wasn't that it was replacing the swear word. It was that he was speaking a different language where he came from, and that was that swearword.
[Brandon] The best uses of this is where it actually illustrates the world. I loved it when Anne McCaffrey did it in the Dragonriders books. Because she had world elements. She'd say shards or things like this talking about the shells of dragons and things like this. It was part of the world. It wasn't just a we don't want to get a TV MA rating, so we're going to replace a couple of letters.
[Dan] In Mistborn, you did the same thing with Lord Ruler. People use Lord Ruler as an epithet all through the series, even long after there's not a Lord Ruler. That in itself became a story element. Because characters would occasionally say, "Why are you still swearing by the Lord Ruler?"
[Howard] Wheel of Time. Blood and bloody ashes.
[Brandon] Wheel of Time does a good job with a lot of this. Suan Sanchez [sp?] with her fish metaphors and things allows him to illustrate her background and the world a little bit through coming up with all of these sorts of things. Is this dangerous? Are there problems with doing this?
[Dan] Definitely. Like I said, for example, with frak there's a lot of people that hated it. I know a guy who stopped watching the series because he thought frak was such a stupid euphemism. You can get und... people can think that you're just pussyfooting around. People can get sick of hearing it.
[Howard] I love the way Firefly handled it, where... shiny. Shiny is the one that we all remember because it fit so well.
[Brandon] But, goram.
[Dan] Goram.
[Howard] Goram this, goram that.
[Dan] And the Chinese.
[Howard] And most of the time, when they really wanted to swear, they would swear in Chinese.
[Brandon] I thought that Firefly was one of the best examples [inaudible]
[Dan] One of the reasons that I think it worked so well is that it was different every time. You didn't get sick of hearing shiny and goram and frak because it was a different little rattled-off Chinese phrase any time they wanted to swear so it didn't get old.

[This section removed online in the current podcast. Retained in the transcript in case anyone thinks they missed something.]

[Brandon] How are people doing this well? Howard?
[Howard] [whistle] I thought we just talked about people who are doing it well?
[Brandon] Sorry. You had one earlier, I just thought...
[Haggis] Och, Howard's witless...
[Brandon] Shall we cut that?
[Armando] I could have told you that.
[Brandon] Jordo, let's cut that, OK?
[Jordan] OK. I'll try to remember.
[Brandon] There was a moment where you earlier looked like you wanted to say something and Dan started saying and I thought that you had one still.
[Howard] Oh, I'm sorry.
[Brandon] Let's see. Where are we going to go? We've got two minutes left.
[Howard] Sorry.
[Brandon] One thing I wanted to talk about...
[Dan] Can we talk about... we've talked about how can this backfire using fake swear words. Should we talk about...
[Brandon] What can it do for you?
[Dan] Yeah, what can it do for you? Why is it sometimes wrong to not do it?
[Brandon] Let's talk about what it can do for you. [Inaudible]
[Howard] Sorry. You push play.
[Brandon] I did.
[Howard] I pushed pause on the clock and...
[Brandon] OK. All right. Two more minutes.
[Dan] I can just shoot this question at you.
[Brandon] Go for it.

[End of the missing section.]

[Armando] All right. I, Armando, obviously I know all of this already, but I have a question for Brandon. As we said, in Mistborn, you do this. You have a lot of fake swear words. We have talked about sometimes it is wrong to use them, sometimes it is wrong not to. Why did you choose to use the fake swear words that you used in Mistborn?
[Brandon] OK. I chose to use the fake swear words that I did because I wanted to tie the characters more deeply to the world. I wanted... when I look at, sit down to write, I'm not generally... this ties into dialects too. I don't want to do dialects usually. Usually, when I'm looking and saying, "Am I going to replace a swear word?" my general instinct is to not to replace it. If I don't want to curse in my books, I'll just... I'll have him say he swore. If I do want to have them curse in my books, I'll have them use actual curse words. Unless I feel that that person would use something in-world. I usually want to have... a lot of our curse words are tied either to scatological events or to religion. Religion is very powerful in my works, so I try to do this. When I sit down, I actually do it by character a lot of times. I'll let how a character swears build partially his race and his people. When I'm doing a dialect, I'm not usually looking to replace words or even drop words. I'm looking for what the word choices, what diction choices will this person make that will give us a feeling of their world. When I was writing Sazed, I didn't... I tried not to do the average things. A lot of people to give a dialect will have someone stop using contractions. Which is kind of overused, I think. I think people do speak in contractions. Even literate people speak in contractions a lot. And so...
[Howard] I do that with my artificial intelligences. And sometimes I screw it up. I forget to take the contractions out.
[Brandon] But I'm looking... to take Sazed for instance and show his entire culture by showing how he speaks and I make it polite. That's what I do. Because people like that, that tend to be of... the scholarly class that he is, I thought would be very polite. That's what his dialect is. He is extremely polite with occasional little word phrases from his world... from his culture. I try to do that with all of my characters.
[Dan] I think that that is the best answer... is not... grab... definitely have all the fake swear words or definitely don't. Do whatever is honest for the character. If they are speaking in such a way that right when they say this, they would swear there, then that's what you've got to do. If that's an in-world swearword that works, then great. It's not, then...
[Howard] Something really funny happened. The Scottish accent I would use during a role-playing game because that was how my troll spoke when he was speaking the common tongue. We were in a situation where the troll was speaking with other trolls. The GM spoke to me without using any sort of accent at all and told me, "No, no, no. Drop the accent. You don't use an accent when you're a troll speaking troll." I realized oh, my gosh, I have two voices. I have my voice when I'm speaking my own language and I have my voice when I'm speaking this other language. It added a huge depth to a character that I already thought was pretty clever.
[Dan] Very nice.

[Brandon] Did you have a writing prompt for us, Dan? Didn't we talk about this? No, you had one last time. I should come up with one.
[Haggis] It's your turn.
[Armando] It is time for you to give us a writing prompt.
[Brandon] Armando and Haggis are together...
[Armando] As we often are.
[Brandon] Trapped in a room...
[Armando] With many beautiful women.
[Brandon] With many beautiful women, running away from them...
[Haggis] And I've got a kilt.
[Brandon] Why are they trapped in this room? This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: accents, dialects, in-world jargon, writing excuses
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