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Linguistic Quirks: What Wordbirthing & Name-Nicking Can Do for Fiction

Jasper spring 2011 [1]I awoke from a nightmare last weekend and did the sensible thing. I got up and showered off the flop sweat, crawled back in with the ToolMaster, and poked him in the shoulder — firmly, since he was the cause of my distress.

“Hey,” he said with a fair degree of irritation. Then something must have shown on my face. “Another bad dream? What do you need?”

While he wrapped his arms around me, I told him the sordid tale.

Despite it being considered a huge no-no in fiction to begin with a dream, I’ll repeat myself here. I’m hoping to first illustrate some linguistic elements, then discuss how they might be intentionally used to help with world-building and characterization.

So, the dream…

On a gorgeous day in early spring, we’d gone for a family hike in the mountains. The snow was a good three feet deep but packed underfoot, so navigable, if slow going. To the right was a half-buried snow fence, and a yard beyond that, a canyon carved smooth and deep by a river.

We were alone, free to enjoy the sounds you’d expect in such a setting: from far below, the gentle shushing of meltwater. From a quarter-mile back, the voices of our kids as they argued about an episode of Dexter. Overhead, the loopy birdsong of robins that had dined on fermented mountain ash berries.

At one point, the ToolMaster turned to say something to me — knowing him, it involved some kind of Jan-ribbing — and he lost his balance. Before I could draw breath, he slipped sideways, his momentum carrying him over the snow fence and toward the canyon’s edge. At the last second, he grabbed the branch of a pine tree on the proximal side and his feet found purchase on a narrow ledge.

If he’d stayed there and waited for a rope, he might have been fine, but he looked down. Whatever he saw spooked him.

He pinwheeled backward, ended in a worse position yet — feet on that small shelf, shoulders on the opposite wall of rock, his life depending upon the strength of his core. He might have been a tree lodged at an angle, except that he was clad in layers and wearing the latest in moisture-wicking technology.

I screamed to the kids to get help and went to him, stretching out from the pine tree. Naturally, I awoke as he was risking it all to grasp my hand, and Molly and Frank were disobeying my orders, easing past the snow fence to try and haul us up. If you saw their body mass versus ours, you’d know it couldn’t end well. Without equipment or help, we’d end in a daisy-chain of doom.

“You need to pay attention to the path when we you walk in the mountains, I said. “Are you listening? Also,”—I pushed closer as a shiver racked me—”you shouldn’t have panicked. You are not a panicker. This is not your role in our relationship.”

“All right,” he said. “I’ll stay calm.”

He’s not one to easily acquiesce, so I twisted my neck to stare at him with suspicion. “Promise?”

“Of course. But you’re not allowed to put yourself in danger to rescue me.”

“Um, you’re the one hanging above the crevasse due to poor judgment. You’re hardly in a place to dictate my behavior.”

The ToolMaster would likely have had a pithy rebuttal, but use of the word “crevasse” forced us to retrench. You see, it’s a trigger word in my marriage, setting off a ritual which proceeds like this:

On the morning of my nightmare, we added two more steps.

If you stuck it out this far through my post, you probably noticed a few linguistic quirks which are particular to my family and this dream scenario. (ToolMaster, crevuss, etc.) Apparently, linguists consider these to be hallmarks of a speech community [2], or a community whose boundaries are formed by a shared understanding of language. These signals can include:

If you’re not making careful and judicious use of these linguistic symbols in writing, you might reconsider for the following reasons:

If you’re accused of writing wooden dialogue or unrealistic speech, they can provide a remedy, conferring a sense of naturalness.

They can provide texture to your story. The best of these elements will provide a sense of the speakers’ values, socioeconomic status, education, profession, geography, ethnicity, etc. In other words, they form a succinct package for elements of world-building and characterization.

Act like a motif or symbol by providing a sense of resonance when certain words or phrases are used repetitively. For instance, think of how Penny and Sheldon play with the Soft Kitty song in The Big Bang Theory, and how their shifting treatment of the song reflects the change in their relationship. (They begin like this [3], end like this [4].)

Signal quality and type of relationships through subtext. For instance, within your fictional setting, consider a particular micro-culture and its speech patterns. Who understands it due to an accident of birth? Are there any parties who are deliberately excluded, thereby branding them “other”? Are their any supposed outsiders who understand the subculture’s language instinctively, signaling compatibility or worthiness for inclusion? Who should understand the nuances of communal language, but rejects it, or can’t navigate it appropriately?

Do you make use of any of these techniques in your fiction to signal belonging and cohesion, or lack thereof? Where have you seen them best applied? Do you consider them a fun part of writing, or do they seem foreign?


About Jan O'Hara [5]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [6] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [7]; Cold and Hottie [8]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [9]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.