After speaking English for soixante-trois ans, I am learning French. This is a particular challenge for me, because while my eighth-grade classmates were flocking in droves toward French, I was drawn to the challenge of learning a new alphabet. So I took Russian, continuing in college for a total of семь лет. I still have the Slavic rolled “r” positioned against my hard palate, forgetting to send it throat-ward for the gargle needed in French.
At long last, I understand the linguistic challenge faced by Dmitri DeLaval, the Russian-French choreographer I created in my debut novel, The Art of Falling. Dmitri: my humblest apologies.
Yet this new experience with language has me thinking differently about the manuscripts I edit.
Let me pause here to ask for a moment of self-reflection. When you hear someone struggling to speak in a language different than the one s/he grew up speaking, do you perceive them as:
1) having an intelligence equal to the sum of their errant syllables, or as
2) someone who is courageously wielding sounds that will never feel at home on their tongue so that they might communicate with a broader range of humans?
Knowing the Unboxed community to be an empathetic bunch, I’m going to hope you answered (2). The people you meet—and the characters you create—deserve this respect.
I breen dees up becoss I keep seen manuscripts wit dialogue ware ebbry syllable ees transcribed ass eet woss herd—complete with unnecessary misspellings. Unfortunately, in what I’d like to believe was a good-hearted attempt to make a cast of characters more diverse, such dialogue comes across as mockery.
Clearly, not everyone has gotten the memo: this approach is no longer cool. Yet if you want to effectively evoke a multicultural cast, how can you pull that off?
Let’s turn to the mad skills of some published authors who’ve successfully negotiated this challenge.
1. Distort idioms. When I googled why English is so hard to learn, the first thing that came up was the vast range, variety, and unpredictability of English idioms. Botched idioms are a relatable way to suggest that a character is not a native speaker, one that Jill A. Davis makes good use of in her debut novel, Girls’ Poker Night, through a secondary character named Skorka.
While Skorka does drop in the odd article now and then, she mostly messes up on the idioms. (You’ll note, however, she has the cuss words down pat.) Among them:
“No, you like the hard life, that’s why you work for the a**hole. Before that, you worked for some other a**hole. You want to hit the head against the wall.”
. . .
“I’m pumping more money into this economy than you are. Who gives a f*** if I speak the language of the green moon mans?”
While the other women sit at the poker table, Skorka gets up to slow dance by herself with her cards spread in a fan, blowing smoke rings and drinking tequila from a bottle. “It’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re a model,” our narrator says. [Read more…]