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Dialect isn’t just people talking funny
August 6, 2014 11:51 PM   Subscribe

My project today is replacing all the dialogue spoken by Antiguan characters in Of Noble Family with dialogue rewritten by Antiguan and Barbudan author Joanne Hillhouse.

Let me explain why I’m doing this.
Mary Robinette Kowal talks about why she hired somebody else to help her with the Caribbean dialects for her next novel.
posted by MartinWisse (38 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
That seems so commonsensical it shouldn't be remarkable, and yet it's not at all standard practice. Good for you, Ms. Kowal.
posted by gingerest at 12:08 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]


It's cool if she wants to do it but it doesn't strike me as particularly commonsensical. Most authors aren't going to be able to afford to pay somebody else to write their dialogue for them. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Even if it does mean you sometimes end up with everybody in the world (or in the case of Jack McDevitt, galaxy) sounding like they live in 1980s Southern California.
posted by Justinian at 12:15 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]


Most authors aren't writing stories with characters speaking English-based creole languages and Standard English accented by having learned those creoles as a first language, so they're not going to have to pay a translator. Some authors who have written such books have simply substituted what they think the creole sounds like, which is not okay - it's jarring, but more importantly, it's appropriative.
posted by gingerest at 12:40 AM on August 7 [12 favorites]


A creole is really a different language. Trying to write dialogue in a creole without speaking it would be like trying to write dialogue in French without speaking it--but with the added pitfall that creoles are often stigmatized and misunderstood, making inaccurate representations more potentially hurtful. Maybe you can't afford someone to rewrite your dialogue for you... but if you can't, should you insist on writing in it anyway?

This issue comes up when trying to represent stigmatized dialects as well, which comes up more often. Different language or different dialect is a matter of degree, not kind. (And linguists will tell you that even that is a fiction). The challenge of writing in a dialect you don't speak might not be quite as insurmountable, but people still fuck it up terribly.

I was recently reading a story in which the black female character spoke in a terrible mix of phonetic spellings and eye dialect. It was so incredibly jarring and offensive. The choice to render her speech phonetically rather than that of the white characters was part of why, but so was the terrible inaccuracy. It read as a caricature. I was disgusted and stopped reading.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:12 AM on August 7 [13 favorites]


You must need an excellent relationship with your collaborator. I couldn't help feeling that if I were Joanne Hillhouse I'd probably say I appreciated the compliment but preferred to write my own novels.
posted by Segundus at 2:37 AM on August 7


I really love how she goes above and beyond, and then blogs about it. I remember Neil Gaiman also got help from, and credited, people with more knowledge about Island culture for his Anansi Boys novel, particularly in areas of dialect and culture.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:22 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


As a fellow North Carolinian, I really appreciated her thinking behind doing this. Growing up hearing people "Foghorn" (Kevin Spacey on House of Cards is currently demonstrating a thorough mangling of a South Carolinian accent) and thinking they were somehow speaking like me has really made me aware of how much other accents must be mangled by Hollywood and by authors.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:26 AM on August 7 [4 favorites]


It is like another language, but it's not like it's completely unheard-of for authors to do the sort of in-depth research that involves actually learning other languages to write novels. It's not unheard-of for authors to invent whole languages to write novels. Most of the awfulness with this sort of thing comes from the sort of authors who think that sufficient research for this is watching some television shows with people doing bad accents.
posted by Sequence at 4:30 AM on August 7


A creole is really a different language.

With the complication of having an infinitely nuanced spectrum between the deepest version of the creole and standard English (in this case, the same thing applies to French creole) -- it's not binary at all, and as the wikipedia page she links notes, people code switch with varying degrees of fluidity within that spectrum constantly. (In the distant past that spectrum would have run from a few African languages through a pidgin to the creole to standard English, but by now the spectrum is truncated to just creole and standard English, with extensive leftovers or borrowings from those African languages and some words from the Portuguese who ran some of the slave camps in West Africa.)

And in her case she's evidently trying to capture the sound it had two hundred years ago -- presumably minus the current borrowings from the US and Jamaica, and maybe still with a heavier dose of African languages and pidgin though those may have been curtailed by then. She's smart to work with an expert and smarter still to pick someone who is a writer herself, because she'll still need to solve the readability issue -- simply transcribing creole won't necessarily produce dialog that will work for most readers; she will need to selectively make changes so readers who only speak standard English can follow it.

I wish she had given some before/after examples of the back and forth she describes with her collaborator. This is mostly done so badly ("Yeah mon" as a stand-in for Jamaican, or "y'all" for southern) that it would be interesting to see how she is approaching this and the complications that arise.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:31 AM on August 7 [4 favorites]


Recently I read a book set partly in Germany. Even though I only have a passing knowledge of German, the faux "German" character names were jarring, the descriptions of Germany itself didn't sound like any part of Germany I was ever in, and the occasional use of Germanisms made it very clear that the author did not even know basic German pronunciation rules.

In turn this made it really hard for me to keep straight which characters and settings were even supposed to be German - which was important to the plot! - and the whole thing felt fake, somehow. Like the characters were engaging in a kind of blackface, pretending to be something that they were very obviously not.

That's even before we get into doing this with cultural relationships that have a more problematic history...
posted by emilyw at 4:34 AM on August 7


it's not like it's completely unheard-of for authors to do the sort of in-depth research that involves actually learning other languages to write novels

Or at the other end, Stephen King (in one of his Bachman books) using random fragments of Swedish where people are supposed to speak some Romani variety...

'Enkelt av lakan och kanske alskade! Just det!'
posted by effbot at 5:48 AM on August 7


Since Dip Flash asked...

Here's a section pre-Joanne. Bear in mind that I knew I was going to replace this dialogue, but still needed to give a sense to my beta-readers that there was dialect happening.

#

Nkiruka frowned at her for a moment, then shouted into the house. “Amey!” She followed that with a string of language that Jane did not recognize at all.

The young woman poked her head out of the house. She shot a sharp look at Louisa. “Mama. Remember that Mr. Pridmore does not want us to speak anything except English.”

“Bah. Let them tell.” She shrugged. “I too old to punish.”

“You know that is not true.”

“Maybe. But still, you tell me what she said.”

Amey turned to Jane. “Sorry, ma’am. Can you repeat the question? I’ll try to help my mother understand.”

#

And this is after Joanne worked on the text.

#

Nkiruka frowned at her for a moment, then shouted into the house. “Amey!” She followed that with a string of language that Jane did not recognise at all.

The young woman poked her head out of the house. “Mama. Remember Mr. Pridmore want us to speak only English.”

“Bah. Let dem tell.” She shrugged. “Me too old fu punish.”

“You know that not true.”

“Maybe. But still, tell me wha she say.”

Amey turned to Jane. “Sorry, ma’am. You can repeat the question? I’ll try an’ help my mother understand.”

#

Sometimes Joanne would offer me a couple of alternates, depending on how deep a character was in dialect. Frequently, she'd suggest cutting lines because she thought that the characters talked more than an Antiguan would do in that situation.
posted by maryrobinette at 6:21 AM on August 7 [56 favorites]


Ladies and gentlemen, MeFi's own maryrobinette.
posted by jscalzi at 6:24 AM on August 7 [22 favorites]


A million years ago, I picked up a book that was set in Hawaii, where I grew up, which had some dialogue in Hawaiian Pidgin (a creole, not a pidgin, despite its name), which I grew up speaking (along with Standard English). I don't remember anything about the book except how painfully terrible the Pidgin was; it could have been almost any "broken" English, and was nothing like the language I knew. Kudos to you, mefi's own maryrobinette, and may other authors follow your example.
posted by rtha at 6:36 AM on August 7 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the example (and for signing up of course)! It must have been a fascinating back and forth, and I've read so many books that desperately needed the same thought and care. (And I hope as part of the research process you were able to take many trips to Antigua.)

Kudos to you, mefi's own maryrobinette, and may other authors follow your example.

This a thousand times over. It's sort of fun to catch ridiculous clunkers of dialogue or location, but it's a lot more interesting to read something good.

Let dem tell

"Mek" instead of "let" sounds better to my ear but I'd trust your expert and it has to work in context anyway.

posted by Dip Flash at 6:44 AM on August 7


I lived in Antigua and some of the other islands on and off for several years.
When the locals speak amongst themselves it certainly isn´t English as most of us know it.
Antigua was always a British crown colony until Independence so together with Barbados (whose accent is again different) has the truest ``Caribbean English´´ if such a beast exists.
Then there is the until recently isolated island of Barbuda with their linguistic peculiarities but that would be a sub dialect.
Further South a French influence is very strong in the now English speaking islands with a French based Patois being the common language among themselves.
Dominica has it´s own Creole.
So good on Mary Robinette for investigating this and using it.
Only a few miles away the Dutch Antilles, Sint Marteen, Eusatius, Saba have their own language dialects as well.
posted by adamvasco at 6:59 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


It is like another language, but it's not like it's completely unheard-of for authors to do the sort of in-depth research that involves actually learning other languages to write novels.

It's not like another language; it is another language. As Dip Flash pointed out, there's usually a creole continuum in societies which speak a creole, but that complicates matters, because not only do you need to understand the grammar of the basilectal form, you need to understand the social contexts in which different forms of the language is used.

Authors do sometimes learn another language in order to write a novel. Some write a novel in their second language and do it incredibly well (i.e. Nabokov).

However, learning a second language to fluency takes years. It involves serious, sustained use of the language in context. Memorizing a French conjugation chart is quite different than knowing the appropriate conjugation for any given situation, for example (it does not map exactly to the English). You can be incredibly hardworking and conscientious and still fuck it up because languages are hard. Most people aren't that hardworking or conscientious in the first place.

People who know French generally just laugh at bad French in novels. But French doesn't have the history of oppression and stigma that many creoles do, and that's what tips an inaccurate representation from "mostly harmless" to something that is very likely offensive.

(I've invented my own languages for novels. I can never misrepresent a language, inadvertently turn it into a caricature, etc, because I made up all the rules myself.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:05 AM on August 7 [4 favorites]


You can be incredibly hardworking and conscientious and still fuck it up because languages are hard.

Yes, indeed. They're so hard that native speakers don't agree with each other about what is "correct" or "appropriate." Which is to say both "bravo" to Mary Robinette Kowal but also "and there's still going to be somebody who says you got it all wrong" regardless.
posted by yoink at 8:27 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]


I think the linked blog post minimizes the difficulties of correctly rendering dialog of any other place and time. The discussion of Anachronisms in Downton Abbey comes to mind, and, however well documented and taught in school, most attempts at writing dialog like Austen come off as clunky pastiche. And of course there are a lot of dialects within a dominant culture that are underrepresented in the record — I’m not sure it’s as easy as asking a Londoner if you have got the dialog right when trying to recreate, say, the speech of a 19th century London dockworker.

Still, sensitivity to one’s characters has to be a good thing, and if they come from a group that has been neglected and oppressed taking extra time and trouble to render their speech at least reasonably correctly is to be commended. Outsourcing your dialog may not be the only way to do it, but it does get the job done.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:46 AM on August 7


> It is like another language, but it's not like it's completely unheard-of for authors to do the sort of in-depth research that involves actually learning other languages to write novels.

Yes, it is—if you know of a case, I'd be extremely interested to know about it. (Done right, I mean, so that the language used would pass muster with a native speaker.) I've been studying Russian for decades and read it fluently, but I'd never dream of trying to write anything more than a blog comment in it. (Nabokov is not a counterexample; he did not learn English as "in-depth research" to write novels, he learned it as a small child and then went to college at Cambridge long before he ever thought of writing novels in English.)

> It's cool if she wants to do it but it doesn't strike me as particularly commonsensical. Most authors aren't going to be able to afford to pay somebody else to write their dialogue for them.

Of course it's commonsensical; the fact that most authors can't afford to do it is irrelevant.

Kudos to maryrobinette for going the extra mile to do the job right, and I'm glad you're a MeFite!
posted by languagehat at 10:01 AM on August 7


I actually used maryrobinette's way of talking about dialect to (I think successfully) talk a friend out of rendering a character's uneducated Alabama speech in phonetics and a downpour of apostrophes. The dialect is lovely and evocative without that, and it just sounds like a fucking caricature with it - even though it's based on transcripts of an actual kid's speech and she's doing it with boundless love.

And that's dialect, not creole. I was super impressed by this, and it makes me feel much better that at least someone, somewhere, takes the time to do this properly. There's nothing I hate more than getting a glimpse into a culture and then finding out that it's a wild misrepresentation (this is a good example of a huge letdown on that front, although Stina is a friend of mine.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:09 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


Nabokov is not a counterexample

Conrad would be closer, but even he didn't start out to do it as research; he learned English on the job, then used what he had learned to write, both subject and language.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:42 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


Yes, it is—if you know of a case, I'd be extremely interested to know about it. (Done right, I mean, so that the language used would pass muster with a native speaker.)

The only examples I can think of are people who learned the language for reasons far more involved than "I want to use it in/for a novel," like Nabokov, or people who learned enough to write a few phrases for color. The latter group is likely to have messed it up unless they had someone to help.

I used to help maintain a community for writers who wanted to fact-check their stories, and a recurring type of question was "how do I say this in X language?" I think it seemed commonsensical to them to seek help from speakers rather than trying to cobble together a phrase themselves.

What Mary Robinette's doing is common sense, but it's special because of the amount of work involved and the language they're trying to use (one that is not well-known or well-documented).
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:44 AM on August 7


> They're so hard that native speakers don't agree with each other about what is "correct" or "appropriate." ... also "and there's still going to be somebody who says you got it all wrong" regardless.

Yep. And the person who says that I got it wrong will be having a completely valid reader reaction. There is no such thing as "right" because even within a localized culture, people are wildly different. The goal is to create something that is not harmful and does not perpetuate damage.

> I think the linked blog post minimizes the difficulties of correctly rendering dialog of any other place and time.
You are totally correct. I talk about it elsewhere, but to get the period tone, I created what I call my "Jane Austen spellcheck" dictionary that helps me spot anachronisms in the language. I could ramble at length about textual analysis and how I blah blah blah...

The point I was trying to make is that it's actually possible to research what well-off British white people in 1818 sounded like, because there's a wealth of material. This is not the case for someone speaking Antiguan Creole Dialect in the same year because there are no records written by native speaker. Because colonialism. Because slavery. Because dialect was/is considered improper speech.

And since there's such a scarcity of material, creating something that is actively wrong would have only added to the problem. The things that I get wrong with the Regency white people? That's annoying, but it's not going to hurt Jane Austen any.
posted by maryrobinette at 2:35 PM on August 7 [9 favorites]


How different would native Antiguan be in 1918 from 1818 - probably not so much as there were few outside influences. No radio, No TV.
To that extent bits of To Shoot Hard Labour could be of interest and also some of the writing at Antigua Stories
posted by adamvasco at 4:08 PM on August 7


I'm guessing that the English spoken there changed from 1818 to 1918, so the creole would, as well. Many creole speakers were likely often also English speakers, and interacted with them, and so the languages would influence one another.
posted by rtha at 4:47 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]


How different would native Antiguan be in 1918 from 1818

In 1818 the island had many African-born slaves, native speakers of Malinke or Yoruba or whatever. The linguistic spectrum included those languages and pidgin. By 1918 there were no African-born people and probably no pidgin speakers. Antigua was too small and too tightly controlled to have the deep reservoirs of linguistic retention and resistance that you had in Brazil and Jamaica, or even some of the small islands with more mountainous terrain and without that huge British naval base.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:01 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


Also, that time span encompasses the arrival of East Indian, middle eastern, and Chinese people to the islands, which brought linguistic influences as well.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:06 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


How different would native Antiguan be in 1918 from 1818 - probably not so much as there were few outside influences.

Languages change--often radically and rapidly--regardless of outside influence. People seem to engage in a collective and unconscious process of linguistic reinvention and creation.
posted by yoink at 5:35 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]


It's not like another language; it is another language.

Still, in this case it's used as is in an English-language book written for an English-language audience, with the assumption that monolingual readers will understand the creole parts. So pretty close to English.

Which makes me wonder if anyone's actually writing for a truly multilingual audience... (rather than just adding some more or less well-chosen fragments here and there, for ambience). Cannot think of any examples, but I'm probably missing some obvious case.
posted by effbot at 3:30 AM on August 8


I could ramble at length about textual analysis and how I blah blah blah...

I would enjoy this immensely!

Also, people who like thinking about historical accuracy in fiction may like Ada Palmer's post on "different ways history can be used in fiction".
posted by brainwane at 6:32 AM on August 8


There's a great example of what yoink mentioned in Light Walpiri, which seems to have been invented by the young people of an Aboriginal village for no distinct practical purpose except perhaps to mark themselves out within their culture.
posted by tavella at 1:39 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


the arrival of East Indian, middle eastern, and Chinese people to the islands
To the islands yes, especially Trinidad.
Antigua wasn't on a shipping route and what few immigrants there were tended to stay in the main town.
Linguistic anecdote.
Some years back my then wife and I visited Petit Martinique whose only settlement is Sanchez which was also her surname. So we were talking with the local schoolmaster and asked about Sanchez and the Spanish influence. ''No No'' he said not Sanchez but from the french ''Sans Chez'' - No house.
posted by adamvasco at 3:12 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


Antigua wasn't on a shipping route and what few immigrants there were tended to stay in the main town.

I don't think this is fully correct. The reason Antigua was the headquarters for the British naval fleet in the Caribbean was precisely its location on shipping routes (and the defensible deep water port). Wikipedia, which of course can be suspect sometimes, says directly:

For a large portion of Antigua history, the island was considered Britain's "Gateway to the Caribbean". It was located on the major sailing routes among the region's resource-rich colonies.

English Harbor would have been as polyglot as the ship crews of naval and merchant vessels, and St Johns is only 10 or 12 miles away -- no great distance even then. I'm no linguist though, and I don't think any of the small island creoles have ever gotten the attention and respect they deserve.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:57 PM on August 8


Dip Flash; English Harbour, that glorious Georgian Dockyard now living again, fell into decline after the Napoleonic wars and the need for a British Caribbean war fleet together with British Caribbean Emancipation in 1834.
Antigua and the rest of the British southern Caribbean became a backwater, though not as much as the more mountainous islands further south, with less agricultural produce and fewer good harbours.
posted by adamvasco at 4:18 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


None of that is evidence that one language spoken on the island remained unchanged for 100 years when another did not - unless there is evidence that the English spoken there was the same in 1918 as in 1818?
posted by rtha at 4:39 PM on August 8


Here are some Expressions from Antigua, some with dates and also some proverbs and some African influences
I am not saying the language didn't change but as Antigua was mainly small rural communities with little outside influence and Barbuda even more so that the rate of change was slow until the introduction of radio and TV.
posted by adamvasco at 5:16 PM on August 8


Creole languages of the Eastern Caribbean
posted by adamvasco at 7:19 AM on August 9


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