Historical dialogue and grammar

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Over the last couple of months I have looked at how to use dialogue in fiction to portray the meeting of people of different cultures having to use a common language. The shared language is foreign to at least one of the speakers, maybe both, and so they use it in ways that are not strictly accurate.

Speakers' area, Thira (Santorini)
One striking feature of different languages is the way they arrange words in a sentence in different orders. The standard form of the language may put words in a certain order, but a foreign speaker will probably speak in a mixture of the “proper” order and the one familiar from their native tongue. If I am learning a new language, the most obvious thing in the world is to construct the sentence in my head and then work my way along it. I end up with the right words but spoken with a phrasing which is unnatural in the target language.

Now if this is done too simplistically in dialogue you end up with a lot of characters who sound like Yoda from Star Wars – quaint and laughable rather than foreign. But incorrect word order can mean something much more interesting than just reversing the words to end up with “powerful he is“! It can be something as slight as moving an adjective or preposition from before a word to after, or using the wrong personal pronoun, or moving helper words like “both” or “all” into different places.

Many languages, ancient and modern, do not have an equivalent to “the” – the definite article. So this gives two possibilities – overusing the definite article when a native speaker would avoid it, or leaving it out where one ought to use it. This does not always show different cultural origin. For a time in ancient Egyptian history, using the definite article was seen as a sign of lower class, so social issues such as rank can be compactly shown. Languages which lack the definite article usually make good use of the demonstrative particles “this” and “that“, or reflexive expressions such as “itself“.

Finally for today, lots of languages use verbs differently. English tends to be focused on whether an action is in the past or the future, and can express that quite accurately. The Semitic family of languages, in contrast, is built around whether actions are complete or incomplete. This is not quite the same as past and future, since the choice also draws in questions of whether the action is regular or habitual, or how confident the speaker is that something in progress will ever be finished. So again, the natural expectations and assumptions of a speaker may be thwarted by the different structure of the target language – they will sound slightly off the mark.

Now, none of these things need to make the dialogue incomprehensible. Rather, they can enrich it. There is of course the original purpose of signalling differences in ethnic or social background. But also they can give an added depth to the conversation by showing how much – or how little – the speakers want to communicate with one another despite these obstacles.

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