Writing a novel

Worldbuilding 101: Language

Language is a huge element in a novel, it contributes to worldbuilding, voice and character. Far, far too much can be said about language in that respect, so I’ll just be looking at a few key elements as it relates to worldbuilding.

LE Medlock: Worldbuilding 101
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by Believe Creative

1) Dialogue

Dialogue can make or break a novel. It’s important in all genres across all demographics. Each character needs to sound different, unique, so reader can recognise who’s speaking even without a dialogue tag, if possible. Key to that is dialect. Dialect is flavour when it comes to dialogue. Only characters with the same upbringing in the same region speak in the same way – and even then it might not be exact. The more diverse a cast of characters, the more unique their dialogue should be.

LE Medlock: Worldbuilding 101
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by Tolka Rover

But, dialects or accents written phonetically are annoying. Your readers spends extra time skipping over the words trying to figure out what they say. Not what you want. (That counts for slang as well, which dates ridiculously fast. Best to keep this to a minimum.) Instead of focussing on the words, look at sentence structure (think Yoda) and particular phrases. For example, in English we’re familiar with the concept that your ears burn when someone gossips talks about you. I found out a few months ago that in Japan, your ears don’t burn – you sneeze.

Colouring your novel with small touches like this adds flavour and identity.

2) New languages

In one of the first stories I wrote (that petered out after chapter 5 and died a slow, pitiful death), I created a language. But instead of using careful research and plotting, I went with Chaos Theory: mashing my fingers onto the keyboard and selecting whatever fragment looked prettiest. It had no rhyme and no reason, and it worked fine – if all I wanted was a single word. String them into a sentence? HIDEOUSNESS. It made no sense. This is when I started to pay attention to grammar (and triggered the birth of my inner Grammar Nazi). Grammar matters (I know it now. To think of all those English lessons gone to waste…). Create the rules first, and stick to them. Readers will notice. (Sod’s Law they pick up on the one thing you don’t want them to.)

LE Medlock: Worldbuilding 101
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by diffendale

The second thing to bear in mind? Languages don’t develop in isolation. They relate to, interact with and steal from each other.

English: a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary – Unattributed/James D. Nicoll

Most modern European languages are descended from Indo-European (or Proto Indo-European) and have a common root. These divided into Italic, Germanic, Slavic etc. and then further down until we reached our modern day languages. Check out these pretty language trees for an idea of how they connect. Names, for example, have a common root according to the area/country. The dwarves’ names in The Hobbit all have a similar, two-syllable structure and are strongly linked to their parental names. The more links between them, the more realistic the language will seem.

The trickiest thing I find with language in novels is consistency. It’s difficult to ensure that, once a dialect or whatever is selected, it needs to be reflected continually by that character/people. A rewrite in a later draft specifically for language and dialect will pick this up. The greatest asset for language is research. Grammar, sentence structure and etymological links help to flesh out created languages, and a fresh turn on dialogue brings your characters to life.

What are some fun dialects that you’ve come across in novels?

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