RSS Feed Print
How to use different languages or dialects, and what is too much?
Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2013 9:14 PM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

While the title may be deceiving, I don't have the answer to my own question, I am hoping that by posting this one of you do.

I am writing a book that spans a large area and diverse cultural backgrounds. So it is inconceivable that they (the characters) would all speak the same language. To show this, I have thought about using lines in a different dialect to show the reader some diversity. Not whole conversations, but maybe a start-off-line to indicate the change and to start the mind of the reader thinking of this change. But I get stuck on what can be used and how do I bring it in without a long explaination or lecture so the reader can understand. I need to be able to do it so it enriches the work, rather than take away from it.

An example;

Hess enters the main hall and is met by his servant who greets him with, "Herrani, kaikki on kuten pyysitte." (My lord, all is as you requested)

The reason for this is that the character Hess was in one land when the chapter ends, and next time we meet up with him he will be thousands of miles a way, in a different land.

I, as a reader, would expect that not everyone would speak the same language, so far english, and if they had never left their land, they would have a different dialect.
The question for all, and hopefully to help more than just myself, is;
Does anyone have some helpful words that can make this work, or is this a taboo and other tools should be used?

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 11:48 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 427

This is an interesting question!

Bumping this up so other in the community can see it.

Nevena from BC
Joani Davis
Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 5:57 PM
Joined: 4/3/2013
Posts: 20

It's a great question. My instinct is to tell you that unless you have direct knowledge of how a dialect sounds . . . ie . . . Someone who hails from the Appalachian Mountains or Fargo, North Dakota, it would be better for you to allude to the accent rather than try to "sound it out" for the reader.

Example: Appalachian: "I don't spect you'd be knowing these woods ways we do.
Example: Appalachian: The man's Appalachian dialect was so strong it took me a moment to understand the meaning of his words.

If you aren't sure about it, I would either change location or research as heavily as you can. Readers will know if it's wrong and let you know, bluntly.  

Good luck with your story.
Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 7:20 PM
We've discussed this before.


Otherwise, Joni used pretty much the same example I was going to. But I'm going to add -- If you're not from Appalachia, don't even try.

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 8:23 PM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

Thanks to all for chiming in here. First for Mari - I read threw that thread and it was mainly accents or slangs...My reference is to say perhaps you went to germany, and I was trying to relay that to a reader. You'd be speaking English (with or without the accent) and they would be speaking an entirely different language. No room for accents unless they are speaking the same language. But thanks for posting that.

Joani - I understand what you are saying, but again, accents infer that the characters were speaking the same launguage. I did take that from a translator, so I know it is correct.

I am not sure that the question is coming off correctly. So Hess, is in Scotland, for example, and he is speaking Scottish. I have spoken that language in the book as English for the reader to understand. So when he travels to Iceland, the natives there speak to him in Icelandic. Now he will speak Icelandic, so he could understand, but I want the reader to get a taste of it to, before I change to "English" to carry on the story. I could just say, 'The servant greets Hess and says,"My lord, all is as you requested," in Icelandic. But to me, that doesn't add as much depth to the story as the example I gave. The problem is, how to do that without having the reader go, "What the F--- did he just say?" and without having to give a long description.

It would be easy to try to just add thick accents to the speakers narrative, but that doesn't show the difference in language all together, at least to me. And I know there have been authors who have done this, but for the life of me, and in my entire collection of books, I cannot find one. I remember seeing the Elven tongue in a book. It was done well, but I don't remember. Thought it was LOTR, he created an entirely new alphabet for the book, but I cannot find the reference except on the ring, and the character's thoughts tell me what is said, or they all spoke the words to give the reader a translation? I thought I remembered, at least for sure in the movie, the elf maiden talks to the warden in elvish. This is the thing I am trying to conquer with asking this question.

I hope I conveyed my question better. I am terrible at getting conversation right in a type fashion. Again, I do appreciate the responses.

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 9:41 PM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

Okay, I hope this shows what I am trying to get at with the question. This is an actual exerpt from the chapter where this question came from. Quick read, and see if it works? Then the other half of the question, when is it too much?

As Hess entered the halls of his home, he was surpirsed at how much the journey had taken out of him. He was definetly getting older, and the cold of the northern islands wouldn't let him forget it.
"Herrani, kaikki on kuten pyysitte," a servant greeted him.
He was glad that his requests were taken care of, yet he still cringed at being addressed as 'My lord'. Hess hated the term. He hated more that it elevated, and alienated, him from the people he ruled. He was no more their superior, then they were his slaves. 
The people of the northern islands were a proud and rugged lot. They endured harsh winters, Sunna not casting her light upon them for months, with only a few moons to thaw the ice and give them green grass and crops.
Yet they never gave up, nor became discouraged, when every inch of the island was encased in ice. Ice so thick it nearly covered their homes, and almost never truely receeded completely from the entire island. The people of this island not only survived in the frozen land, they actually thrived here. Hess admired them for it.  
He had forgotten how much he missed speaking in Gadren, the launguage of these lands. He had mastered it some time ago, and now spoke it as fluently as the people who lived here.
"Thank you my friend, but do we really need the formality?"
The servant gave him a sly smile, "I know how much it pleases you."
They both had a laugh as they walked down the hall.

Sorry I went on so long, but I wanted to show the transition back to "English" so that the reader can follow along without a translator. Hopefully this will express my question better. Sorry it took me so long to say it, and thanks again for the comments. (Please don't kill me over editing or critique the story, it is a work in progress, and I only put it here for its relation to the question)

Sorry last note, I called the language Gadren, but it is a direct quote in Finnish that means, "My lord, all is as you requested." Hopefully the way I told the story, you get its meaning?

Joani Davis
Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 10:16 PM
Joined: 4/3/2013
Posts: 20


I think I get your meaning. In other books I've read where the character is either in a foreign land or from a foreign culture . . . ie . . . non-English speaking, they convey the language in almost the way you did it. A quote and then and a translation right afterward.

If you look at Christine Feehan's Carpathian/Vampire series (look at about 10th book in series), she does this quite well and has almost made up a language with all the research she has done. She even has a small section in the backs of her books for word translation.
'Dune' was another book that has a Alien language but in that book although the meaning of words was also in the back of the book, it was up to the reader to look it up. The writer didn't think it was necessary to translate for the reader. We all know how successful that book was.

So, for me the quote and translation would be the way to go. It seems more natural to the reader and gives a clear understanding that Dorothy is no longer in Kansas. Your on the right path.

Again, good luck and I hope this helps.
Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 10:28 PM
If your character is in Germany, then your readers are going to assume the people they meet are German and are speaking with German accents.

Mimi Speike
Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 2:05 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1016

I will keep this question in mind as I read your book. Have you looked into Tolkien to see how he handles it? I have read that he invented his own language, as you may be doing on a small scale. I don't remember. It's been forty years since I read LOTR.  

Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 9:04 AM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

Yeah, I have been going through Tolkien, that seems to be the story I remember it in too, but I cannot find it. Of course I don't have time to read it all, so I skim them every couple of days to try getting a fresh look. Still failing.
Perry Tercel
Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 11:33 AM

(Been calling you, A. because of the one post. Been rethinking to use your chosen handle. I go by a complete pseudonym, myself.)
I'm responding, to this, because I admire you for such an under-taking and wonder how you decided on such a task so daunting. (I also tried to do the 'languages' -inventing the cultures, histories, religions, slang and individual sub-area dialects of four diverse races- It was fun, at first. Then, it became such an 'obligation', I caved. I literally lost my story because of the complexity.This, by the way, is not my intended response. I just wanted to lead into it (the following response) with an experience that may, or may not, be of any benefit for you, but I do understand your dilemma.)
My intended response:
I've read 'Dune', many times, and am very familiar with all of Frank Herbert's 'worlds' in the books. Yet, in the beginning, it didn't matter so much about the languages and such, as it did the ultimate story. Then, because the story was so completely satisfying, I would read again and again until the 'languages', religions, political systems, etc. became common knowledge to me. 
Another 'prime' example that came back to me recently:
The Phoenix spoke English, in Edward Ormondroyd's book, 'David and the Phoenix', but it was like another language to me. I was eleven and didn't understand most of the words the 'colorful' bird spoke, yet I completely loved that book. I searched for it for many years, to read to my children, but was unable to locate it. With the 'Wonderful World of Internet Shopping', I finally, now, possess a copy of the book. I had always remembered it as a very long book; many pages of adventure. I was shocked to see how short and simple it was -many lessons in one, I might personally add- and I wondered why I loved that book, as a child, when I saw the linguistic complexity of the Phoenix' speeches throughout the book. Even today, my vocabulary is not to the extent Ormondroyd uses for the giant bird. I read my treasure, after all these years -and it was the same blessing as it was from eons ago- and knew the answer: It's a fun, great story! I glossed over the 'other' language to get to the meat of the story.
Now to the 'dark' side:
I once read a book about one of my favorite historical figures, Merlin, and became so ensnared by the languages used -including the English- that I had to (literally) throw the book away. There was no magic in that book. No great story to grab me. The author was the grandson, or great grandson, of Nicolai Tesla (Sp.) and, I now believe, writing traits must be hereditary. The book was more like scientific equations written in prose. (Perhaps just not my cup o' tea, as you, Alantis, commented about book 'likes' and 'dislikes' in another post.)
I know I can't give an answer about the best format for transitioning characters (and the reader) through foreign lands, but I know the many forms do work -as long as the story is there to grab the reader in the first place.
I thoroughly hope you succeed.

Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 7:18 PM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

Thanks Perry. I do intend to use the different languages, as my earlier post proved. I guess I just need to do some more research into it before I do. I have read plenty of books that have it, but for the life of me they elude me at this time, but I have read where I had to go to the back to figure stuff out, both good and bad there. I want to try and keep the reader in the story, not flipping to the glossary for definitions. So some research ever night and I am hoping to strike a balance.

As to the story, I have said this before, I am a story teller. I may not be a good writer, but I have always had an imagination that won't quit. Someone told me I should try something less ambitous, but this story is a product of 2.5 years of mostly bed rest and trying to make visiting me fun. I told this story with grandkids, with friends, with other family to avoid having pity visits. We all would escape to my fantasy realm and just enjoy the time together. We all just built on it. There are a couple of points I struggle with here and there, but overall, it just seems to come to me. A blessing or a curse, only time will tell.

Perry Tercel
Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 9:47 PM


After I posted, I went off to earn my daily bread and a thought came to me:
In the series 'The Belgariad' by David (and Leigh, his wife) Eddings, there is a character that had been everywhere and speaks all languages. He's a merchant. The starting MC's met up with him and, after that, he's the go-to guy that explains the different beliefs, customs, policies, and Language of the people in the different lands they come upon. I also remember reading a book with a monk (or other traveling/evangelizing sorts - not necessarily Christianity) who could translate -and was a really good character! ...and, in another book (so many; I can't remember the titles) the main protagonist picks up a slave that knows the 'other' language and helps the MC out -and me, the reader.

Does that help any?

Posted: Thursday, June 6, 2013 9:21 AM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

Ummm, what?

Naw just kidding, I will look that book up and see how it helps. I know there is a ton of them, some work, and some don't. Like you, I can only remember the author and title to maybe one or two and it is getting frustrating.

Thanks for giving me one more, now I am at three. YEEHAW

Toni Smalley
Posted: Saturday, June 8, 2013 3:14 AM
So, this is my first response to a discussion. Book Country newbie here, so hopefully I post this correctly.

This is a question I sought out to answer a few months ago. I wanted to incorporate a character with a foreign accent (not actually foreign, but it's a sci-fi story, something happens where the character develops an accent), so I turned to examples in books I've read. I am a fan of Agatha Christie, so Poirot came to my mind immediately. He is Belgian and has a French accent. I reread Death on the Nile to see how Christie portrays this (and I know people already know he has an accent, so she doesn't go crazy with it). I also did research online on writing foreign accents. Here are my conclusions:

1. Remember that you're writing for an audience who wants to understand your dialogue, without getting tripped up and annoyed. If you try to write in a thick accent, just as if you would speak in a thick accent, nobody will understand you and you don't want that, your reader will give up.

2. Some languages have different dialects, so keep that in mind. If you want somebody to speak in a French accent who is from France, you would want to distinguish that accent from Canadian french, they do sound different.

3. As far as writing in an accent, I would go online and search for videos in which people speak English in foreign accents. Then, with your own ear write down how the pronunciation sounds. Like for a French accent, they don't pronounce 'h', so I write however as 'owever. Or, instead of 'th' I replace it with 'ze', so 'the' is 'zee'. BUT, I don't do this for an entire sentence. I won't replace 'zough' with 'though'. I think  you just have to incorporate enough to get your point across without making it difficult to read.

4. Poirot interjects minimal French phrases, such as 'Mon Dieu!' 'Per dio!'. You could show your characters' origins by placing a few short phrases within the dialogue (the context of the scene, punctuation, reactions can typically convey what it means). I would not incorporate an entire paragraph or even more than a small sentence of a foreign language. I personally get annoyed with that, especially if I never have any idea of what that character said. Keep in mind that unless you have an interpreter standing beside your characters, they aren't going to repeat themselves in English after speaking something in French or Italian or whatever nor would another character in a scene. I don't know, maybe they would, but that's my opinion.

5. I would also research mannerisms and slang. People react to certain things differently in other countries, have different ways of expressing themselves. Like for the French accent, they place oui and no at the end of sentences often, so it is a good idea to know when this is done and why.

Also, in the U.S., I'll call a sleazy creepy asshole a, well, a sleazy creepy asshole, and in Ireland they might call him a shite hawk. Or, I say I'm drunk and the Irish will say they are bollixed, fluthered, gee-eyed, langered, paralytic, plastered or ossified. I'll say someone is ugly where the Irish will say she has a face like a smacked arse. (I don't just randomly know that, I am writing a series set in Ireland.) So, point there is, you can show where a person is from by researching and incorporating their slang, swear words, expressions, etc.     

Okay, I can't think of any other pointers, and I hoped that helped. I'm not an expert, but these are my observations and how I am working it into my stories.

And, holy shite, I wrote a lot, hope that doesn't make me appear like a know-it-all, because I'm not. Once, I start talking, I can become a rambler. 

Good luck!


Posted: Saturday, June 8, 2013 11:32 AM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

Toni - No it doesn't make you look like a "know it all", and I can relate because I suffer from "long - windedness" (I believe that is the politically correct term? Joking of course) I am making mine a fantasy realm, while taking bits from old world, so it actually does help a lot. The whole accent thing I am probably going to slide on without, but the slipping in a few short phrases in the dialect of my choosing is something I would like to do.

Thank you for stopping in to say a few words, and welcome to the site.

Name of the thread, and it is everything the name implies and more....come check it out.
Andrea Matthews
Posted: Sunday, June 9, 2013 2:24 AM
Joined: 6/8/2013
Posts: 25

   I'm new here, so please bear with me if I've answered this incorrectly.  I happen to like the addition of dialects/languages to a novel.  In the case of a certain dialect, such as a Scottish burr, key words here and there, used whenever the character speaks, seem to get the point across.  Diana Gabaldon uses this technique effectively in her Outlander Series.
   When it comes to a different language completely, German for example, it can be overpowering if used too much;  however an occasional phrase thrown in now and then can only add to the story.  I find it works in much the same way as a description of the scenery.  Too much can be tedious and I find myself skipping paragraphs, but a bit here and there draws me into the story and enhances the experience.  Peter Tremayne uses just the right amount in his Sister Fidelma mystery series, and he does it in such a way that it blends into the text seamlessly.
   Hope this helps.

Posted: Sunday, June 9, 2013 10:49 AM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

Thanks Andrea, that does actually help a lot. I am going to pull those up on Amazon and have a read. I posted an example back on the first page of this thread, hoping the example would show what I failed miserably to explain. I too think that a word here and there, or a short phrase, that is not entirely important as far as dialogue/ plot is concerned (wouldn't want the story to get lost in translation), really adds some flare to the writing. I have read it used in other works, but for the life of me, I have not been able to find one title of mine that does so any good.

Thanks for giving some input.
Toni Smalley
Posted: Sunday, June 9, 2013 7:56 PM

LOL, thanks Atlantis, and I’ll have to check out this summer slacker thread, sounds interesting.

Diane C McPhail
Posted: Friday, August 1, 2014 11:31 PM
Joined: 8/1/2014
Posts: 1

I am writing about the Civil War slave era. I have a strong conviction that the dialect of that time should be honored and respected.  I know the politically correct approach is to "clean up" the dialect, but I feel that it is disrespectful to a people who came here enslaved, not speaking one another's language nor the multiple languages of their captors.  I grew up with this dialect and am careful to use correctly spelled words and rhythms to represent the language of a large section of the South (and other regions).  I am also careful to represent the various levels of speech among the white people according to levels of education and culture.  I know this is a sensitive subject and would value your input.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Sunday, August 3, 2014 10:52 PM

The only way to get feedback is to post a chapter or two for reaction.


As an overall comment I have to say that your desire for accuracy, while admirable must come in second to your reader's needs.


Jump to different Forum...