Tag Archives: * Language

You STILL Can’t Legislate Language

Oxford English Dictionary

Photo courtesy Flickr user mrpolyonymous (CC BY 2.0)

Those governments and governmental bodies are at it again. In France, you’ve often had the Académie Française trying to urge the use of French terms and the avoidance of words from other languages, to maintain the strength (and the purity?) of the French language. The Canadian province of Quebec has tried something similar, forcing the French language into greater prominence than English, say, on public signage. The Russians have also tried their hand, over the years, at preventing foreign words from entering the language and being used.

We know how well that works, especially in a globally interconnected world.

But in the same way that you can’t legislate away words you don’t want to see used, you can’t legislate words into prominence either. Take this interesting example noted by the Oxford Dictionary blog: Legislation meets lexicography: the campaign for dictionary recognition of the word ‘upstander’. It seems that the New Jersey Senate passed a resolution on June 29, 2015, “urging Merriam-Webster, Inc. and the Oxford University press to include the word upstander in their dictionaries.” This isn’t really a law, just an “urging.” But the state senate really wants this.

The word “upstander” is a good thing. It came from an anti-bullying campaign promoted by New Jersey high school students. People are urged to stand against bullying–to be “upstanders”–and of course, that’s a very good thing. The word is actually getting a lot of use, and this new and important meaning has further expanded some other meanings that already existed in prior usage of the word.

But the Oxford blog went so far as to show a graph comparing the usage (per billion words) of “upstander” compared to “cyberwarrior,” which was recently added to the Oxford Dictionary, and “upstander” lags far behind. Positive though the word is, there’s no way yet to know whether it’s going to last or will fade away by the next dictionary update.

Oxford reminded people of the only way a word is finally shown to be a significant, lasting English word: it gets used.

At the moment, upstander does not quite meet the criteria for inclusion in Oxford Dictionaries, but if usage continues and expands, it could be a strong candidate in the future. The New Jersey Senate’s resolution is a powerful indication of the word’s potential significance, but the best way to ensure that upstander is ultimately added to dictionaries is for its supporters to use it as often as possible. If the word spreads among more and more English speakers, evidence for it will continue to mount, and its fate—not just in the dictionary, but in the English language itself—will be secure.

Some words get used a lot, and the language embraces and builds on them. Other words turn out to be a fad, and the language briefly accommodates them and then they sink into that deep pool, leaving hardly a ripple for posterity. That’s how every language works, how it has always worked, and how it will work in the future. And unfortunately for the New Jersey State Senate–no legislature can dictate that process.

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Dialogue: handling authentic speech, archaisms, and dialect

I’ve often had the experience of picking up someone’s writing, and as I read a conversation between a couple of their characters I ended up thinking, “No real human being would ever talk like this.” And usually that meant that I had a hard time enjoying the book, if I finished it at all. For some writers, dialogue is hard to handle; in fact, many writers are strong in either narrative or dialogue, but not always in both.

The most important thing to do with dialogue is to make your characters talk like real people. That doesn’t mean you stick in every “um” or “like” that a speaker would inject into their conversation in real life, but they do need to talk the way their character would talk if you ran into them on the street. If dialogue doesn’t come naturally to you, you need to ask yourself one question with every word you put into a character’s mouth: “Would a real person be caught dead saying this?” If not, then imagine a real person saying it – imagine yourself saying it in your normal way – and write it that way.

That covers you or people who talk like you, but what about different types of characters? Say you’re writing a frontier western, and want to get across the “cowboy” feel. Or you’re penning a fantasy, and think that it will sound more authentic if people talk in more flowery or archaic language. It’s clear that you’d never run into anyone who talks like that in real life, but surely that doesn’t matter so much when you’re writing these types of novels?

In fact, it just might. If you make the speech overly “authentic” in those scenarios, you run the risk that your readers will spend far too much time wrestling to read the dialogue itself, instead of following the actual story. If “getting” the dialogue becomes the point of their reading, instead of the plot itself being the point, you’ve lost them. You want your readers to flow right along with the story and not even be conscious of the mechanism that’s drawing them along.

So does that mean your characters have to talk like twenty-first century people? How can a fantasy novel about a noble courtier sound remotely authentic that way, not to mention plausible? Do you have to abandon all attempts to make your characters sound like they really come from the place and time you’ve set them in?

Absolutely not. There’s a fine line to walk, but you can indeed create your setting and make it sound authentic, by putting in just enough “archaic” or situation-based words to suggest it to your readers. But remember that words on the page make more of an impact on the reader’s consciousness than spoken words, especially if they’re spelled differently than the reader is used to. A word with an altered spelling or pronunciation will leap off the page and take on significance. These words become things that entangle the reader, preventing them from moving quickly through the page.

A real person might use five obscenities in a sentence, but if you repeated all of them in written dialogue, they would come across much too powerfully. Two, or even better, just one would have as much impact on the reader. So pare down the archaisms or the “y’alls” or the “yo’s” and use them judiciously, every now and then when they seem natural. Sprinkle them lightly here and there, and the reader’s imagination will absorb them and visualize the context you’re trying to create. Flood the conversations with dialogue that feels too unusual to them, and their eyes will “catch” on each word and have to puzzle it out before they can move on.

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