I said do you speak my language*

Crime fiction blogger par excellence Margot Kinberg recently posted on a subject dear to my heart: how writers capture nuances of language and dialect in dialogue without either sounding condescending or alienating the reader.

Years ago I read a novel set in Bali called The Kris of Death (I still recall the title, haunted by it) wherein nearly all dialogue was written in the sort of pidgin English which non-native speakers may use and which native English speakers frequently use when speaking with them. It was excruciating!

Later, when I invented my Bangkok based Australian expat PI Jayne Keeney, I knew she would need to be a fluent Thai speaker in order to avoid the same pitfall. This enables me to signal to the reader that the conversation is taking place in Thai and write normally, albeit with a little Thai syntax. I reserve my (rare) use of pidgin English in order to shed light on a character or mine the potential comedy of a situation.

Anyway, here’s Margot’s take on the theme.


* Following Margot’s lead, this re-blogged post takes its title from the song ‘Downunder’ by the Australian band Men At Work.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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5 Responses to I said do you speak my language*

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Angela – First, many thanks for passing along my blog post. I think there are at least two problems with using too much pidgin English or other dialect. One is that it can be difficult to read. Anything that takes the reader out of the story takes away from the story. Another is that it can be condescending and stereotyped. I think shifts in syntactic structure, certain word choices and simply stating a character is speaking a given language are effective ways to get the message across. And by the way, I think it makes complete sense that your Jayne Keeney would speak fluent Thai. It’s entirely believable that a private investigator would speak fluently the language of the area where she’s working. And it’s funny that a lot of people don’t think she speaks Thai because she ‘doesn’t look Thai.’


  2. Samantha D says:

    Hi, Angela,

    Very interesting points raised here by both you and Margot. I think It’s extremely difficult to write convincingly in an idiom or accent different to your own. I’d almost say a person has an ear for it or they don’t. Zadie Smith has an amazing ear. I read NW recently, which evokes the life of a huge, noisy, bustling, diverse city almost entirely through the voices of the characters.




    • angelasavage says:

      Interesting point, Sam, as to whether you need to be a native speaker of the idiom in which you’re writing to get it right. I would argue that anyone with an ‘amazing ear’ a la Zadie Smith could pull it off — and indeed, being an outsider can sometimes alert you to linguistic nuances a native will miss. That said, I agree that it’s hard to do well.


      • Samantha D says:

        It’s diefinitely a balancing act, I’d say, when trying to render the accent/idiom in expressive speech rather than reporting on it, eg. Writing in a “flat Queensland accent” rather than reporting that the character spoke in a “flat Queensland accent”.

        As a young teenager, I read “A Little Bush Maid” by Mary Bruce Clarke (Clarke Bruce?). I remember being appalled at the racist and patronising way in which the speech of the non-Anglo characters was depicted, especially the Chinese cook. A pantomimey (and virtually unreadable) broken English with “L”s for “R”s and vice versa – made all the worse b/c it was obviously supposed to be humorous.

        But a couple of weeks ago, I read a book about a German who leaves Berlin in 1931 for Paris and later Los Angeles. Apart from a couple of reported instances in which he switches from English to German, he seemed to speak Frecnh and later English, completely fluently in an early 21st century English English vernacular. Again, I think this was supposed to be humorous, but it actually jarred alittle. It was unconvincing and I found myself sometimes distracted from the text by how “UnGerman” the character sounded.


  3. kathy d. says:

    This is such a touchy subject, which takes so much tact and sensitivity to do correctly without stepping on anyone’s toes. I’d say that it’s especially difficult is a writer is of a different nationality
    than the characters being quoted.
    I’ve read such stereotypical dialogue that it’s painful to even read it, and then to think about what the real people might think who are being depicted. I think that’s crucial to think through — how the people of a country or region or a particular nationality want to be depicted and quoted. One would hope that books reach a multi-cultural readership, so then it’s even more important to take care. How do various reading audiences feel about this?
    And, yes, I agree about Zadie Smith, whose books I adore — well, the two I’ve read so far. Am planning on reading NW soon.


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