Language and Dialect

In my book, language and dialect are very important. Not in a Tolkien way–I did not invent languages for the purpose of the book–but in a contextual way. Language and dialect matter to the characters and influence actions in meaningful ways. They are geography to be navigated–well or poorly, depending on the character–and they are signs and symbols of how close or far one is from home.
There’s an old story in the Bible, from which we get the idiom “shibboleth.” We use this as sort of a synonym for “password” or “things-we-all-say-in-this-context.” In that story, two tribes are at war and one side stops everyone at the river and asks them to pronounce the word “shibboleth.” If they pronounce it one way, they are permitted to pass: they belong. If they pronounce it another way, they are killed, because they do not belong.
Life or death by pronunciation. Acceptance or exclusion by the turn of a phrase. Joy or despair by way of mere lilt.
I did not set out to make this a theme or predominant feature of my story–though it became one–and I did not do it because I thought it would be cool or simply to add some “flair.” It was instinctive, and based on personal experience.
A quick story: Spanish is by no means my first language, but I love it, and learned it from two friends at my old church–one from Mexico, the other from Colombia. I proceeded to work at a clinic in Chiapas, Mexico for two months when I was 15, gaining a little extra fluency during that time. Not long after that, I lived on a Moshav in Israel (age 17) and my first two roommates were from Colombia. I was placed with them because they did not speak much English, and I spoke just enough Spanish to get by.
They chastised me (lovingly) for my accent. My American accent (and those pirate-like “R”s)? No. My Mexican accent. It was too strong, they said. They advised me to “soften” to a Colombian accent, if you please. As an American, I could expect to be told I sounded too American, but to be told I sounded too Mexican was amusing to me. Frankly, I felt complimented. Perhaps I felt a little proud of having gained at least some of the proper lilt of our southern neighbor, though I don’t doubt that in those months of volunteering, my Spanish did Colombianize somewhat.
Speakers of different varieties of Spanish are usually quite mutually intelligible, but those unique Puerto Rican or Colombian or Mexican idioms and accents can be marked from a mile off which is a beautiful and fascinating thing.
Another quick story: When I studied Arabic, I also did brief courses in some of the major dialects. Since I deployed to Iraq twice as a linguist, Iraqi dialect became the most familiar and comfortable to me, though they are all wonderful.
The thing is, Arabic dialects are a whole different ball game. Some of these are NOT mutually intelligible. Iraqi dialect has Persian and Turkish influences and ranges from region to region; Levantine has remnant French, and all the silkiness thereof; Egyptians have one letter they straight-up pronounce differently than everyone else. And because Arabic is such a vast language, each country can have a whole set of vocabulary that scarcely touches the vocabulary of another country even though both are fully and historically Arabic!
And as for my book? Well I can never get over how powerful language is, both as art, but also as a vital tool. If you have ever been in a country where you do not know the language, and few people know your native language, you know how crippling that can be. It limits the ability to appreciate the people around you, while putting you entirely at the mercy of whichever person DOES speak both languages. We have to trust translators to communicate the news, art, literature, conversation etc. in a rich and full-throated way. We have to trust that we’re getting the truth.
And usually we are. But the phrase “lost in translation” exists for a reason.
Having stood as the go-between for one language and another, I felt how strange and curious it is to be that middle person who isn’t even part of the conversation and yet ensures that it happens well and truthfully, and how frustrating it must be (perhaps far more so in a military context) to be on either end, hoping you really understand what’s going on around you, hoping you really understand each other.
These thoughts and these experiences bled into my writing–as most things do–and became a series of wide-open doors and almost insurmountable barriers for different characters. It isn’t the point of the whole story, it isn’t the plot, but it is a pervasive climate, so to speak. When people say “write what you know” I think this is part of what they mean.



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