Writing Historical Fiction: Languages and Dialects

Updated: Sep 14



Hello, my fellow eggs!


Before reviewing this, please make sure you have read the prior lessons. This sixth lesson focuses on the use of language in your story.




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Table of Contents

➵ The Choice

➵ Foreign Languages

➵ Defining Terms

➵ Dialects

➵ Fictional Languages

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↠ The Choice ↞

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Do I have to incorporate a character's accent or language into the dialogue of my story?


No, you don't have to. There are plenty of other ways to incorporate a character's manner of speaking into the story. You can do this by the altering the vocabulary used for that specific time period or region.


Incorporating accents or languages is a great way for the reader to imagine how the character would sound, and again, it's not required if you're not completely comfortable or knowledgeable about the language.


It's better to write in a manner that you feel most confident. So, if you feel like challenging yourself, then feel free to go that extra mile and study other languages.


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↠ Foreign Languages ↞

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A lot of individuals tend to create their own language for their story or use an existing one. When you use an existing foreign language, please avoid using Google Translate, especially when translating Asian languages. Sentence structure changes as you move from continent to continent, which causes a great deal of disconnect when using an online translator. Thus, the best method is to check with a person that is actually fluent in the language or learn how to speak, read, and/or write the language.


Example

For this example, I've decided to focus on Korean because it's my third language and I have more confidence in how the language works. In Korean, the verb always comes at the end of the sentence, whereas in English, the verb appears somewhere in the middle.


Korean: 저는 영화를 많이 좋아해요.

English: I like movies a lot.

In this case, "like" appears in the middle of the English sentence. However, in Korean, it appears at the end in the form of "좋아해요".


Additionally, some languages like Mandarin, don't have verb conjugations so that can impact how verb tenses are translated through Google Translate.



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↠ Defining Terms ↞

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When you incorporate other languages into a person's dialogue, make sure that you are offering a translation somewhere so that readers are not confused. Even if it may be something as basic as "hello," you want to assume that the reader knows nothing until it has been defined in the text.

There are many different methods to go about this and there are advantages and disadvantages for each method.


1) Glossary: Glossaries can be a great way to keep everything organized because everything is in one place for the reader. The downside to this is that if you utilize a lot of unknown terms, it can be difficult for the reader to remember so they'll have to constantly flip back to the glossary to find the pronunciation and meaning of terms. This can disrupt the reader's ability to immerse themselves in your plot and ultimately become frustrating.


Example

Check out the the Realm Scrolls on my website. This is an example of a glossary.


2) Author Notes: Another method to defining terms is to include an author's note in the chapter, either in the beginning or end or in the form of footnotes, that describes the pronunciation and definition of the terms used in that specific chapter. Similarly to the previous method, it can be disruptive to the reader.


3) In-Text: I've seen a lot of people define their terms in their stories with parentheses. For example, if a character speaks in Spanish, they would offer the translation in parentheses directly after the dialogue. It may appear a little disorganized, but I've seen a lot of successful writers utilize this method.


Another way is to embed the definition within the text after the term. It can be through a monologue or their conversation partner's response.


Example (excerpt from Chapter 5 of A Celestial Requiem)

❝My father cleared his throat and said, “Let her go, Xīngān.” My heart swelled every time I heard him use ‘Xīngān’ because I longed to be with someone who would accept me as I was and treat me as their ‘heart and soul.’ Alas, it was a dead dream. No man would ever want to be with someone as damaged as me.❞


This is an example of embedding the definition in the text following the term.


Example (excerpt from Chapter 1 of Her Darkness and His Star)

❝Re gamóto (Damn it), Charon. How many times do I have to tell you to chain the mortals up before you take them away?" I asked, immediately taking notice of a very gullible Christopher attempting to take off in Charon's boat. He must have walked past Charon, I was a fool for thinking the feeble old man could control a sacrilegious spirit on his own. "Did he even pay the fee for passage?❞


This is example of defining the term in parentheses.



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↠ Dialects ↞

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Dialects can be considered a variation of a founding language and it typically pertains to a region or group of people. Words may be pronounced differently or have different meanings, there may be different slang, and even different words.


The best way to portray accents or dialects is to listen to other individuals talk, get a feel of what makes their pronunciation different. It also doesn’t hurt to check out linguistics textbooks if you’re struggling with describing sounds.


Example

In Thailand, my family uses the Northern and Southern dialects, depending on where they live in the country. The difference between the two dialects are the suffixes, the pronunciation, and tone.

If you decide that you'd like to incorporate language into your story, you may want to take dialect into consideration. However, don't limit a region to one sole dialect. It's possible for a city to have more than one.


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↠ Fictional Languages ↞

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To create your own language, you can use a pre-existing language and offer different definitions or pronunciations, combine two languages into one to make a fresh language, or start completely from scratch.


There's always a history behind language, it never just shows up and is suddenly used by people. There is always a source, so it's important to add that to your notes as you're crafting your language. Remember to provide context to your readers.


Ultimately, there's no right or wrong way when it comes to creating your own language. And you don't necessarily have to create a new language for a fictional world.



Thank you for reading! I hope you find this helpful!