in which I repeat myself and bore you: on dialect and dialog

The Smart Bitches have a post up about language anachronisms in historical romance. I admit to some irritation about the fact that by the time I caught the post there were 41 comments. Explaining my irritation is a little trickier.

First: The Smart Bitches are usually right on target when they talk about this stuff, okay? This is not me dissing them. I love the Smart Bitches with all my bitchy little heart. This is about the comments, and I’ve already admitted I didn’t read them so really, I should just shut up but no, I’m not going to. Because this will gnaw at me otherwise.

Any MDs out there? If you’re at a party and people start talking about gallbladders or Uncle Mikey’s valve replacement or something else similarly technical, do you get irritated because (1) you don’t want to look like a wise ass know-it-all (2) it’s really hard not to speak up anyway when you hear somebody claim that his brother’s best friend’s second cousin is an expert and he says… (3) if you walk away and join the crowd talking about baseball, the medical talk crowd will conclude that you are a snob.

Which maybe you are. Or at least impatient.

That’s how I get about language discussions. Once before class started I heard one student tell another that in Switzerland they speak a language which is half French and half German. As this was a linguistics class I felt obligated, so I said (very gently) I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, but what you were hearing is Swiss German which is… and I saw her mouth set in a prim little line. I know that line, it means: don’t tell me about language, I speak language myself!

And in her evaluation at the end of the course she wrote: this professor may know a lot about linguistics but it’s not nice to tell people they didn’t hear what they really did hear.

PLEASE NOTE: everybody is free to talk about language and linguistics as much as they like, whenever they like. I am not, and do not want to be linguistics hall monitor of the universe. Right this moment hundreds, maybe tens of thousands of conversations are going on that have to do with language across the nation. Joe tells Sally that she sounds stupid when she uses the word ain’t; Mr. Wilson tells his grandson about the etymology of the word asparagus, his own personal version made out of whole cloth; somewhere in Chicago at this very minute somebody is trying to do an English accent and failing miserably.

All fine and good. Chatter on. The problem is when I’m within hearing range. Then I get all itchy, and I have to just walk away.

So now that I’ve ranted a little (okay, a lot), and for my own peace of mind, I’m going to direct you  to my posts about language/linguistics/dialect/dialog in  fiction both contemporary and historical. You are free to ignore every word, to disagree with every thought; to curse me for a condescending know-it-all… if that’s what it takes to make us both comfortable, so be it. You’ll get all those posts by clicking on “dialog” in the tag cloud in the sidebar.

13 Replies to “in which I repeat myself and bore you: on dialect and dialog”

  1. Heehee,I don’t envy you in the mornin,or her for that matter.Is’nt the Smithoseumsomthinorother in New York? Safe journeys for both of yas.

  2. So, I see this is a personal growth experience for the both of you! :)

    You have hit on my new motto, I choose my battles.

  3. I’ve got a 2 and a half week old baby and right now I think I’d rather swap you and have a recalcitrant teenager. Hope all goes well in the morning and for the next month. I think she’ll have a ball.

  4. thanks everyone for the good wishes. She’s still in the air as I write this, so it will be a little while before I can collapse in relief.

    Jacqui — ouch. That first month can really take it out of you. I’m sending you lots of positive thoughts. the first smile is just around the corner, remember that.

  5. Thanks for the positive thoughts … think I’ll need them for awhile. Hope you’ll keep us up to date with how the Girlchild is going in Manhattan.

  6. Aww.. It must be so hard to let go and let them have a little of their independence. I have 5 children under the age of 8 and just the thought of what you are going threw makes me hyperventilate. :)

    I hope she has a great time and that you don’t miss her to much!

    Jacqui, I am with Rosina.. the first smile make it all worth it. I know those sleepless night oh to well. I find that when they hit the 3 month mark then life calms a little and gets a tad bit easier! Congrats of the new bundle~.

  7. Congrats Jacqui,Jennifers right bout the 3 mnth mark.My son was slow to eat and hard to burp(I had the 1am and 4am, every 3?).He still eats slow,but drives his ma crazy with his belching.(probably should’nt of told my children that belching is considered a show of appreciation in some cultures.) :D

  8. So are you saying the comments bugged you because there were inaccuracies regarding the linguistics? In other words, people were pointing out what bothered them in historical fiction and the things they mentioned were not valid? I think that’s what I’m getting from your post, but I want to be sure.

    I get annoyed about certain things which are hot topics for me, though not so much as a teacher but as a mother. Just as an example, I was playing with my bilingual three-year-old in the park yesterday. I was bragging to one of the other moms about the fact that her son had counted for me in English, and she replied, “Yes, he learns that on the tv. But I don’t think it’s good for kids to learn another language so young.” I was literally at a loss for words. Given that I spent years of my life studying because this is something that is so important to me, to hear such a blithe and unsubstantiated opinion really rankled.

    But at the same time, I honestly don’t think coming back at her with my opposing point of view would have served any real purpose other than to make me look like “a condescending know-it-all”. As you so aptly put.

  9. “I heard one student tell another that in Switzerland they speak a language which is half French and half German. As this was a linguistics class I felt obligated, so I said (very gently) I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, but what you were hearing is Swiss German”

    I wonder if she maybe heard a group of Swiss people, some of whom were speaking Swiss French and some of whom were speaking Swiss German, or maybe it was a group speaking Romansh. I’ve never heard that spoken, so I don’t have a clue what it sounds like, but could that have been what she was trying to describe?

    On the anachronisms, I think you’re right that ‘The novelist has to find the balance between historical accuracy and the reader’s comfort level.’ How many authors of Regency romances even aim to sound like Jane Austen? Very few, if any, because (a) it would be complicated to do and (b) lots of modern readers would find it too difficult to read the sentences. So really, what the author is aiming for is something which doesn’t sound really modern to the reader (and that may even mean leaving out words which are historically accurate but which readers might think are modern) but which isn’t ‘period’ either.

    I tend to notice words which sound American (to me), especially ‘gotten’ in a Regency-set romance. But I have to acknowledge that the book is written for a modern American audience, and so the aim is to help those readers slip into the book easily and feel comfortable with the language. I think truly accurate language would be like obliging readers to wear real period costume. They might well find it very uncomfortable, almost impossible to wear without a lot of practice and it might turn out that they’re so distracted by it that it’s not nearly as romantic as they’d hoped.

  10. 1. Congratulations! I’ve spent at least a half hour reading this post and all the related stuff. You’ve surpassed your record of keeping my attention.

    2. I think it’s reasonable to expect an author to research the period he’s writing about, including language. If he goofs up, well give the poor guy a break! If you want, write him a nice letter telling him your version.

    3a. Even here and now we’re in a rapid social evolution, which is reflected in language. For example, those people who are from Japan and China and the Koreas? Are they oriental or Asian? I have been admonished that oriental is no longer politically correct.

    3b. It can be difficult to have a discussion of racial issues, ref. QofS. Apparently even discussing racial issues can be seen as not pc.

  11. Over here in Montreal it is not uncommon to start a conversation in English and end up finishing it in French (or vice versa) if you are with a group proficient in both languages.

    So I suppose I could understand the student’s original statement, I imagine people who first hear that sort of thing find it very strange.

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