CW: Some coarse language
Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday and (in defiance of the Christian celebration) we went out and bought eggs and flour and fillings and made pancakes and that is the origin of this blog post which, as a change, I will endevour to keep light.
You see it got me thinking, I talked in a previous post about stereotypes and how they can be a tool to give a reader a quick-reference introduction to characters when used responsibly but this can also apply to dialogue, what words a character uses and how they use them. It’s another dimension to character building and another way to give your story colour and depth so, let’s look at that.
What the English term a ‘Pancake’ our French and American friends (plus many others) would term a Crêpe. However, owing to the long and antagonistic relationship between the English and the French (and despite the myriad French terms we do use), we would never dream of calling the thin, flour-based things that we eat on Shrove Tuesday a crêpe because, to us, it’s a pancake. It’s a cultural oddity. In the US a pancake is a much fluffier griddle-cake often eaten at breakfast with maple syrup and bacon or any number of toppings. But, in Canada and certain states those are called Flapjacks a word which, in England, commonly refers to an oat and sugar based snack.
So, as you see, the words and terms a character uses in English alone can give a fairly clear indication of nationality and/or location of origin. In keeping with the ‘food’ theme it’s becoming increasingly well known (via the medium of memes) that, in England there are numerous regional terms for a simple bread roll. Bap, batch, barm, bread cake, lardy cake or cob to name a few. Initially I thought that what an American would refer to as a ‘biscuit’ was a simple bread roll but I was wrong, in fact those biscuits (as served with ‘gravy’ but I’ll get around to that) have more in common with the English Scone than with a simple bap. Now, it surprises a lot of English people when they first encounter American gravy because it is pale, almost white, unlike the brown we are used to at home. I can only reason this is because of the added egg/milk aspect dependent upon recipe. Now, while most of us Brits use instant powder to make our gravy (adding the juice of whatever meat cut we’ve cooked to serve with it) to make English gravy from scratch entails using blood which provides the brown colour.
Of course I’ve also referenced ‘Biscuits’ which in England refers to what Americans call ‘cookies’ (although we have cookies too but they are a sub-form of biscuit) and the list goes ever on. Stepping away from foods to more general use words and contractions one that springs to mind is ‘Y’all’. Instantly the speaker is identified as coming from the Southern American States. ‘Blimey’ – English, probably from London. ‘Crikey’ – Australian and so-on.
English spelling, within the manuscript as a whole, is majoritively determined by the origins of the author. However with the rise of text-based communication and email (but also if you want a written letter to appear in your text) it’s the origin of the character who wrote it that matters. As I look through this draft I see, underlined in red, words I know to be spelled correctly but, as an American site, WordPress spellchecker uses the Webster dictionary as opposed to the Collins or Oxford equivalents. So, if you’re writing in-draft letters between American and English characters be mindful of color/colour, honor/honour, armor/armour (we have extra ‘u’s) and organized/organised, realized/realised and civilized/civilised and the dictionary alone knows how many other differences in spelling.
If you’ve a mind for detail this can stretch down as far as interjections. Those little non-words that denote a simple sound. Mostly they can be applied universally, huh, uh-huh, eww, urgh but in one particular case I can think of they can be applied specifically and indicate a characters nation of origin. Using ‘eh’ as in inflective of a question at the end of a sentence is something that I believe (and do correct me if I’m wrong) characterises UK English (including Irish and Scots) and Australian English but, in most instances would be used to denote Canadian English. It’s another of those stereotypes for better or worse.
Of course, with the internet and sky/cable TV and many other influences, some particular terms are in decline. ‘Lorry’ and ‘Rubbish’ are being overtaken by ‘Truck’ and ‘Garbage’, ‘Cab’ is losing ground to ‘Taxi’ and ‘Taxi’ is losing ground to ‘Uber’ and this is because language is fluid and ever changing. When I was at school ‘cool’ was fighting a losing battle with ‘wicked’ then, more recently, ‘safe’ hit the scene. My brother (an avid, online gamer of the old school) shared an anecdote with me of how, many years ago, he was gaming with his group, mostly Americans, late one night in the mid-to-late 90’s, and he happened to, in jest, call one of them a ‘wanker’.
“What is a… wan-kar?”
Was the bemused reply. The voice chat audience was in hilarity that this quaint English word (that some had heard but none knew the meaning of) was an equivalent to their ‘Jack-off’ of ‘Jerk-off’.
So, as with using words to build a scene or set an atmosphere, using the right terms and words in a characters dialogue, gives them a greater depth, makes them more characterful and memorable. As much as what they say, how they say it and the words they use give them another dimension. And this doesn’t just apply to English it’s just the language I know best.