1. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    Phonetic Dialog - Believable?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Syn Opsis, Dec 8, 2009.

    I have a character in which English is her second language. When she thinks, it's in proper language, but when she speaks, I write her words phonetically. i.e. is = ees, you = chu, etc. I worry that this approach may not be authentic, or that it cheapens the novel. Have you any thoughts on this?
     
  2. Leah Woods
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    Leah Woods Active Member

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    I just say don't go overboard with that. Several times may be okay, but I think if you use it throughout the whole novel it just might be irritating. At least it it'd be for me. Perhaps you could show it wasn't her first language through some mistakes in her speech. But again don't do it overboard. :D
     
  3. LadyLazarus
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    LadyLazarus Senior Member

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    I don't see the phonetic approach working, really.

    What language is your characters first language? I'd advise looking at the pronouciation of certain letters in that language.

    For instance if there character were German they'd be inclined to pronounce their w's as v's. Also having a look at that natural vocal stresses - the German language has a lot of hard vowel sounds - because although they'd obviously try to adopt English letter pronunciation and other such things it's difficult to separate your native and your second language sometimes. (Since studying German I keep inadvertently using German grammar rules and sentence structure in English).

    Perhaps having them slip in a few words of their native language, or some syntax slip ups would be more convincing than writing the words phonetically.

    Whichever approach you decide to use, good luck!
     
  4. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    That's what I was afraid of - it might be irritating to the reader. But the character loses her identity if she speaks perfect English. I need a compromise solution.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Don't phoneticise, but keep idiosycrancies of phrasing. For instance, many Indian speakers who are not proficient with English tend to overuse present participle:

    "I am getting coffee. Are you wanting some too?"

    To do so successfully, you should get into the practice of listening to the phrasing people use in different situations. When do they skip words? What words do they use repeatedly? What are their characteristic "hesitation phrases" ("You know?") Do they reorder words in sentences relative to other speakers (think Yoda)? What grammatical errors to they make regularly ("Me and Janice just got back from school.")?

    It's a combination of dialect and individual quirks.

    You can occasionally get away with a phonetic twist, but do NOT overdo it. A little goes a long way, and it doesn't take much to bog down the reader and annoy him or her.
     
  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I don't mind it as long as it's done properly. It gives a more authentic feeling to the character. The only times I find it irritating is when I don't know enough about the culture or how the people speak. Then it becomes hard to follow the conversations at time. But I would argue this is more a defect in the reader rather than in the writer.
     
  7. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    I understand that repetitive phonetics will bog the reader down, but how do you introduce that style, no matter how spartan, and not follow through?

    If you only use phonetics for a couple words, it doesn't seem authentic to then have the character speak flawlessly the rest of the time. If you listen to a person speak with an accent, they have it on every word, not just a couple. Maybe I'm missing the point.

    I guess I could intro the character, then have her go to school!
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    For that reason, I'd avoid the phonetic road completely, and stick to dialect and idiosyncratic speech. You will still have to maintain it, but you won't make the dialogue stumble while the reader sounds out non-words.
     
  9. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    Yes, I agree, that would seem to be the less troublesome route...
    In that case, it would be necessary to find a guide for Mexican/American dialect and idiosyncratic speech.

    Ideally, I'd like the dialog to be as authentic as possible.
    Any ideas?
     
  10. Evelyanin
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    Evelyanin Senior Member

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    The one serious flaw is that someone who has english as a second language would not think in english. They would think in whatever language is most comfortable for them. For example, I was born in the Nederlands, and moved to Canada when I was still fairly young. At first I would think in dutch, and had problems with speaking english. Over time I would start thinking in english, and today I have trouble speaking dutch. I still speak with a dutch accent, but if you put it in writing, it would look the same as almost anyone else. So if your character thinks in english, then her speech won't have an accent so great that you would notice it in writing. It would be most believable if the character has difficulty with more complicated words and phrases, ones that aren't used so often. They'll know what the word means in their mother language, but can't remember what it is in english. This can happen quite frequently, depending on how long they have been speaking english. If your character started talking english when they were older, they may still think in their mother language. In that case, it just depends on how accurate you want your story to be.

    EDIT:
    If you need a good example, here is one that I can take from my own life. For the longest time I called the couch a bench. The problem is that a bench and a couch are not the same thing. The reason for my confusion was that in the nederlands, a couch was always called a "bank". I automatically related it to "bench". It took a lot of correction from my friends before I finally got it down.
    If you want the dialogue to be authentic, you will really need to know the language. If you don't, it will take a ridiculous amount of research, and I don't mean internet research. It surprise me how often internet translation sites mess up translating. It can be easy to translate a word, but languages can't just be translated. They need to be interpreted, and it is highly unlikely that the internet will help you with that. Find someone how can speak the foreign language fluently, talk with them and see how they reply, ask them lot's of questions about their language and what they have trouble with.
    The worst that you could do is have a foreign character in your book say the wrong thing. Your book will seem cheap if a dutch person finds error in what your dutch character is saying. Just make sure you know what you are doing when writing the dialogue.

    P.S. The official dutch translation for "couch" isn't "bank". Basically, both countries use different words for the same object. The dutch one isn't politically correct, but that is the word most dutch people use.
     
  11. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    That is a good explanation of bi-lingual thinking. But, I think, at some point you have to use artistic license in order to get the character hues you want without bogging down the dialog.

    To be more specific, the character is a Mexican born woman living and working in the US. If she were to speak the King's English, it wouldn't be authentic or believable. If every word was phonetically written Spanglish, I agree, it seems the reader would tire of the work. I guess there's a happy medium in there somewhere?
     
  12. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    Exactly, that's my fear - if the dialog is not accepted as authentic, the whole book may be painted with the same brush.

    Actually, I approached an acquaintance, who has relocated to the US from So America and lives in NYC now, if he would mind editing that specific character's dialog. He declined saying that his accent prevented him doing the job accurately.
    Is that a 'catch 22?'
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    the trick is to use syntax, not phonetics... once you've let the reader know that the character speaks with an accent [in the narrative, or by someone mentioning it in dialog], all you need to do is structure her/his spoken sentences the way someone from that country would do, because of the syntactical differences between their language and english...

    of course, to be able to do that believably, you have to either have dealt with a lot of folks from that country and have a good 'ear' and great memory, or do a lot of research, to learn what the differences are... a fairly easy way to do the latter is to download real scripts [not 'transcripts'] of movies and tv shows that have characters like yours in them... here's where you can get scripts:

    http://www.imsdb.com/
    http://www.script-o-rama.com/snazzy/dircut.html

    if you're still having trouble, you can email me for help, as i've been all over the world, can get by in [or fake my way through] several languages, and have a quirkily good 'ear'...

    love and hugs, maia
    maia3maia@hotmail.com
     
  14. Rawne
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    Rawne Member

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    This is how I've always been taught. Probably every piece of professional advice I've seen or been given about this has said syntax over phonetics.

    Some books still break the rules and get published though. I finished one a little while ago where parts were set in Scotland. The author phoneticised the Scottish accents and, to me, cheapened the book somehow. I view it as laziness, really. It also adds a little comical touch that is probably, and usually, unintentional. Referencing Cogito's earlier point: listening to how people speak and using their idiosyncrasies is the way forward, I think.
     
  15. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    Thanks all. It's so valuable to receive advice from experienced writers.
    I sincerely appreciate your time and thoughtful responses.

    I plan to rewrite the character's dialog, it didn't feel right and now that's been confirmed.
    Out with phonetics, in with syntax!
     
  16. deltaquid
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    deltaquid Member

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    Belgian here, and I'd like to say Belgians very much use the word "zetel" or even "fauteuil".

    I think you shouldn't write everything phonetically, but change small words and rearrange the grammar.

    For example, in Dutch:

    "Ik wil dat je slaapt" = "I want you to sleep." A Dutch character could talk like this whenever he uses imperatives: "I want that you sleep." It's not confusing and it shows that the character has difficulty speaking.

    Another one, more phonetically rather than grammatically:
    "Vee should go." Obviously a German speaking, yet comprehensible.
     
  17. Operaghost
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    Operaghost Contributing Member

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    I agree mainly that you shouldn’t write phonetically, unless for some reason you wished to draw attention to the fact that they are speaking like this, maybe the accent is being forced for instance.
     
  18. Ali Shonak
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    Ali Shonak New Member

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    Hi;
    I read that your character thinks in English but speaks with an accent as indicated in your own examples. Unless you saddle the character with a ridiculously exaggerated accent a-la Hollywood, I don't see a real problem with her articulation. I think it appears to be more of an accent issue and less of a phonetical matter with your character.

    Now, if she isn't too fluent fluent in the English language, then I might hear her speak in a broken English, maybe like this:

    Keehar: "Na, na, rabbit no sveem dis river. Ees peeg, ees deep, go queek. But ees pridge...."
    (Richard Adams' Watership Down.)

    Also, someone else here in this thread did make a point to the effect that most newcomers to English will speak with an at least traceable accent, not to get into sentence structures. I speak three languages and, trust me, I do get myself into trouble an equal number of times, lol.
    Okay, there you have my thoughts. Should you or shouldn't you-- It can-- and should be done, if it truly serves the story.
    Ali
     
  19. writewizard
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    writewizard Contributing Member

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    I agree that some may be okay. However, I have to say, I'd worry that that would drive me up the wall. I have dyslexic tendancies, so that would be really hard for me to read. However, everyone does not have the same opinon as me. Just don't overdo it, or you'll turn it into a Mary Sue.
     
  20. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    What's a "Mary Sue?"
     
  21. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    As both Cogito and Maia have pointed out, use syntax.

    Why?

    Because a novel or a story is not real life and the dialogue has to answer to two masters. Yes, it needs to be real and organic, but it also has to fit within the framework of the needs of your reader. The same way that extraneous chit-chat should not be included in a story much as it might fill our lives, this phonetic dialogue is too much to ask of the reader. It draws attention to itself overly much and away from the story.

    Let me give you an example from cinema which I think handles the phenomenon well: Spanglish. Yes, the Adam Sandler & Paz Vega movie.

    When Paz Vega's character (from now on referred to as Flor) comes into the lives of the family in the movie, she speaks not word one of English. Flor is from Mexico and fits your character's description to a T. In the course of the movie, which takes about a summer, Flor learns some English. Enough to be able to communicate with the family by the second third of the movie.

    Now. I work as an interpreter. Spanish/English & Russian/English. I can tell you from a professional standpoint that it would take years of study and maximum effort by an adult person learning to speak a new language to achieve the proficiency that Flor managed within less than a summer.

    That bit was totally unrealistic. But that's fine. The movie is not about a young Mexican woman learning to speak English. It's about people from very different cultures coming together and discovering a commonality of human experience where the commonalities are made clear by what seem to be differences in cultural paradigms which aren't so different after all.

    Now, if they had had Paz Vega pronounce her English in a manner realistic to what really would have happened in the time alloted by the timeline of the movie, the audience would have spent so much time trying to understand her that the movie would have gone by and the credits would be rolling up and the audience would not have gotten the message that the movie was trying to convey.

    So, yes. Flor's pronunciation of English is not realistic. But again, that doesn't matter because that is not what the movie is about.

    So, think about that when you are creating the different parts to the story you are writing. What is more important? A dead on representation of someone's speech mannerisms or the story in which this character is participating?
     
  22. Syn Opsis
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    Syn Opsis Member

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    An excellent analogy!
     
  23. nacht
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    nacht Member

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    Phonetics are alright in a situation like this, but the real problem is "where do I use them?"

    lol I've had situations where I needed ot use phonetics for a foreign person, or a discombobulated person. (electric shock usually does the trick :p)
    In these situations, I usually open up some of Mark Twain's work and look at how he writes. He used phonetics a few times in his literature, and he did it well.

    Think of how the reader will read it. At first, their own face will contort with "wtf is that thing?" Then they'll try to sound it out, and still not get it. At last, they'll read on, pretending the word makes sense, then realizing that it's not an actual word: it's a certain pronunciation of a particular word. So, they'll grasp it afterward, and move on without a hitch. If nothing else, it'll make them feel smarter.

    Just use it sparingly and you should be fine. Usually someone who speaks a different language as their first would be rather quiet, timid about speaking aloud because they feel (or know?) they will make a fool of themselves (like me! =D)
     
  24. Delphinus
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    Delphinus Senior Member

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    A Mary Sue (or if they happen to be male, a "Marty Stu"), is a character with many good traits and few, if any, bad traits, who tends to be defined by these traits rather than their personality. Normally you see them in poorly-written fanfiction or the like.

    If a character can play five instruments to professional standard, speak eight languages, is a best-selling author/artist/pop-star, has some kind of super-power, owns a large company, and has three PhDs, they're probably a Mary Sue. Unrealistically-gifted individuals without some sort of extreme personality flaw are horrible characters.
     
  25. Cosmos
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    Cosmos Contributing Member

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    I generally cannot stand phonetics. I know it expands on the realism of a story but it's extremely annoying. As was mentioned, while a story must be realistic to a point, a story is an immitation of life, not life itself. Your main point should be intriguing characters and suspenseful plotline, not how the character sounds. A bit of a phonetics once a blue moon to remind the reader that English isn't their first language works okay, as does showing it in other ways. But if I had to read pages of dialogue where I had translate every second word just to get the meaning I'd probably toss the book aside. Dragon Quest 5 is an example of how bad phonetics can be, and it's a testament to my loyalty to the series that I even completed it. Generally, I wouldn't.
     

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