Revive a language, revive a novel: lick your dialogue with a foreign tongue…

[Another guest post from thriller author Gina Fava.  Writers should especially pay attention.  I think she brings up some very important points on this one.  Thanks, Gina.]

Does that little voice inside your head ever use a language other than the one you speak everyday?  Ever consider dabbling in a foreign language to enhance the novel you’re writing, as in Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce?  Or creating a sense of mood with dialect, like Mark Twain did in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or just as Dennis Lehane did in Gone, Baby Gone?

How about making up a foreign tongue, like Vulcan, Romulan, or Klingon in the Star Trek series? Thought about using slang to add a touch of humor or the right amount of grit to a story, as in Dude, Where’s My Car? or Mario Puzo’s The Godfather?

Maybe you have an urge to go full throttle and write a whole work in a dead language (one that remains in use for specific contexts like science, law, or religion, such as Latin) or an extinct or endangered language (one lacking in speakers or users, such as Aramaic) or a combination of both, ala Mel Gibson’s screenplay for The Passion of the Christ.

Playing with language to flavor your characters and plot might just help your story exude an added level of texture and an authenticity that could distinguish it from other works in your genre.  Both of my novels, The Race, as well as The Sculptor, are based on American characters who reside in Italy.  Often, these characters interact with native Italians, so a fair amount of dialogue is sprinkled with Italian language.   I use it to evoke mood, setting, humor, and/or authenticity, depending on the scene.  Similarly, one of my chapters in The Race recreates the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in 1986.  I enhanced character pathos and increased tension in the plot by peppering their dialogue with Russian slang.

In one of my earlier blog posts, A Thriller Audiobook That Hits You Like Bleach,  I recommend listening to the audiobook of Ken Follett’s historical thriller, Fall of Giants.   The lilt and cadence of every dialect and accent will practically transport you to Wales, Buffalo, Russia, England and Germany during the First World War.  Hurry, because the second installment in the trilogy, Winter of the World , is due out in September.

DID YOU KNOW that nearly half of the world speaks a Top Ten Language:

  1. Chinese*
  2. Spanish
  3. English
  4. Arabic*
  5. Hindi
  6. Bengali
  7. Portuguese
  8. Russian
  9. Japanese
  10. German

*Includes all forms of the language

UNESCO ranks the world’s languages by degree of usage between generations.  One language dies nearly every 14 days.  Nearly 2,724 languages of the roughly 7,000 languages ever spoken on Earth are now endangered.  Here are just a few:

  • the Aramaic dialects that linger primarily in the Middle East
  • Tuvan, spoken by about 200,000 people in Russia
  • Aka, limited to less than 2,000 people in India
  • Seri, spoken by a mere 700-1000 Mexican natives

For more information on the planet’s endangered languages, check out the article “Vanishing Voices” by Russ Rhymer [] in the July 2012 issue of National Geographic.

Recently, Google has initiated and funded a project to protect endangered languages.  So has Rosetta Stone, a language-learning software company.  Click on the Google or Rosetta Stone links above, and click The Endangered Languages Project link for more information on what you can do to protect global linguistic diversity.

What do you think of peppering your prose with another language?  Any suggestions or ideas?

[Note from Steve to writers and readers:  This is an important question.  If we apply the Goldilocks Principle, what is too much, too little, or just right?  This is especially important for dialog.  Comments are welcome!]

In libris libertas….



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