Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Speaking the language

I was talking with some people today about how many words in the English language are specialized; they're only used by small fractions of the population. Like "odontoblast," "jabiru," and "gallet," from the worlds of dentistry, ornithology, and masonry, respectively. Many occupations have their own special languages. Geologists might talk about chert, gneiss, and the vadose zone, while doctors speak of tachycardia, cyanosis, and the corpus callosum. In fact, that's one of the difficult parts about writing characters who share a profession if you're an outsider to that profession: getting the language right, whether your setting is a hospital, a restaurant kitchen, a military base, a police station, or a dance studio. (The other challenge is to keep it intelligible to those readers who are not insiders.)

Writers of books for children and teens can often skip this problem, because our characters usually don't have these occupational vocabularies. But sometimes our characters do live in specialized worlds--if they're Olympic gymnasts, for example. And of course there are other vocabulary issues, like slang and regionalisms.

Another challenge in getting the vocabulary right is in writing historical novels. I'm always fascinated by novels written in the 1920s, with the characters' references to "flivvers" and "runabouts" and "berries" and "brilliantine," and the frequency with which the phrase, "I'll tell the world!" is uttered. A time traveler from the early 1920s would be puzzled by our references to "surfing the web" or "texting" or "TiVo," not to mention "MRIs," "in vitro fertilization," or even "penicillin."

What "language" do your characters speak?


  1. Language can be so colorful and interesting. I'm really getting a kick out of listening to how people talk here in my new "cowboy town". Language is one of those things that can really make a character or story sing. And yes, getting the language right in historicals is a HUGE challenge. ^_^

    1. That's where I find reading work written at the time is immensely helpful. Not that I've written historicals, but sometimes I like to immerse myself in a historical time period through reading.