Foreign Languages · Writing

Culture: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Pry It From Language’s Cold Dead Hands

Welcome to week three of my ongoing feature on writing characters dealing with a foreign language. Week one was what being plopped in the middle of a foreign language feels like, week two we talked about how languages differ. Today we’re going to talk about culture as it meets language.

The fact is, if your character has gone somewhere that people speak differently, that means that chances are, they act differently, too.

Now, you can do the clichés. You can tell us how their pronunciation is different (L’s like Y’s), you can say how they speak through a mouthful of gravel, but the fact is, you’re telling us this. Show it!

  1. Idioms: I say “son of a bitch,” Japan says “born from a cow.” If you try to directly translate either of these phrases, you will end up with laughter all around, rather than, say, righteous indignation.

Not that I’m advocating it, but there are some incredibly offensive idioms out there—that are only offensive in another language/culture sphere. Could have interesting results…

  1. References: Oh, are so-and-so star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet? Better hope that language either knows who those two are or has an equivalent.
xkcd, one more reason to love you.
xkcd to the rescue! And Star Trek, for that matter.
  1. Gendered speech: If a non-native English speaker starts every aggressive sentence with “I’m sorry,” I assume they learned English from a woman.

Likewise, when I studied abroad, it was hilarious to my friends (college-aged boys) that I greeted them with “Osu,” which would be like in English saying, “’Sup, dog.” In my case, I was doing it for effect—to fit in with them—but it was also incongruous, to say the least.

  1. Age speech: If I say something was “snazzy,” I probably sound a bit older than I am. Likewise, I doubt anyone over age fifty would refer to something they think is cool as “sick.” Every language has these words that have come and gone from fashion.

A Frenchman once taught me to say “Je suis bourré” for “I am drunk.” When I repeated it to my sister, she rolled her eyes and said only old men use that.

  1. Class speech: Educated English speakers rarely sound like their less-educated age-mates, and neither do educated French speakers. Or Russians. Or Malaysians.

On one hand, this might make them harder to understand—bigger words, more complicated grammar. On the other, they’re more likely to use the standard form of a language due to their high exposure to written language than someone who has mostly learned from those around them.

It all depends how your character learned/is learning the language. Can you imagine learning English from books and tapes and then being dropped in the middle of West Virginia? “Hey, mah naeme’s Shirleen, ain’t y’all from ‘round here?”

Of course, my husband, who spent two years in the middle of an obscure Japanese dialect, came out with the equivalent of a hick accent. Your character’s accent doesn’t have to be crap because it’s foreign—it can be crap for all sorts of reasons!

Then again, his accent here means he gets called “Braveheart” and cornered by girls in bars, so there is that. No one said an an accent had to be a bad thing.

The point is, there’s no need to have strange food be the only culture someone encounters. Everything around you is culture, from the fact that you’re sitting on furniture rather than the floor, to the fact that as an adult you wear a certain color, right down to believing that opening a window when someone is sick will get rid of the flu germs.

You might also enjoy:

Week 1: Your Character Arrives In A Foreign Land: What Happens Next?

Week 2: Not All Languages Are Created Equal (Not Like That, Just Listen)

Week 4: Sometimes It Pays To Be Silent: Language Is Not Always Helpful

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below, on Twitter, or on Facebook. Thanks for reading and see you next week!

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