Today’s topic is using foreign language to define character.
When I say language, I’m talking about how a character speaks. The words he chooses, how he structures his sentences – all those quirks of speech that make a person’s voice unique. In this post, I’m going to focus on foreign words and how to use them effectively.
The most obvious use of foreign language is to provide insight into a character’s background.
Someone who habitually uses pieces of another language is likely to have lived abroad for a significant amount of time. If that’s the case, the use of foreign words could be a way of showcasing a character’s heritage, or imply pride and respect for the culture. Of course, it could also simply be habit. Either way, it gives the character a connection to the culture in question.
The Tiger’s Curse series by Colleen Houck is a good example of this. Two of her characters use Hindi pet names when referring to the protagonist, adding an exotic feel to their speech. At the same time, the reader is given the impression that they carry affection and respect for their heritage.
Language can also be used to demonstrate ability or education.
This one could, surprisingly, go either way. On the one hand, you have the academic who intentionally uses complicated foreign words to showcase her knowledge. On the other hand, you have the traveler who unconsciously uses foreign terms because he hasn’t quite got a handle on the local language. One uses language as a way to impress, the other as a fallback when he can’t find the right words. In the case of the traveler, his use of language gives him an exotic feel. In the case of the academic, her language can easily come across as boastful or condescending.
The main thing to keep in mind when using foreign language is not to overdo it. Excessive use can quickly become annoying, and throwing too many new words into play is sure to confuse readers. As writers, we want to entertain, not frustrate. No one wants to be continuously flipping back and forth for definitions.
Keep it simple – in many cases, two or three words used sparingly will do just as much as a full sentence or (heaven forbid) paragraph. J.R.R. Tolkien invented seven languages while writing Lord of the Rings, but only a fraction of those words actually made it in the books.
Finally, one last note: always provide a translation.
You can have a character define a word, provide an index in the back, or even let the context do the defining, but make sure the reader knows what’s being said. Even if a word is only there to illustrate setting or character, define it anyway. Readers are curious people. If you start throwing mystery words around, they will want to know what they mean.
There is one exception to this rule: curse words. If you want to define them, go ahead, but the context generally makes it unnecessary. The reader will get the idea.
Besides, if you don’t define a curse word, technically, no one can get mad at you for saying it!