Natural dialogue and ‘foreign words’

by | Jun 21, 2022

If you’ve ever written science fiction or fantasy, you know the dilemma: How much unfamiliar language is too much? Is there downside to using too little? Call it a Goldilocks Zone question.

This is a recurring issue in writing The Darbas Cycle, not because I keep re-creating the problem by accident, but because there’s simply no avoiding it. I’ll get into that in a moment, but here’s the crux of the matter: If you’re committed to writing “naturalistic dialogue,” it’s going to be a issue, because real people speak in slang and shorthand with the people they know. They use in-group jargon. They substitute “Miller Lite” for “beer,” drop place-names indiscriminately, etc. And when speaking to another person they know, they don’t pause to clarify each term that might seem odd to a stranger.

If your fantasy characters don’t speak that way, they’re going to sound stilted.

Except like any valid idea, it’s only valid within limits. And as a writer who wants to entertain first and foremost, I can’t be solely interested in determining “how far I can go?” I’m obsessed with finding the perfect dynamic balance, not some hard outer limit. This is art, not science, a principle in motion, not a set of rules to be applied and enforced.

Yesterday I participated in an online writers’ group for the first time, providing a sample from Chapter One of Book Five in the series. Everyone was nice, including two participants who objected to there being “too many foreign words” in my five-page, 12-point, double-spaced, roughly 1,150-word sample. Which is fine. This balance is a moving target. We don’t have to agree on everything, and in one instance, I’d already pre-agreed with those two writers. After submitting the sample on the 18th, I edited it again on the 19th before restoring it to my larger draft. In the process I removed several references and one foreign phrase because … well, like them, I don’t want to overload the reader.

I don’t write to show off or make my readers work. I write to entice readers into another world. And to the extent that too many foreign words can turn off readers who might otherwise like my stuff, that’s a meaningful issue to me.

I’m never going to argue with another writer or editor’s opinion when they’ve volunteered to critique my work. But some of the broad, hard-edged and semi-dismissive opinions I heard yesterday certainly aren’t advice I’m planning to take, and if you’re a writer and you’re hearing the same stuff in your world, I want to flag it down and wave you off. Because I much prefer the approach I’ve developed after years of working with Janet, Mina and some of our new beta readers to make some sense of this challenge.

So let’s apply The Three Questions: What’s the actual problem? What can still be done about it? And what are the limits of my solution?

The Actual Problem

As mentioned above, writing good dialogue is part of the problem, but it isn’t the actual problem. The actual problem is that this is more than one problem lumped under a single heading. Let’s use my writing sample as an example.

The first 1,150 words of Chapter One, City of the Dead, attempt the following:

  1. To quick-sketch the novel’s third-person-limited protagonist, a petite Mullaqat archaeological excavator named Keenit;
  2. To establish the Bride’s Creek area on the North Eidatta High Plain (where literally all the action in the book takes place) as a setting;
  3. To give Keenit a chance to chat with to her teamster friend, Bedoo, about life in Sa’Urtha, an unincorporated settlement on the edge of the Plain and their wagon’s destination, and;
  4. To offer the reader a first-glimpse of Keenit in the context of both her career and her community.

The selection contained seven imaginary place names, four references to people (two of whom speak), three bits of slang written in English, and six foreign language words. If you’ve read a Darbas book, you’ll recognize all of them: Gwynyrian, bangi, Mullaqat, Darbi, safaqunzi and pekyazi.

Gwynyrian, Mullaqat and Darbi? They’re identities unique to the world of Darbas. If you’re going to read books set in imaginary worlds, there’s just a certain amount of vocabulary you have to learn to follow the story. That’s generally true of fantasy and sci fi set on contemporary Earth, too.

Place names? Bride’s Creek Archaic Site No. 1, Sa’Urtha, North Eidatta High Plain, The Orchard, the Creek, Shandy’s and Poradeux. Poradeux I’d already cut (unnecessary detail). The Bride’s Creek Complex on the North Eidatta High Plain is the novel’s primary setting, and Sa’Urtha is the book’s only other significant location. The Orchard, the Creek and Shandy’s? English language place names, largely used for texture in dialogue. Nobody complained about them. Stick a pin in that.

The people? I could drop the direct reference to Ronnie Pemory, the expedition director mentioned in the first graph, and probably will. Keenit and Bedoo speak to each other, so they have to be named, and Adjabi (a popular character from Ta Nupa) is a significant figure in Book Five and future novels.

And the slang? “Bangi-Town” is slang for Sa’Urtha, The Round isn’t actually slang, but a concept that readers don’t know yet, and “squishy” is what bangi-loving Sa’Urtha residents (aka “squish-heads”) call the feeling of being intoxicated on weed.

Why didn’t I call it “stoned?” Because I wanted an original English word for that feeling when I was writing Ta Nupa and that’s what I came up with.

Which leaves us with three actual “foreign words:” Bangi, which is necessary for the context of the story; safaqunzi, which is both a Mullaqwa borrow word and a concept with no English equivalent; and pekyazi — another Mullaqat word with no English equivalent. It means “solo traveler,” but it implies a temporary status. Like the word Darbi, it’s introduced in the context of Bedoo and Keenit discussing their evolving identities as semi-permanent residents of Sa’Urtha. They can’t quite decide: Are they still Mullaqat if they stop being nomadic?

Here’s the passage:

“I don’t like anybody like that,” Keenit said. “I’m Mullaqat, remember? We’re not supposed to do attachment, or did you forget all those lessons you learned on The Round?”

“Well, you’re not exactly Mullaqat now, right Keenit? Not anymore, I mean. Just like I’m not exactly Mullaqat these days. When was the last time you went out on The Round?”

“I stopped traveling when I was about 13,” she said. 

“And how old are you now?”

“About twice that.”

“I turned 40 a couple years ago,” Bedoo said. “Stopped going out on The Round at 34. And you know how it is. I used to think of myself as Mullaqat. But now I just say that I’m a Darbi guy who lives in Sa’Urtha with these horses and this wagon. Because like my mother used to say, ‘You’re Mullaqat if you live The Round.’ But I don’t want to travel anymore, Keenit.”

“You’re a teamster, Bedoo! You travel all the time!”

“Yeah, but it’s not really traveling, is it? Not like going around Darbas with a good safaqunzi for a year or so. Nowadays I just poke around with these horses, and I only do it for the money.”

“Yeah, but we did all sorts of things for money on The Round. Bought stuff, sold stuff, passed the hat. Remember?”

“I remember,” he said. “I loved that life.”

“So what changed?”

“Well, I realized I liked hanging out around The Orchard with Adjabi, too, ” the teamster said. “There are good people living there, and lots of other good people coming and going. All sorts of nice, interesting people. Plus he likes having me around, I think. I’ve got a wagon. Sometimes it’s good to have a friend with a wagon.”

“True that,” Keenit said. 

Got it? I haven’t told you what the Mullaqat are or explained what The Round means to them. But this is how we try to introduce new words and cultural ideas in The Darbas Cycle: Not with a language lesson or too much direct exposition, but with context clues that I’ll keep gently reinforcing until — poof! You’ve learned some new ideas! It’s kinda like Duolingo for a fantasy language: You learn new words by using different parts of your brain, a little at a time, and when it all connects? Dopamine hits for everyone!

Whoever the Mullaqat are, their identity involves a traveling lifestyle and avoiding attachments, and now that Bedoo and Keenit are semi-settled in Sa’Urtha, they’re not entirely sure what that makes them. You know that a safaqunzi is something related to Mullaqat travel (feedback: One of these writers figured a safaqunzi must be some kind of horse, which is fine with me based on the cues so far). And for our story so far, that’s all you need to know about these characters and their culture.

So, what’s the actual problem?

I’m increasingly convinced it’s “words people aren’t sure how to pronounce.” Because that’s stressful, particularly if you’re someone who is used to getting straight As.

What can still be done?

There’s no single solution to this problem, other than to tell a story that has no concepts or cultures in it. And isn’t the allure of new worlds one of the reasons we’re drawn to these genres? But people have various levels of interest and comfort, and we want to entice them, not intimidate them. Which is I try to handle it this way:

  1. Keep new foreign words to a minimum;
  2. Introduce, define, reintroduce and refresh new foreign words throughout;
  3. Whenever possible, try to do it gently, obliquely and/or playfully;
  4. Once people acquire the new vocabulary, give them opportunities to enjoy it;
  5. Always provide in-book and online language reference materials for people who need or want the help.

In this case, I’m introducing the words “Mullaqat” and “safaqunzi,” and that’s it. And given the reaction from those writers who didn’t like my foreign language words, I’d say cutting “pekyazi” from this part of the chapter was a good thing. And I did that because my rule of thumb is “Keep new foreign words to a minimum… and then cut one of them anyway.”

Because it’s true: Learning new words is brain work, and that applies to proper names as well. But storytelling as an art form requires that we introduce characters and places and ideas and names. And if we do that well, readers don’t find it work, but recreation.

My experience is that most of the limited pushback I’ve gotten about foreign words in the series is related to Gwynyrian and Mullaqat words. So why don’t I just replace them with English words?

Because when I introduce a word in an invented language, it’s generally because there’s no English equivalent. A sword is a sword to Gwynyrian swordsman Thamas Valand. But to him, a siobeth is not a sword at all. It’s a sacred object with special characteristics. I could have called the little box of bones that Antin Hrabar ties to his head in the first chapter of Ta Nupa a “reliquary” instead of the invented phrase capa racea. Why invent a phrase? Because the phrase contains more information than the kinda-sorta English word, and by learning that, the reader infers significant insight into what makes the DuQaddic people different than the Clydes, or the Darbi, or the Mullaqat, or the Gheralds, and so on.

If a reader comes to The Darbas Cycle expecting nothing but adventure and drama and thrills, the simple fact is they’ve come to the wrong place. Which is fine. I’m not writing for every reader, and you shouldn’t either.

What are the limits of my solution?

I’ve focused on foreign language words, and particularly the ones that people struggle to pronounce. But one of the settings in another writer’s sample was Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, several people didn’t know how to pronounce it, and no one dinged it. So it isn’t just foreign words and things that people have a hard time sounding out. Part of it is just whatever expectation the reader brings to the piece, including the question “Is this writer just showing off?”

I really only heard complaints about one of my English language concepts in yesterday’s critique: One person was confused about The Round, and monologue went kind of like this: “What is ‘The Round?’ Why is it important that we know about ‘The Round?’ You should just cut all references to ‘The Round.’ You don’t need ‘The Round.'”

Well, that’s one way of writing. But consider this: I could probably write about a Buddhist character without ever using a foreign word and still get a functional story out of it. But what’s the value of telling that story if the reader doesn’t get to consider the implications of ideas like dharma, karma, nirvana or samsara? What’s the English word for a koan? You could call it a “teaching story,” but why would you? That’s why our language adopts borrow-words from other cultures: Because there is no English word that conveys the meaning of “nirvana” or “koan.”

And in that case, I very much need The Round as a concept, whether expressed in English or Mullaqwa. To be Mullaqat is not an ethnicity, but a way of thinking and living, and its beauty to me is the way it’s rooted in the landscape of Darbas, in the history of Darbas, in the economy and culture of Darbas. Just as a safaqunzi means more than a “nomadic caravan,” The Round is more than some circuit a safaqunzi travels. It’s a way of life in which no one owns property, people and groups take turns doing seasonal labor and taking the culture’s products north to trade with the continent’s other peoples. It’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s a living meditation on the concept that suffering begins with attachment.

If Keenit weren’t Mullaqat, her heartbreak over Bren Viqar wouldn’t have the same meaning. And the relationship she develops with with Niall Dannan at Underground Feature No. 5 simply wouldn’t be as interesting.

That’s the value of writing about characters in new cultures in imaginary worlds. It’s why I write in this genre.

Can we solve this problem for all readers? Of course not. That solution is not available.

Can we become more artful in introducing the imaginary cultures and concepts that draw people to fantasy fiction in the first place? Absolutely. But there’s no rule that works in all cases.

That’s why I propose that we respect those who want to write stories that don’t include foreign words, and let them write for their audience.

And why I propose that we write the stories that inspire us, no matter what.