Monday, October 3, 2011

Speaking the Language

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon shopping at our local Ikea. We bought a samla, a tokig, a nackten and some adorable yrsni. Translation: storage container, salad spinner, bathmat, Christmas ornaments. Earlier in the year, I picked up some items for work and when I submitted the receipt to our finance office, it was returned to me with a note: “What in the world did you purchase? I can’t read this receipt.” I've noticed that Ikea now provides an abbreviated form of English beside the Swedish name on the receipts for easier identification.

It’s a good idea to speak your customer’s language.

It reminds me of some explaining I had to do once on a passage of a manuscript during the editing stage. The scene was a crowded aquarium where the characters were “dodging baby strollers and munchkins.” I was referring to the babies as ‘munchkins,’ but apparently Munchkins are also doughnut holes from Dunkin Donuts (which I did not know) and I sent the wrong message. I can see the visual I created: babies with a messy floor beneath their strollers. It made sense. Dunkin Donuts was relatively unknown on the West Coast at the time, and I was clueless. They allowed me to leave it in anyway.

It is difficult to write from our own experiences and perspectives and remain aware of the universality of the words we choose. Word choices differ between social groups, age groups, regions, cultures and countries. As readers, we generally figure them out. We've seen enough James Bond to know the boot of the car in Britain is the trunk in America, and the bonnet is the hood. The same goes for Australia, as I understand it.
Consider carbonated beverages. Depending on where you're from in the United States, you may refer to them as soda, pop or Coke (which is used generically for every brand). Canada calls it pop, also (Bonnie, correct me if I'm wrong). In America, you may have a 'pot luck' whereas in Britain you may call it 'Dutch treat' or in Australia say 'bring a plate.' My sister's new neighbor came over to borrow a round of wool which my sister came to realize meant a spool of thread.

As I said, as readers we generally figure out the meaning or we gloss over the words that aren't crucial to the story. At least, we hope they're not crucial. But it's the writer's job to keep that 'hitch' from happening or at least minimize the downtime before the reader is sailing along again.

The writer of historicals will necessarily use the jargon of the times but sometimes a bit of explanation is helpful. For example, you wouldn't write, "She placed the coins in her reticule which is like a purse" but you might say, "She dropped the coins into her beaded reticule and pulled the drawstring tight." Likewise, if you're writing about a particular locale, you need to include some dialect for authenticity, but not so much that it slows down the pace of the story or muddies the understanding of a critical point.

It is imperative to have trusted readers give us honest feedback before we submit our manuscripts, to ensure that w
e are speaking the language of our readers wherever possible.

Have you been stumped by a word or phrase that prevented your understanding of a story? Does it enhance or detract when you find a word or phrase that requires that you deduce the meaning from the story?


Anonymous said...

One of my very favorite things is the cultural banter I've had with Miss Megan Sayer. "What's creamer?", "What is a brekkie?", "Peanut butter and Jelly???"

I have a lot of fun learning these differences in language. It intrigues me. And it's far more easily figured out with Google.

However, I realize that this won't always be the case for readers. As writers, we're amazingly curious. But readers aren't always. So, it's something that I try to keep in check in my writing.

And, here in Michigan, we drink POP! :)

Nicole said...

Pop it is in Washington state!

I'm more concerned when I have to stop and look up a vocabulary word. Shame on me, I think. Why don't I know this word and did I ever?

And I don't read historicals so I don't have to wonder what's what in them. ;)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Just read the book Wench. The title threw me until I delved into the book and saw the original meanings. Powerful.

I've been a little obsessed w/ word choice lately, making sure I take the time to select ones that communicate the story most accurately.

~ Wendy

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

On the East Coast where I grew up, we used "Coke" for every carbonated drink. If you asked for a Coke, they asked what kind.
I apologize for the crazy font/sizes going on in the post today. Blogger is not cooperating!

I think what we call non-dairy creamer in the US is called whitener in Australia. Or is it Canada?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Nicole, I found an interesting site for words that are misused. People say irregardless, which is not a word at all. The proper word is regardless. And peruse is often used to skim or read over lightly, but it means exactly the opposite: to read through with thoroughness or care. I think I've used it that way myself.

Bonnie Grove said...

Yep, we drink "pop" up here. Coke is a brand, though, not used as an umbrella term (like in the UK where "pudding" means any kind of dessert).

When it comes to Canadian-isms, my American editors are always scratching their heads at me. "Parkade? Huh?" "Chesterfield?" "Poutine?"

I was surprised how some of my homegrown words (which I thought were generally universal) don't translate.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Do crowds gurgle? With delight, of course. A reader objected to such happenings in my wip.
I think I have mentioned my on going fight with spellcheck.
And I often get a laugh from my husband when I ask him to 'knock me up' in the morning. In my dialect it means wake me up. In American it means 'get me pregnant'.
I use a spatula where he uses a squeegee.
Then there was the day we went into a shop and neither of us could think of the American for anti-itch cream. We always used the word taught to my great aunt by her Zulu nanny.
The list is endless. A varied vocabulary helps when inventing place or character names.
And I don't think it is wrong to coin words as long as the meaning is clear in the context. Where would our vocabulary have been without Shakespeare?

Megan Sayer said...

Coke? You mean if I went into McDonalds and wanted, say, a Fanta or a lemonade I'd just ask for a coke and then they'd ask what flavour? Well that's done my head in.
We call it fizzy drink. However, on the mainland they call it cordial, which is what we call syrupy stuff you mix with water and give to kids to make them hyperactive.

On a serious note though, this is really interesting to me at the moment. I'm writing a story for Miss SusieFink's blog and it's very much an Australian story. I felt it needed to be specifically located there (as opposed to a generic location) because the premise is the teenage protagonist's complete lack of understanding of American geography (she thinks that if she wins a trip to Disneyland she'll be a hop and a skip from Ohio).'s written in the first person, and there are some bits that I've written in a vernacular style, because to write them in a more culturally universal language would be just too ewww-y. So, it's an Australian story full of colloquialisms for an American audience. I don't know how it will go down, and I'm really curious, because, although this is a tiny drop in the ocean, it will help me to garner how my major work will be received over there.
I feel a bit stuck. I want to write Australian stories that reflect a God element - but the major market for God-stories is America. So, do I need to compromise one or the other? At the moment I don't care, I'm just writing as it comes, but one day I feel I'm going to have to choose. Or write so amazingly that someone will publish it anyway...eeek!!!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Megan, it sounds like a very interesting premise and as long as it doesn't slow down the reading or become work for the reader, it could really work here. I've heard publishers say that American readers prefer books with settings in the states, but that may apply ust for certain genres. I think that if the culture isn't too different, the differences add spice. I'll be interested to see how it turns out for you.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

The 'j' on my keyboard is going out. : (

Anonymous said...

Megan, I'm all about the Aussie jargon! My blog readers will just love you for you. And if they have questions, they'll ask in the comment section!

I can't wait to read this story!

Kathleen Popa said...

Debbie: Going out with whom?