Watch Your Languages

You’ve heard the old saw about “Write what you know.” Yeah, it’s a load of pickled garbage. Write whatever stirs your imagination, what you are inspired to write.

But do keep things as accurate as you can. Don’t have people walking from Point A to Point B in the same time it would take them to drive that same distance nonstop. Unless you set the scene ahead of time with an earthquake or other natural disaster that caused the two points to move closer together.

Don’t have your French Cavalier saying that things are okay. That phrase popped up mid-1800s in the United States, and there’s still debate about where it originated. And don’t have your Regency lovers arrange to meet in Trafalgar Square. That battle happened in the Regency period, but the memorial square came along in 1845 or so.

And don’t have your characters using a language incorrectly. My own historicals are mostly in English, with a touch of French now and then. The current work in progress takes place in France, so there’s a bit more French involved. The hero does not speak French. The heroine does not speak English. They discover a means of communication by use of Latin. Viola!

I’m not putting in whole sentences in Latin with the English translation in parenthesis afterward. But now and again I am putting in a phrase or two. Which means I’ll need someone who does speak the language look over the manuscript for me. Luckily I am not using any dirty words that need a translation. On Scribophile, one writer recently wanted her half-Spanish hero to talk dirty in the throws of passion in Spanish. The call went out for a translator.

The first thing the translator asked was which country the hero came from. Spanish is spoken as the official language in more countries than English is. Consider the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand versus Spain, Mexico, Central America, and most of South America. And just as there are difference between a boot in the US and a boot in England, there are differences in Spanish from Spain to Mexico and Peru.

Speaking of Scribophile, there’s a great group there called Lingua Franca where Scribophile members can ask for language help. With my connections in my work place to several bilingual folks, I was able to assist someone with a term of endearment in Arabic. That ability to help is what this group is all about. Helping each other means we help ourselves.

Language can be difficult even if you have spoken that brand for years. I recently saw the phrase “won’t cow-tow to him” in an otherwise wonderful read. How can you tow a cow when they don’t have wheels? Yes, I was able to insert the correct kowtow, and to be fair, that comes from Canton or Mandarin Chinese by way of American English.

Homonyms are another tricky trap for writers, and even words that aren’t exact sound-alikes. For instance, you might think it is correct to suggest someone take a different tact with a friend to convince them of some needed change. While you would want to use tact, there really is only one version of it. What you mean to say is, try another tack, as in changing course. Like sail boats do when heading into the wind.

So now I need to be very careful after calling out these types of errors. Guess I’ll spend my first day of retirement tomorrow double checking my work. The shoo is on the other foot, as it were. I’ll be back on Sunday.


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