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Speaking in Tongues: Simulating Dialects in Your Game

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue.

It’s likely that in your games, whether you are a referee or ‘merely’ a player, that you don’t worry about language difficulties, or if you do, it’s only by rolling a task for understanding what’s being said once every three minutes or some such like that.

In a universe where Galanglic, represented by English, is the lingua franca, you still may well have dialects and local idiom, and while you may not need to have a lot of “Do I understand what he’s saying?” rolls, it’s still an opportunity to throw the occasional curveball at the player-characters.

There are several ways you can give your NPCs a ‘sorta foreign’ flavor, simply by changing their speech patterns. We’ll look at a few that are relatively easy to do.

When choosing rules for a dialect, try to be consistent – but not slavishly so. Natural languages tend to accumulate exceptions to their ‘rules’, often because the exception can trace back to something borrowed from another language. If you can’t make a phrase fit the rules you’ve chosen, do the best you can while keeping the intended meaning intact.

Word Order

English sentences normally use Subject-Verb-Object order. Change that to something else. There are six possible permutations of Subject, Verb, and Object; if you recast an English sentence into most of them, it will still be understandable. Most languages are ordered Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) or Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). Sometimes, the word order may depend on other features of the sentence; in such cases, a foreign flavor can be imparted by simply applying the rule for one of the special cases to a “normal” sentence.

In the Star Wars movies, Yoda’s speech was rendered in English, but used OSV order: “Much to learn, you have.” “The water, you must drink.”

German has a reputation for putting the verb at the end, so in the Third Imperium setting, you can perhaps simulate Sword Worlder usage by using Subject-Object-Verb order: “You the book must read.” “We to the ship go.”

Verb-Subject-Object can also work in English, and sounds different enough to be a ‘foreign’ usage: “Read you the instructions.” “Loads he the cargo.” “Requires the ship zuchai crystals.”

Questions and Answers

There are several forms that a question can take in English – but other languages use forms that don’t normally occur in English, or are interpreted differently. Some languages change the word order slightly between statements and questions; some merely add indicator words.

Some questions in French have a construction that is difficult to describe in English, but can be made somewhat clearer by example: “We need zuchai crystals for the jump drive, right?” becomes “It is that it is the zuchai crystals that are necessary for the jump drive, yes?”.

Japanese and some other languages are sometimes claimed to have no words for the simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Instead, in answering a question, the verb is repeated for the affirmative, or negated for the negative: “Do you have the money?” “I have it.” “Have you loaded the ship?” “I have not loaded it.”

At least one language that the author has read about phrases questions such that the phrasing indicates whether the ‘expected’ answer is in the affirmative or the negative. If that construction is expressed in English by converting the question to a statement, and then appending “, yes?” for an affirmative inquiry and “, no?” for a negative, then the answers can seem odd or even wrong when cast appropriately: “We do not need zuchai crystals for the jump drive, no?” expects an answer “No, we do not need zuchai crystals for the jump drive.” (or “Yes, we need zuchai crystals…” if we do in fact need them) – but if the question were asked as “We do not need zuchai crystals for the jump drive, yes?”, the expected answer would be “Yes, we do not need zuchai crystals…” (or “No, we need zuchai crystals…” if they are needed).

Vocabulary and Idiom

Sometimes, you can provide the sense of “foreignness” by appropriate word choices from a regional dialect not local to your gaming group. For example, instead of using ‘pharmacy’ or ‘pharmacist’ or ‘drugstore’ if you’re in the NYC metropolitan area, choose ‘druggist’ or ‘chemist’ or ‘apothecary’. Use ‘require’ instead of ‘need’, ‘desire’ instead of ‘want’, and so on. Omit contractions (say ‘will not’ instead of ‘won’t’, ‘cannot’ instead of ‘can’t’, and so on). Use archaic words and phrases (or archaic meanings for words and phrases still in use) or word-forms and phrase constructions (‘I like it not’ or ‘I mislike it’ instead of ‘I don’t like it’). Phrases from other regional dialects – or translated from other languages – that mean the same thing as what your want to say, but starting from other cultural associations, can also do the trick. For example, a common phrase from the northeastern US to refer to a woman as being pregnant is ‘she has a bun in the oven’. The equivalent in French translates as ‘She has a puppet in the drawer’.

If you’re the type that likes to borrow cultures from literature and just file off the serial numbers, borrow their idioms, too. If the culture has a rite of passage, and someone from that culture wants to say that another is [English idiom] acting like a child, perhaps the idiom makes reference to the rite, instead – ‘You’ve run with the feldgroat; act like it!’.

Many languages sport more complex conjugations of verbs than English, and it’s not unusual for native speakers of those languages to translate their verb forms literally while still unfamiliar with English, resulting in constructions like “John he went to the store.”

Applying “regular” verb conjugations (is there actually such a thing in English?) to verbs that are normally irregularly conjugated is also something that isn’t uncommon among non-native speakers. You can also omit conjugations entirely, and just use a single form of a verb for all purposes (I be here, she be at home tonight, we be at the mall yesterday, etc.)

Grammatical gender doesn’t exist in English; except where an inanimate object is personified (ships, for example), pronouns match natural gender – males are ‘he’, females are ‘she’, everything else is ‘it’. That’s not true of other languages; for example, in German, trains are all masculine (der Zug), but the railroads are feminine (die Eisenbahn), and the young girls travelling aboard them are neuter (das Mädchen). Combine this with the use of specific pronouns as part of the verb conjugation as described before, and you get perfectly reasonable constructions like “The girl it rides him the train.” (And if you ‘Yoda-ize’ the word order, “The train, him, the girl it rides.”)

Some constructed languages (most notably Esperanto), and even some natural languages (most notably Arabic and Hebrew), have word fragments that carry a ‘core meaning’, and then generate specific words with specific related meanings by changing prefixes, suffixes, or possibly other features of the word. While English doesn’t lend itself to that directly, it can be simulated by using various words as parts of speech that they don’t normally get used in. This already happens to some extent; consider “Did you google it?” or “We lunched at Joe’s Eats.”. It’s possible, though, to go quite a bit farther in doing so, while remaining generally understandable – consider the Calvin and Hobbs comic strip where Calvin asserted that “Verbing weirds language”, or the descriptions of Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984, where a perfectly legitimate instruction was “… rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling”.

One can broaden the meaning of a word by having it ‘absorb’ concepts that are either close in meaning, or which can be argued as such from a psychological view. For example, in the Funny Fish stories published in Freelance Traveller, Luriani uses the word ‘ami’ to refer to both a family and to a ship’s crew. Doing so with English words still gives an insight into the mindset of the society that supposedly created that usage. You can also do the opposite, and separate overlapping meanings from different words to create a more rigid definition – one example that comes to mind is the use of the word ‘need’ by Simes in the Sime~Gen universe created by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah: it refers specifically and only to the necessity of taking ‘selyn’ from a Gen; all other current English uses of ‘need’ have been eliminated and merged into ‘require’, or rephrased entirely to avoid the word: I require air and water to live; I must go to the store and purchase food.

There’s no real bar to either borrowing or creating your own words to merge (or separate) meanings and incorporating them into the English (or rather, Galanglic) that your non-mainstream culture speaks – borrowing quite definitely frequently happens in English anyway, and there’s no reason to assume that it won’t continue to happen even after English becomes Anglic and then Galanglic.

Pronunciation and Accent

Sometimes, the local accent is all that’s needed to add that air of foreignness, even if the local language really is Galanglic – as an example, many English-speakers from India will pronounce the word ‘develop’ to sound like ‘devil up’. Subtle changes in syllabic emphasis and/or vowel pronunciation can leave the speech understandable, but still make it clear that ‘yer not from roun’ here, are ya?’.

Some languages don’t have sounds that English does – or vice-versa. Substitute a sound that the language does have for the one it doesn’t. For example, German doesn’t have the semivowel sound represented in English by the letter ‘W’; that glyph carries the sound in German that is generally written as ‘V’ in English. Similarly, the glyph ‘V’ in German carries the sound written in English as ‘F’. Make those substitutions (The stereotypical example is ‘Ve haf vays of making you talk.’). Japanese seems to not have the ‘L’ sound, and Chinese seems to lack ‘R’; the stereotypical substitution for each is the other – and I regularly hear native speakers of Chinese (Fujian dialect) use the sound written ‘SH’ in English where native English speakers would use ‘S’ – ‘sheafood shoup’ is a dish made from vegetable broth with chunks of krab (the artificial stuff, not real crabmeat), scallop, clam, shrimp, and vegetables. Another sound to play with is the ‘hard J’, as in ‘jack’ or ‘jam’ – many languages lack that, but it’s easily replaceable with the sound heard in the French ‘jardin’ – approximately the same as the ‘Z’ in English ‘azure’ or the ‘S’ in English ‘measure’ – or ‘consonantal Y’, as in ‘yellow’ or ‘yam’ (and both of those sounds are associated with the ‘J’ glyph in other languages).

Putting It All Together

There’s no one “right way” to put these ideas together to present your player-characters with the “sound of foreignness”. There are two important things to remember: