Should we consider linguistics and English composition when creating dialogue in fiction? How does syntax function within fictional dialogue and set a genre apart?
In How English Works: A Lingusitic Introduction, Adams and Curzan state that we use “intuition” (169) to decipher the meanings of sentences and determine whether a sentence is structured correctly.
For example, two iconic speakers in literature and film include Yoda of Star Wars and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where both character’s dialogues are grammatically correct, despite the fact that they’re spoken out of the ordinary order that most use by inverting syntax to a subject/object/verb or object/subject/verb in order to place emphasis on what is deemed the most important information of the sentence. This inverted order also creates a unique rhythm to the words, drawing attention to the speaker just as much as the words themselves.
The speech pattern for Hamlet is used as a way to portray inner turmoil and the perceived natural confusion and disarray of a tormented interior monologue. The dialogue is written in a passive tone, where “the direct object becomes the grammatical subject and the agent subject [noun phrase] is moved to the end of the sentence—or deleted entirely” (Curzan 189), as seen in “to be, or not to be: that is the question.” Yoda’s speech is written to portray an alien race and an ancient dialect, to set him apart from the other English speaking characters to assist in world building techniques, as seen in the famous line “do or do not, there is no try.” Neither follow the traditional rules of ordering, yet both are still completely understandable due to inference on the viewer’s part.
Yoda’s character is indicative of many alien characters within the science fiction and fantasy genres. For these genres, world building is an absolute must for readers to be able to suspend belief and immerse themselves into the create fantasy or futuristic worlds. World building techniques include characterization, scene descriptions, and the creation and explanation of the world and cultural rules and physics.
In Brit Mandelo’s article for Clarkesworld Magazine, he states “there is also the question of language, the complex phenomena of human communication. An understanding of language and its science, linguistics, is invaluable to a world-builder. It changes one’s entire way of looking at how people really speak” (2011). There have been authors who successfully created entire languages for their races such as Tolkien’s Quenya for the Elves of Middle Earth and Sindarin for the secondary worlds of Arda, R.R. Martin’s Dothraki in Game of Thrones, and the Star Trek series’ alien language of Klingon.
However, that being said creating an entire language that is consistent, visually appealing to readers, and hasn’t already been done is quite a feat, and many times it’s much easier path to adjust the diction and sentence order to create a “unique” speech pattern for a character to set them apart from the norm. “Writers often employ such distinctions by giving a character an obvious dialect; using dropped syllables or phonetic slurrings like ‘gonna’ or ‘aintcha.’ The problem with this is that it’s an overly simplistic way of presenting dialect, used to denote the ‘otherness’ of a given character” (Mandelo 2011). Yoda’s character is a perfect example of creating this “otherness” in an effective and memorable method and is characteristic of the genres.
Another example of using speech patterns in film to portray a unique and memorable character is the Sheriff of Nottingham in the comedy musical “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” In the film, the Sheriff’s character, played by Roger Rees, is put in a comical light by causing him to inverse his word order to show his mental state. Whenever he is flustered, his flips words out of order, such as “Strikey has loxed again,” as opposed to “Locksley has struck again.”
The clip can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHVN21gYm30
The tongue-twisting is common in comedies, as it lends an edge to portraying actors in flustered, confused, or comical scenes. The sample is similar to Yoda and Hamlet in the sense that the word orders have been flipped to create a sense of uniqueness, however, the sheriff’s speech patterns also alter the words themselves based on the order they’ve been inverted to (Locksley/Strikey and struck/loxed).
This additional step in changing word order, form and tense adds to the comical factor of the film rather than simply a method of world building, and yet we as viewers are immediately aware of this meaning and intentions, making the mistake that much more entertaining.
Curzan, Anne and Michael Adams. How English Works A Lingusitic Introduction. New York: Longman, 2012.
Foxhomeent. “Robin Hood: Men In Tights.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.
Mandelo, Brit. “Linguistics for the World-Builder.” Clarkesworld. Clarkesworld Magazine, Apr. 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet’s Soliloquy.” Hamlet’s Soliloquy. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.
Stars Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Directed by Irvin Kershner. 20th Century Fox,1980.
Danielle is an active member of the HWA, SFWA, and RWA PAN. She holds both a BA in English from UHM and MA from SNHU, and is a freelance ghostwriter and editor, and has been published in both magazines and novel form, and produced two screenplays.