How People Really Talk: Language and Signaling Difference

So just last week I happened across this video by Daniel José Older about why we shouldn’t italicize words in other languages while writing in English. If you have yet to see it, enjoy it here for the first time:

I laughed my ass off watching this, because anyone who’s actually known people who speak more than one language will recognize that how people talk in real life – the fluidity of language between English and Spanish, or English and Hindi or English and Zulu, or Zulu and Spanish, or any other combination thereof – is indeed exactly as Daniel describes. There’s no Pause for Effect. There’s no: AND NOW I AM SPEAKING FRENCH.

My grandmother was French, and moved between languages often. She did not wait to speak French until she was eating a baguette and wearing a beret(!). The same with my dad, my uncle, my aunts, my cousins – those who spoke French conversationally or fluently would flit back and forth when chatting with my grandmother without too much thought. It was just how everyone talked.

What I found interesting was the wrapper put around this conversation as it applies to how we offset these “foreign” languages in English text. The italics actually drew more attention to the words, it… othered them. When in fact, moving between and among two or more languages isn’t weird or other at all – it’s just how people talk.

Though folks may not think this is a huge deal – to italicize or not italicize – if you look at it in the context of othering, and how we normalize certain patterns of speech, and certain types of behaviors, it actually means a great deal. It signals that *this is something not like the rest.* Funny enough, words we’ve wholly adopted into English – like resume, faux pas, adobe, armada, schadenfreude – get a pass on the italics. So who decides when a word has been subsumed into the English borg collective and is no longer othered? Certainly not those who seamlessly move between languages every day.

I got my final copies of MIRROR EMPIRE a few days after watching this video, and as I flipped through it, I realized one of the last changes I made between submission and ARCs was that I got rid of all the italics on the various made-up words. There are three major languages in the book, and folks move between and among them quite often. The first few drafts of the book, I italicised all the words from one particular culture, but then not the other two, as the folks in those two cultures moved between these languages more often, and I started to wonder… who was considering which language other? Should I be italicizing all the Dhai words in the chapters from a Saiduan POV and the Saiduan words in chapters from Dhai POV or italicizing Dorinah words in a Dhai POV or… or…

It became a horrible inconsistent mess. The more appropriate thing to do, when I’m working with folks who are fluent in at least two or all three of these languages, is to just pull out the italics all together. It simply made more sense. Language is language, and they use all of.

Offsetting words implies there is one Standard. There is One True Common Tongue. But the truth is… there isn’t One True Language. There’s not Universal Common. Not in real life, and not in much fiction, either. Offsetting words which are “other” sets up reader expectations that there is one way, one real language, and that it’s your dominant culture, the dominant culture of your “hero” that decides that. But there is no One True Culture, either. And if our goal is to have more diverse, and interesting stories, we need to shed the trappings of our own preconceptions about what’s “normal” and what’s other and how we speak about that.

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