I’m sorry I’m late with this post.
I tried, so hard to write this, and it just wouldn’t come. Getting sick didn’t help, being busy didn’t help, and inertia definitely didn’t help. Maybe the subject didn’t help either.
Regionalism, slang, jargon, and dialect. What do they all have in common? Answer, they can make your work harder to read, but add a layer of realism to your story if used properly.
Most people don’t speak as if they are being spied on by their English teacher and their conversation will be graded. Well, we do in certain circumstances, but not most. When we are applying for a job interview, when we are meeting some important person that we want to impress, etc.; then you may talk like you will be graded. And perhaps you should. But with family, with friends, during casual encounters, there is a more relaxed air.
Regionalism is word and syntax choices that that differ from one area to another. For this discussion, it’s basically the same as dialect. People do not talk the same from one part of the country to the other. It gets even more interesting when you add in other countries. Is that carbonated beverage soda, pop, or coke, regardless of what kind of drink it is? What do you call a hooded sweatshirt? Did you know that it’s actually a ‘bunny hug‘ in Saskatchewan? What is a jumper; a sweater or a sleeveless dress? Where your from influences your word choice. And it will influence your characters’ word choices. It gets really fun when you need to portray a character from an area that you aren’t from.
I’m actually going through my books and doing minor editing for reasons I’ll explain later. In the ‘Moonlit Memories’ series, the main character, Liska is British-Japanese who is trying to pass herself off as British. I am American. Which meant that I didn’t always know the right terms to use. While I’m not bothering with British spelling except once when it was something Liska wrote, I do often try to use British terms. Some of which I’ve had to change. I had her refer to her solicitor when I meant barrister as I didn’t realize that solicitors were solely for civil matters. I referred to her cell phone, not realizing that British were more likely to refer to it as a mobile. I switched most references from cell to mobile, but left a few, because, hey, she’s currently in America, she’d probably pick up a little of the vocabulary. Honestly, there are probably others I’m missing, but hopefully nothing major.
Research is absolutely essential, and if at all possible, finding someone who is actually from that area to check your work. But, how far do you go?
There isn’t a cut and dried answer, but my preference is enough for flavor, but not to the point where it is difficult to understand. If you need to include a glossary, you’ve probably gone too far. And be very careful about using phonetic spelling to illustrate an accent. It can come off as condescending or even racist depending on how you are using it. Not to mention, it can be very hard to read. Fun little quiz here should show you what I mean. (I would have done better if I could actually spell, and if my computer didn’t keep freezing up.)
That said, some things are easier to get away with than others. Even the most educated can get a little lazy with their speech and slip in a ‘gonna’ or ‘wanna’ or ‘kinda’. Which is more slang than regionalism.
So let’s move on to slang, which is closely related to jargon. Both involve a specialized vocabulary that makes sense to a select group of people and may or may not make sense to outsiders. Slang becomes dated much faster than jargon. The slang of today is not the same as the slang of twenty years ago, or even five years ago. Honestly, unless a slang term has been around for at least five years, there’s a chance that it will no longer be used by the time your story comes out. Odds are even worse if it’s a book. Don’t look to me for slang, I didn’t understand it when I was in high school. But I know it mutates and changes, sometimes even becoming the opposite of what it used to mean. Go figure. When I was in high school, we used the term ‘cool beans’ a lot. I have no idea where it came from or why beans are considered cool, but it’s something I only hear on rare occasions now, and usually only by people who are in their mid-twenties or up. That said, ‘cool’ has been in use for decades, and will likely be continued to be used for some time. But we don’t usually refer to people as being a ‘good egg’ anymore. Watch a movie that’s a few decades old, listen to the way they talk. Language evolves, and it is evolving faster than ever. How many people would have known what an emoji was ten years ago? I know I referred to them as emoticons. But now, ’emoji’ is everywhere, even becoming Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2015.
Jargon is the terms that go with any specialized knowledge. Be it a sport, a hobby, a career, or what have you, people have ways to simply and easily refer to what they need to discuss. I work for Walmart. My job is not difficult, but I still have at least half a dozen to a dozen terms of jargon I use on a daily basis. Do you know what a CSM is? How about a PLU? We are required to do zoning and red lining when we aren’t helping customers. And of course there’s the magic scanny thing. (My term. You may be more familiar with ‘hand scanner’.) When do you use jargon in your work? Ideally, when the character would, and try to make it as self-explanatory as possible. Example:
“What’s the PLU for bananas?” Avery looked up from the counter she was zoning to keep clean and clear of reshop.
“4011,” She answered. “It’s on the sticker.”
“Have you seen a CSM?” another cashier asked.
“No, I haven’t seen a manager in a while.”
Yes, the writing is boring. I wasn’t going for very exciting. And if I were trying to do this for real, I would probably try to have some explanation for reshop, and fill in that CSM stands for customer service manager. But I think the average reader could guess both of those. And while I don’t explain exactly what a PLU is, you know it is a number that refers to bananas and is on the sticker. I’m not sure exactly what PLU stands for, but it is a universal (at least in this country) code for produce. Any time you buy bananas, there is a little 4011 on the sticker somewhere. Take a look.
Remember, the same person can use different levels of vocabulary even in the same sentence. Here’s one I’ve used before. “‘Fishies’ is an inherently fun word to say.” I’ve also referred, on a regular basis to the ‘magic scan-y thing’. And I have a degree in English! (Of course, I also blame all the technical issues on gremlins, but I’m weird.)
So have some fun, consider your word choices. It’ll be fun. More importantly, it can add depth to your writing.
There will be news posted tomorrow. (Or in the morning, or afternoon). I need some sleep and this post and been delayed long enough.