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Worldbuilding Like an Anthropologist – Part 2 Language (Syntax, Voice, and Dialect)

Welcome back! If this is your first time here, you can go over Part 1 to catch up. This time I wanted to address a topic that I did not even consider until recently while building my own world for Memories of Empire. We are attempting to create a living breathing world from our own imaginations. Sometimes these worlds are smaller than our own, other times far larger, so it is understandable so many minor details are overlooked. Today’s topic however, can be one of those items that build up over time while the reader makes their way through your story. If all of your characters begin to speak the same way over and over again, this can pull your reader out of the story leading them to put your hard work down without ever finishing it.

Syntax

Each language has its own rules of syntax. What is syntax? You can follow the link for a proper definition if you would like. Basically syntax are the rules for which a language works. English for example follows the basic rule of subject-verb-object (SVO). A person does something to an object. The largest number of distinct languages in the world however, follow the subject-object-verb (SOV).

I will use an example I found online using English (my native tongue) and German (my learned language in school, though I suck at it lol). In English, the phrase goes, “He ate an apple.” He being the subect, ate being the verb, and apple being the object. Now, auf Deutsche, “Er hat einen apfel gegessen.” If I transliterate that into English, it reads, “He has an apple eaten.”

I go over this, not to bore you, but in the hope that I highlight that not every language works the same and they have their very own rules. Consider that English, as we use it today has a firm foundation in the romance languages, such as Latin and French, but also has strong connections and influences from German. Latin, French, and German are all SOV languages. As English has developed over the last 1400+ years, the rule differences are more than likely attributed to the isolation of the British Aisles as French did not begin to heavily influence the language until after 1066 and the invasion of England by William the Conqueror.

When you are creating groups of people for your world, whether they be a nation, a city, a tribe or any other type of group, consider their interactions. If you are using a concentrated area of your world, like using the European continent, then it is quite likely they would all follow the same rules over a large portion of the land. All of Western Europe, with the exception of the English Aisles and the far north, are SOV languages. The isolation of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the English Aisles can account for their differences. If you are going to span an entire world, then prepare for groups from different regions to have evolved in their own way. This can only add authenticity to your work.

Voice

Narrative voice is a subject better left to the professionals, like those of MasterClass. The voice I am speaking of is character voice. This can be the difference between a room full of characters interacting together and each one being distinct, and what should be a room of individuals is in fact one man talking to himself over several different conversations. One is robust and formulated and the other is one dimensional.

Speaking of MasterClass, they have a page addressing voice and covers the difference between the two. They discuss 4 key points when creating characters concerning voice. The character’s lexicon, accent/colloquialisms, response to conflict, and their willingness to speak openly.

Their lexicon will be determined upon their background. Well-educated or uneducated. Literate or illiterate. Many aspects of their lives can and will determine this. Response to conflict as well as their willingness to speak openly will reflect on their past. Things like their home life as children, their “rank” among friends, their status in society etc. These are all areas where the culture you have created have a direct affect upon how your characters engage the world you have made. As far as the characters accent and colloquialisms, we will cover that in the next section as they fall under the purview of dialect.

Dialect

English is currently the most spoken language in the world. This is counting English as both the speakers first and secondary (and beyond) language. Chinese is the most spoken native language. There is an estimated 160 different dialects of English in the world to date. There are even more when sub-dialects are added. The US has the most English speakers in the world. How many dialects do you think there are in the US alone? What about the UK? The answer may surprise you. The US has an estimated 30, while the UK, a land mass slightly smaller than the state of Michigan, has 37 different dialects!

How big is your world again? Think about that for a second. How many different cultural groups does it have? How many different languages? Here in our world, an island nation that ranks at 21 in population, and 80 in land mass, has more dialects than the third most populace nation in the world. There are many factors that can attribute to this, none of which I will address today.

When you are building your world and creating the societies that encompass it, consider things like population density, travel and international connections when figuring out dialects. A city will often have a dialect that is different than that found in towns and villages more than a days travel away. Consider the dialect and accent differences of cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans. These do not go too far beyond their city limits even today. Adding elements like this to your world, while time consuming, can only add extra layers of realism for your readers and give you a deeper insight into the characters you bring out of them.

Help as Needed

If you want to ask any questions regarding these concepts feel free to reach out. I have a decent library at my immediate disposal and I love to research for the answers I do not readily have available. Comment here or email me contact@JDSheridan.com. If there is a specific topic you would like to see, leave a comment and I will put it into the list I have. I currently have plans for Subcultures (still gathering resources for this one), Kinship (marriage, family, residence), Political and Social Control, Sex and Gender, and Social Stratification. There are so many more options and I am open to almost anything.

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