Should we consider linguistics and English composition when creating dialogue in fiction? How does syntax function within fiction and set a genre apart?
In How English Works: A Linguistic 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 used 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 follows the traditional rules of order, 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 suspend belief and immerse themselves in the creative fantasy or futuristic worlds. World-building techniques include characterization, scene descriptions, and the creation and explanation of world and cultural rules and physics.
In Brit Mandelo’s article for Clarksworld 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 far 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 ‘ain’tcha.’ 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, as seen in the discussion prompt, 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, he flips words out of order, such as “Strikey has loxed again,” as opposed to “Locksley has struck again.”
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 the class prompts of 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.