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Mixing languages


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I have a question as the best way forward when a story involves two similar but distinct langauges. The two languages in question being American English and Australian English.

The story starts in America with an American protagonist, but it quickly moves to Australia. I'm happy to keep dialogue with the appropriate language (Americans using American English and Australians using Australian English), but I'm not sure what I should use for narration. Australian or American English?

The story will be written in third person and I'll be trying to make it as close as I can to third person limited. This means that my options as I see them are:

1. Write in American English, as that's the natural language of the story opening.

2. Write in Australian English, as that's the natural language for most of where the story is located.

3. Write the scenes from the American character's POV in American English and the scenes from the Australian characters' POV in Australian English.

This may sound like a fine detail question, but I think American readers will get annoyed with a story that appears initially to be set in the USA that's using Australian English (eg. colour, realised) and not American English (color, realized). However, it equally feels odd to me to have a story that's largely set in Australia using American English. It feels even weirder to mix the two languages in a single story...



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My thoughts;

First, I'll just mention in passing that I'm not a great fan of swapping around points of view, but I seem to be swimming against the tide on that nowadays. 

I think this question would be easier to answer if you were doing first person POV for the American and Aussie characters.  In that case, I would argue that the stuff essentially written by the American should have American spellings, and the stuff by the Aussie should use Aussie spelling.

That's only part of the issue however.  I think that, regardless of who is narrating at any given point, the characters should always sound like their nationality when they're talking.  In other words, the Aussie character might be throwing in some "fair dinkum " or "I'll be stuffed" while the American character will be throwing in "that's so sick" or whatever.  That same philosophy would extend to their inner thoughts -- each character should sound uniquely like himself, including native expressions and constructions.

I think shifting POV in third person limited in this way might be confusing.  I always think about Faulkner's brilliant "The Sound and the Fury" that starts out from the POV of mentally limited Benjy, but it takes a while for the readers to catch on to what seems a little off. Then it shifts to the POV of his brother Quentin who is much more coherent.  The shift is evident although thankfully Faulkner doesn't beat the reader over the head with crude labels of whose POV it is at the beginning of each section. 

I could also make a case for keeping the author's approach consistent even with shifting POV characters.  In other words, pick, for example, Australian, and use that for all writing, spelling, sentence construction, etc. even when the American is being described and talked about.  The American should still "sound" American when he is talking and thinking, but I would stick to Australian spelling for the narrative bits and probably even dialogue.

Don't know if anything here is helpful.


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What a question!  Not knowing exactly what's gong to be going on, I'm not sure how much help I can give.  I can suggest a couple things that seem obvious.  

Rutabaga is certainly right that the Aussie should sound that way and ditto the American when they're speaking, but that isn't what you asked.  It's the narrator you're concerned with, and that should be a concern.  He should be consistent and not change.

Are both the Aussie and the American protagonists?  If one is more the protagonist than the other, I think that makes it easier: make the narration fit him.  But if they're of equal importance, that simply muddies the water.  It you have one generally recognized protagonist, I'd say the narration should be in his language.

But you could change it to first person and solve the problem entirely.  I've done that on occasion, start a story one way, decide it isn't working, and change, from first to third person or vice versa.  What a job that becomes if you're very far into it, though.  It's a huge amount of work and you'd find some things would be lost as others were gained.

Tough problem!




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Thanks, but first person won't work because there will be a lot of significant characters, each with their own story. The American is a significant character, but he won't be the only one.

First person only works if there is one main character  (and I dislike multiple first person POV). This story has to be third person for it to work. That means the 'narrator' isn't a character, per se, though with third person limited, it comes close. 

Okay, it sounds like I should stick to one language...

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Difficult decisions ahead, Graeme. A narrator should be omniscient, but that doesn't prevent him/her from being one of the characters, and quite often that works very well. Mixing the languages will be quite the challenge although we all understand it to be English. You could, of course, make the narrator Chinese, but then imagine the reader confusion that would create. (just joking).

The use of different slang between the American and Australian characters does not need to confuse readers, but then you may get tired of having to explain what was just being said. I think if you tag your narrator with a nationality right from the start it will go a long way in making things work out. Like many readers, I tend to sound out the words in my head when faced with unfamiliar pronunciation, names being the hardest words to absorb.

Whatever you decide I am sure we will accept. Have fun.  

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Here's a thought for consideration too. Just let me say that I'm glad I'm not the one that has this dilemma. LOL.

Anyway, here's my point: the question that comes to my mind is how confident is the author that he can do the Aussie English justice. Since I know for a fact that AD has several Aussie readers, you're setting yourself up for harsh criticism. Not that Chris has ever had a problem taking criticism, far from it. He does, after all, put up with my snide comments during the proofreads/edits I do for him.

So, just thought I'd bring the point up, since it is not a point anyone else seemed to consider important.

Having said that, it could be fun.

Good luck, Buddy. 

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I have always believed that the narrator of any story is one of the story's characters, by virtue of either involvement or simple proximity.  As with any character, consistency is expected unless the storyline involves personal growth and change by the narrative voice.

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That's fine when there's a main character, but I don't see how that works with multiple main characters, such as with the George R.R. Martin Game of Thrones series. Which charcter is the narrator there? I can't even pick a single 'main' character that dominates the story.

If the story is written as third person omniscient, then the author is the 'narrator', but with third person limited, we're only seeing things from the point of view of one character per scene. The Harry Potter series was largely written in third person limited, from Harry's point of view, but it included scenes in third person from other outside perspectives. That is, what I've seen described as third person restricted, as if narrated by an external observer who can see, but doesn't know what's inside anyone's head.

In my case I'm going more for a Game of Thrones style of multiple characters, one of which will be an American.

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I think the consensus here is that the narrator should be consistent. One or the other, not mixed.

As for which, does the plot give you any steer on this?

For example: if your US character is a Basketball player who for some reason moves to Australia and joins your Leopards to play Aussie Rules, then the story would 'feel' right narrated in Australian English. That the early chapter(s) that take place in the US would be narrated in Aus should hint to the reader that all is not as it seems at first glance. 

Alternatively if the US character is a Serviceman seconded to a US facility in Australia, meets the locals, retreating to the base from time to time to reflect on his situation, possibly or at least expecting to return to the US at the end of his tour, then there is a case for the narration being in US English. In other words the narration is substantially from his POV/side of the argument.


On 03/04/2017 at 2:56 AM, Graeme said:

This may sound like a fine detail question, but I think American readers will get annoyed with a story that appears initially to be set in the USA that's using Australian English (eg. colour, realised) and not American English (color, realized). However, it equally feels odd to me to have a story that's largely set in Australia using American English. It feels even weirder to mix the two languages in a single story...



If you decide to use Australian  but are still truly worried about the sensitivities of US readers, some of whom can be a bit parochial at times,  you could possibly drop an early throwaway reference to Australia in the first chapter as a further hint that the story might be going elsewhere, as long as that doesn't upset things if you are trying to build tension around the actual move.




Now if  your story is a comedy then Chris James suggestion might work although Chinese would be a bit extreme. How about a Pommie  narrator whinging about the colonials use of the language......(Pedro gets tin hat out of cupboard and goes back in his bunker).

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