Tag Archives: linguistic appropriation

Linguistics and SFF: Appropriation and Dialect

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Etymology

An oft-debated topic in all fiction is the subject of using dialect as dialogue.  Many famous writers have done it, and many not-so-famous writers have tried it, to varying degrees of success.  Since dialects are a very linguisticky topic, I thought I’d take a look at why and how writers use them, some of the effect of using them, and how it all relates to the whole debate on cultural appropriation.

First, a few thoughts on dialect:


1. A dialect is a unique language system characteristic of a group of speakers.

2. A dialect is a variety of a major language carrying connotations of social, cultural, or economic subordination to the culture which speaks the dominant language.

These two definitions exist simultaneously.  For our purposes, the second one is the most relevant.

Dialects under the second definition are culturally, socially, and economically stigmatized by the dominant culture.  Speaking a dialect is often portrayed by dominant cultural institutions as just “bad [Dominant Language]”.  For example, “bad English”. (We’ll keep this example, since I’m discussing literature from primarily English-speaking countries.)  Many children are taught in school to speak “proper English” in school, and punished for using their native dialect.  “Proper English” actually takes a few forms:  In America, it is a dialect known as “Standard American English(SAE)”, which is most similar to Midwestern dialects of American English.  In England, there is Received Pronunciation(RP).

Most other countries with official “languages”, have a similar pattern of official and unofficial dialects.  What is considered a language is often up to whichever dialects can get state support, and it has been said that “A language is merely a dialect with an army and a navy.”  Or, in the case of France, “a dialect with a national Academy.”

Almost all other dialects are usually considered inferior or degraded versions of the official dialect.

So, onto the use of dialect in fiction.

For the most part, dialogue in English-language novels is written in the standard form of written English, which reflects more or less the standard form of spoken English in the country in which it is printed.  Although, depending on the orthography used, this reflection could be rather cloudy or warped.  Dialect, then, is represented in an attempt at “phonetic” spelling and non-standard vocabulary and grammar.

Most commonly, because the author does not often speak the dialect natively that they are attempting to represent, dialect in fiction falls back on stereotypes of usage related to the cultural perception of the spoken dialect.  This can lead to a continuation of prejudice and stereotypes, and is also a form of linguistic and cultural appropriation, as a member of the dominant culture makes use of minority culture for their own ends.  Rarely in the cases we’re examining are these ends malicious.  But they are often still quite problematic.

There are many English dialects that have been popularized in mass culture, with varying degrees of difference presented.  For example: Italian American English, Chinese American English, African American English, Cockney English, Appalachian English, and Southern English.  In fact, they are so parodied, mocked, and appropriated that they have “accents” associated with them.  The cheesy Italian accent a la Mario, the “Oy Guvnah” of Cockney, and “tree dorra” of Chinese American English.

Some of these “dialects” are actually accents or inter-languages, rather than stable dialects.  However, they are all commonly referred to as “dialect” (or occasionally “accent”) in regards to their representation in fiction.  And for the most part, rather than actual depictions of the stated dialect, what is really present is the set of stereotypical markers associated with the dialect by mainstream culture.

Next time, I’ll look at some examples, both made-up and used in novels, of dialect appropriation.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code

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Posted by on August 9, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Why Non-English Words?

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Connotations and the Failures of Dictionary Definitions

One of the issues that often gets brought up in cases of linguistic appropriation is why the author wanted to use non-English words.  There are a few possible reasons for using non-English words in an English language novel:

1. To create a sense of exoticism, or an atmosphere associated with a certain real-world culture

2. To create a sense of otherness compared to the perspective culture (the protag’s culture)

3. To express concepts not expressible in English without a wordy paraphrase

4. To signal to the reader that the culture being presented differs from their own

5. To distinguish when a character is speaking a language that is not the perspective character’s native language

In this post, I will address the first reason, since it’s arguable that it is the most common, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Each of these reasons have positive and negative ideas underlying them.  Many people have argued, and often convincingly, that exoticism is never an acceptable reason to appropriate someone else’s culture–or in our case, language.  Nisi Shawl quotes a beautiful if uncomfortable poem by Hiromi Goto in her article Appropriate Cultural Appropriation:

Removed.  Please see the full version at the link above.

The problem with exoticism is that it doesn’t truly relfect the culture in question, but only those attributes that the exoticizer finds attractive.  Of course, SFF is not necessarily about accurately depicting real-world cultures.

However, what exoticism does is perpetuate (sometimes harmful, often disrespectful) stereotypes of real-world cultures.  And even if they may not think in those terms, that’s exactly what the story-teller making use of it wants.  Because the goal of invoking that culture, with language or otherwise, is to bring the reader in mind of the cultural stereotypes that society has instilled in them towards the target culture.

To make an analogy to my previous discussion of words, what the exoticizer is invoking are the connotations associated with the target culture, instead of the denotation.  And language is a powerful invocation of culture, because words signify the cultural perceptions.  To use Japanese and Japan as an example, “samurai” is a symbol of the culture, especially in the West.  The Western concept of samurai, based on beliefs of which many have proven to be erroneous, is a strong invocator of Japanese culture.

But samurai has been established in its position as an English loan-word.  It by itself is not enough to call forth the stereotypes of Japan to complete the atmosphere and the appropriation.  But then we have the concept of respect/honor/humility, part of the Western perception of Bushido–the way of the warrior.  And so Kristoff, for example, makes use of honorifics in his dialogue.  This appropriation–and an incorrect one, at that–calls forth stereotypes of Japan that fit Kritsoff’s character arc, in this case, the conflict between duty and righteousness.

As an example of exoticizing, I’d like to do some linguistic and anthropological analysis of the concept of Bushido.  Bushido is a concept invented at the end of the 19th century to reflect the warrior ethos in Japan.  As with many such concepts or supposed ethical systems–such as the Western code of chivalry–Bushido represents and over-simplification of a myriad of personal and local philosophies/codes of ethics present in Japan during the various historical periods during which the samurai were a prominent aspect of Japanese culture, society, and politics.

Inazo Nitobe wrote and published Bushido: The Soul of Japan in 1900, as an original english language(OEL) text.  It was eventually translated into Japanese after achieving popularity in the English-speaking world, influencing such people and organizations as Robert Baden-Powell, found of the Boy Scouts.  Many people don’t even realize that one of the most iconic aspects of Japanese culture was not even an originally Japanese invention.  Although the concepts espoused in the book were rooted in some historically accurate ideals of Japanese culture, thus the enormous popularity of the book with Japanese citizens of the time, it is not an accurate depiction of the way in which so-called “feudal” Japanese culture worked.  Primary sources, such as letters, diaries, and even books of ethics written by many Japanese lords and warriors, do show that there were ideas of ethical behavior that reflect many of the concepts of bushido.  But rather than a universal code of ethics, they were the results of many people with a shared history and culture based in Shinto, Buddhism, and a certain political and social climate.

The construction of the word Bushido is interesting in its etymology.  “Do” has the meaning of “way” or “path”.  It comes from the morpheme /to/ in Japanese, as seen in Shinto, “the way of the gods”, and other similar belief systems.  “Bushi”, a Japanese word for “warrior” comes from the Chinese “bu” and “shi”, which originally was a compound meaning not “warrior”, but translating roughly as “to stop the spear”.  And “samurai” itself actually referred to servants or retainers, rather than warriors in its original conception, and it was used by the aristocratic Kuge class, rather than the warriors who preferred bushi.

Getting back to our main topic, the desire of the story-teller to romanticize the connotations of a foreign culture rather than explore and appreciate its denotation is one of the main factors that marks something as appropriation.  Goto’s poem touches on this idea in the stanza quoted about (#5), and the other stanzas quoted in Shawl’s article, pointing out the idea of the appropriation as art, the shared love of the romanticism inherent in most appropriation, and the lifelessness of the metaphorical girl in the kimono.  What the appropriator loves so much is no the culture itself, but what they can get out of it, and when that culture crumbles to dust as Goto describes, it’s okay, because the appropriator can merely build it up again.  It is, after all, merely their own creation, and not a living, breathing thing which matters to others because they live it.

In the next post, I will address reason number four, since it serves as a powerful set-up for the remaining reasons, and ties in so strongly with what I had to say in this one.  In order to understand the use of language in fiction, it is necessary to understand why it has such a powerful effect on us.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Language and Exoticism


Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Shadow and Bone and the Russian Language

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Japanese Language

In today’s post, I’m going to analyze the linguistics involved in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and BoneThis post is going to be a little different than the last few posts, because the differences between Ravka and Russia are more exaggerated.  However, it’s ingenuous to suggest that this separation is an excuse for ignorance of the Russian language and culture, or linguistics itself.  Bardugo uses actual Russian in the book alongside her faux-Russian, and that leaves us an opening to analyze not only the linguistics of the book itself, but the linguistic appropriation present here, and the stereotypes that exemplify it.

(Disclaimer:  I am not a fluent speaker of Russian or any Slavic language, nor am I an expert in Russian linguistics.)

First, I would like to direct you to a previous post on the topic by another blogger:

1. Rose Lemberg posts on the historical linguistics of Indo-European and its relevance to the Ravka discussion.  This takes a slightly different approach to mine, but the linguistics is spot-on, and it’s a great perspective on the issue.

2. About Friday posts on some of the mis-use of Russian in the book.

I’ll be addressing some things that overlap with these posts, because they make note of some of the most egregious issues.  I hope that for those overlaps, I will have something useful to add.  I am also writing this post with the book right on my lap, going through page by page looking for non-English language to analyze.

Now, let us begin:

We begin on the two pages containing the map:

The first non-English word/name we see is “Djerholm.”   Now, I don’t know the origin of “djer”, and I can’t find any references to it as a word or name.  However, the word “holm” is of Old Norse extraction from “holmr”, meaning a small island or flood area near a river.  Now, Djerholm is on the sea, and we are given little information about it.  It appears to be the capital of a large nation of Swedish inspiration to the north of Ravka.  It’s hard to say whether the author was aware of the meaning, or chose the word for its Swedish/Norse “flavor”.  Djerholm is on the coast of “Fjerda”.  It just so happens that “Fjerda” is a Norwegian word meaning “fourth”.  Hard to say if this was intentional, although there’s nothing in the book to say it is.

Another word that stands out is “Novokribirsk”.  That looks a bit familiar… Could it be that it sounds a lot like Novosibirsk, Russia’s third most popular city?  And not only that, but across the Unsea, we have Kribirsk, making it clear that the “novo-” is the Russian morpheme meaning “new”.  This lends quite a bit of credence to the claim that the language spoken in Ravka is in fact Russian.

We also have the country of Shu Han in the south.  It’s hard to be more obvious about a pseudo-China than to call it “Han”, the name for one of China’s major ethnic groups and also a historical dynasty.

Now we arrive at the first page, and already some Russian, or whatever.

“malenchki” is said to mean “little ghost”.  Well, the word “malen(j)kij” in Russian does mean “small”, but I’m wondering where the “ghost” fits in here.  Perhaps my Russian just isn’t good enough?  I’d love for someone to help me out with this one.

The next word is “troika”, which means a triplet.  I don’t have the grasp of idiomatic Russian that Lemberg and Friday do, so I’ll have to assume that the issues they mention with the use of the word are correct.

Then we have “kvas”, which is a drink made from fermented grain.  It is weakly alcoholic, but not liquor as Bardugo apparently thinks.

Next we come across a “kefta”, which is apparently a robe of some kind.  According to Bardugo herself, it’s based off the Russian kaftan.  A bit of a linguistic digression: the term “kaftan” comes from Persian and described a form of robe.  Either way, I would classify this as actually the right way to use inspiration.  The word is similar but not the same because the garment s not the same.

Finallly, we have the word “Grisha”, which is appropriately Russian sounding, but a rather odd thing to call a group of soldiers or mages.  As Friday mentions, it’s the diminutive of Grigori, the Russian form of Gregory.

That’s from the first three pages of the novel.  Since we’ve mentioned, Grisha, I’m going to go over the name issues present in the book in the next post.  And then hopefully after that, we’ll move through a few more pages of the novel.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Connotations and the Failures of the Dictionary Definitions


Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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