Linguistic imperialism?

A recent review of my historical romance collection, Warriors and Wenches, had a slight problem with one of the stories because of the language (ie. historical Scots). My US publishers were keen on the story but suggested perhaps a glossary of some of the words might be helpful. Which seemed perfectly fair to me. So I put one in. The reviewer, Tara Fox Hall, had this reservation, and I quote: “The glossary was helpful, but it made this story hard to read, as I had to keep going back to the beginning anytime I came to a word I couldn’t guess the meaning of. I’d recommend for future works to just include the words that could be understood and leave out the rest.”

I can’t think of a single instance of a British reviewer covering, for example, a rural American novel with local dialect having the same issue. Indeed, I enjoy linguistic difference, and if I have to look a word up, or glean what it means from the context, what’s wrong with that?

I know of a fellow Scottish crime writer whose American publisher insisted on US spellings in her books. I can only suppose the publisher believes American citizens are incapable of understanding British spelling. In which case, why has no one redrafted Dickens, or Shakespeare so it can be understood by our chums across the Atlantic?

It’s an issue that puzzles me. And I sometimes wonder if the US reading public actually feels that linguistic difference is a problem – or is that just an assumption by US publishers? As for Tara’s review, well, she enjoyed the story in the end. But I won’t be leaving out words that matter to any of my tales.

I’d love some views on this topic.

7 thoughts on “Linguistic imperialism?

  1. Linguistic imperialism = the transfer of a dominant language to other people (R. Phillipson) Language imperialism = the translation of another people’s language (T. Pattberg)

  2. How strange. When I think of some of my favorite books they’ve either had glossaries or references in the back so that the reader could keep track of language, characters, and locations.
    I suppose one trick is to write obviously unfamiliar words in a context that the reader can easily infer the meaning, but I wouldn’t be hurt by the inclusion of a glossary.

    1. Some of my favourite books have glossaries, too. And, of course, name lists in the big Russian novels like War and Peace – the male and female versions of the same surname can be confusing, for example, until you get a handle on that. I think the reviewer has some issues with glossary at the top of the story, and kept having to refer back, so maybe at the end would have been better. My US editor picked up on very simple words, like “burn”, and she asked me what was on fire. I explained that a “burn” is a small stream in Scotland!

  3. Well perhaps they are looking for the bigger Amercian market ? As to Dickens ect well it was the common langauge of the english speaking world at the time all around the globle. It lends to the story and or play to leave it as it was written to refect the time period. However many of the plays have been done around the world with the script rewritten to the modern day langanuge of whatever counrty it may be playing in.

    1. Excellent points, Edward. I suppose the bottom line is that if something is written in a way that interferes with readability, something needs to change. I think plays and books written foreign languages of course need to be adapted (or subtitled/surtitled) for people in other countries. Which is not the same as dialects. Basically I am for cultural difference, and against uniformity. Again, as writers we need to take care to try to be comprehensible to as wide an audience as possible. I softened the Glasgwgian dialect in my Kendrick books for that very reason.

  4. John,

    I fully agree with all that you have said. I’m just surprised that there is a “reading public” here in the USA. Our libraries are full of “The Complete Idiot’s Guides” and I’m not talking about Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”. I can’t wait to get my copy of your book with all of the “hard” words! Please keep writing as if there are intelligent readers here.

    Tom Jannusch

    p.s. My plan is to leave the USA to take up residency in Yambol at the end of this summer. See y’all real soon, ya hear?

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