Does speaking in tongues interfere with the reader?

Have you ever read a book and you’re struggling to understand what is written on the page?

Does someone’s written accent blur the lines of the English language into a mash of random syllables and noises?

When does trying to capture your character’s character get in the way of the reader enjoying the story?

A good example of this is the book I’m currently reading Cloud Atlas. While I am quite enjoying the story and the way that each of the different times connect (no matter how tenuously), the changes in language between the mini stories is driving me nuts.

Things are getting a little blurry Source:

Things are getting a little blurry

To start, we find ourselves reading the journal of a young lawyer from 1850. The language is characteristic of that time, but I initially struggled to curb my inner editor with some of the spelling and grammar. The second taste of the intricate story sees us whisked into the 1930s and into the life of a young musician and composer. The text delves heavily into metaphors and musical descriptors, but for the most part, my inner editor was happy.

Mini story #5 is where things began to get worse for me. The Orison of Sonmi-451 is set in the future, around the 22nd century in Korea. The world building was brilliant, the innuendo to current day problems was also well done, but the language started to slip. I know this was intentionally done, the stilted server voice used, then the more human voice created a bit of havoc in my mind.

Mini story #6 is the kick in the guts my inner Editor was not expecting. The highly irritating disintegration of the language made my eyes bleed and my poor inner Editor pack up and leave for good. I tried reading it out loud, tried slowing my reading pace right down and studying the words, but it all just made my head hurt.

An example of the writing here shows you how messed up the language of the protagonist Zachry and indeed all characters in this section of the book is:

Coneys’n’roasted taro we was eatin’ one supper ’bout a moon after Catkin’s sick when Meronym made a s’prisin’nounement. She meant to climb up Mauna Kea b’fore the Ship returned, she said, for to see what she’d see. Ma speaked first, ‘ready worrysome. What for, sis Meronym? Ain’t nothin’ up Mauna Kea but never-endin’ winter an’ a big heap o’rocks. 

How did that little snippet sit with you?

Did it make your right (or left) hand twitch and itch to pick up a red editors pen? Did your eyes bleed or your brain implode?

It’s not that I don’t understand what he’s saying. I do, I get it. It might take me reading a sentence a couple of times to get the exact meaning of a word/clump of words split by apostrophes, but eventually I get there. The issue I have is that it takes me three or four checks to work it out. It should be easy to digest and understand should it not?

When is capturing character in your characters too much for the reader?

Is there a defined point that it gets too much?

How do you capture the world and loss of knowledge like David Mitchell has tried to do in Cloud Atlas without losing the reader in the difficulty of the speech?

I don’t know, to be honest, but I do know that I don’t want to ever experience this type of irritation while reading a book again. I know that part of the problem here is me and my irritability with the misuse (and I use that term lightly) of the English language. I know I’m no expert, I’m probably not even intermediate with my knowledge of grammar and all things writerly, but I’m fully aware of differences in syntax especially when it comes to other languages and translating and when it’s done on purpose or when it’s genuinely a language barrier.

This was done on purpose to show things about the character that I think could have been shown to the reader in a different way. One can communicate simply without reverting to a form of pidgeon.

Have you read Cloud Atlas? What was your take on the language used? Did it bug you too or is it just me? Do you have examples of where this has been used and it works?

7 thoughts on “Does speaking in tongues interfere with the reader?

  1. Had no problem with that snippet – easy. If you want difficult to follow try Feersum Ennjin by Iain M Banks – some of that is almost impossible until you read it aloud, then it makes you laugh with its twists, quirks and humour.
    I always find that Shakespeare is easier to follow if you see the play performed. A good cast makes the story clear and the jokes apparent.

  2. It’s a hard line to walk between completely alienating your readers and trying to sound futuristic to suggest a different time period, I think. That’s why Shakespeare has such a tough time: No one speaks Elizabethan English anymore.

    I can see what Mitchell was trying to do with his language, but if he’s bounced you out of the story, then he’s failed as a writer; you came to be entertained or enlightened, not confused.

  3. I read Cloud Atlas and don’t remember the language throwing me out, but others have reported the same effect as you, and having re-read that bit, it’s quite nasty. Must have been coasting when I was reading it. 🙂 I liked the bit in Hawaii the best, actually.

    Have you tried to read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn? The dialogue is almost as dense as this in some parts.

    • No I haven’t Tony. A lot of my reading is newer and mostly Indie of late and unless I read it at school, I tended to stick to mostly vampire novels like Anne Rice in my private reading before I got my kindle.

      I have been meaning to read some of the classics though, I should make time for them.

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