It got me thinking, firstly about one of my main stresses when editing – when to italicise foreign words and when to leave them alone. English is one of the most mongrel languages around anyway, and there are plenty of non-English words and phrases in such common use that some people might not even think of them as foreign, such as déjà vu and cappuccino. I don’t have an absolute rule for this (though if anyone knows of one, do share…).
As with a lot of things, though, context is important, and it’s worth considering when, where and why you use non-English languages in your writing. It also matters if you are using dialect or vernacular. Erotica and romance stories frequently have characters travelling some distance from their home as a major plot point, or base the central relationship arc on the fact that they are people from different backgrounds or cultures. This may well mean featuring words and phrases that may not be familiar to all of your intended readers. It’s completely plausible, if you have a character whose first language is other than English, for this character to say something in their own language – either in moments of stress, or if their English isn’t particularly fluent, or if they have reason to expect the person they are addressing to understand what they say. It is absolutely vital, if you’re going to report their words, that you don’t misspell them or make grammatical errors: almost nothing makes a writer look as lazy and careless as just making a vague guess at the correct words.
Accents are another way to make yourself look silly or thoughtless: there used to be a regrettable trope in a lot of genre fiction where ‘lower-class’ characters’ supposedly uneducated speech was rendered phonetically (‘An then e sez, ow dare yer?) for comic relief, along with equally grim attempts to indicate a foreign – or ‘regional’ accent by the same means. Ask yourself if marking a character’s accent necessary at all, or if there’s a way round it. And if you do need to do it, do it sparingly.
Of course, if you are writing in your own dialect, predominantly for a readership which also speaks it – or to showcase that dialect’s richness and beauty, none of this is going to apply…
Why not check out the bookshop before you go?