We’re often not consciously aware of it but we have many different ways of speaking. An obvious example is people who speak more than one language. But even if you only speak one language, you probably speak more varieties and registers of that language than you may think. For instance, my guess is that you speak one way with friends and family – people you know well – and another with strangers. It makes sense that we adjust our language because we all belong to several different social groups, each with its own way of communicating. So it also makes sense that fictional characters would shift registers and sometimes even languages. In crime fiction for instance, the sleuth might shift registers to better communicate with a witness or suspect. Sleuths can also adjust their ways of speaking if they go ‘underground.’ Of course, making those adjustments in too obvious a way can seem contrived and can take away from the sleuth’s believability. But a naturalistic language adjustment can add to the sleuth’s character and it can be an effective tool for the sleuth to use.
Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that his first language is Belgian French. But he has lived in England quite a long time and he speaks fluent English. And yet, as readers know, he often speaks as though he didn’t. We get Poirot’s explanation for this in Three Act Tragedy. In that novel, Poirot attends a cocktail party at which one of the guests Reverend Stephen Babbington is poisoned. Mr. Satterthwaite, whom Christie fans will know appears in several of her works, also attends this party and as the novel progresses, he interests himself in the murder investigation. Here is a bit of a conversation he has with Poirot:
‘‘Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?’
‘Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people. Instead, I invite their gentle ridicule. Also, I boast. An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that can’t be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard.’’
And so he does. Certainly the killer in this novel doesn’t see at first how very much ‘with it’ Poirot is.
Angela Savage’s sleuth PI Jayne Keeney also changes her language when it suits her purpose. In The Half Child, for instance, Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out the truth about his daughter Maryanne’s death. Maryanne was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya, Thailand when she jumped, fell or was pushed off the roof of the building where she lived. Delbeck doesn’t believe the official police report of suicide, so he wants Keeney to look into the matter. She travels from Bangkok where she lives and works to Pattaya to get some answers. Keeney soon comes to believe that Maryanne’s death had something to do with her volunteer work so she goes undercover at New Life to find out what’s going on there. Keeney is fluent in Thai and understands the Thai culture. And under normal circumstances that’s very helpful to her. However, she wants to put everyone at the centre off guard and avoid letting anyone know her real purpose. So while she’s there she pretends that she doesn’t speak any Thai. That proves to be useful as she begins to learn about what happens ‘behind the scenes’ at New Life. One of the people who work at New Life and who might know more than he is saying about the death is a guard named Chaowalit. He doesn’t know Keeney speaks Thai until one night when Chaowalit catches her snooping in one of the offices. When he threatens her, Keeney switches to fluent Thai, including Thai slang, and lets him know that she has ‘ammunition’ she’ll use against him if he reports seeing her. That language shift gets Keeney out of danger long enough to get out of the centre and in the end, she finds out the truth about Maryanne Delbeck and about what’s going on at New Life.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a Navajo Tribal Police officer. He is also a member of the Navajo Nation and speaks that language fluently. In fact he identifies strongly with his people. Chee speaks fluent English and interacts seamlessly with people who aren’t Navajo. But he sometimes finds it very helpful to code switch and use Navajo when he’s speaking to witnesses. For instance, in Sacred Clowns, Chee is assigned to look for Delmar Kanitewa, a half-Navajo boarding school student who has disappeared. Kanitewa may have information about the murder of Eric Dorsey, a school shop teacher, metalworker and volunteer. If Kanitewa does know who killed Dorsey, he could be in very real danger so Chee wants to find him as soon as possible. Chee and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officer Harold Blizzard pay a visit to Kanitewa’s great-grandmother to see if she may know the boy’s whereabouts:
‘‘I hope you are well, Grandmother,’ he said in Navajo. He told her his mother’s clan, and his father’s, and that he was a tribal policeman. ‘And this man beside me is a Cheyenne Indian. His people were part of those who beat General Custer. And we have come to find out if you can help us with a problem.’’
Chee’s willingness to switch to Navajo and use Navajo greeting customs makes the old woman feel comfortable about talking to the two men and telling them what she knows. As it turns out, the boy’s disappearance and two murders that occur are all related to theft, greed, and people who knew more than it was safe for them to know.
In Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, Göteborg police detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the murders of schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. On the surface it looks as though they were murdered by members of a Satanist group and that would be logical since Schyttelius’ father is a minister. But it’s not long before the team discovers that there could be a much more personal motive for these killings. If someone is trying to kill all of the members of this family then Schyttelius’ sister Rebecka, who lives in London, may be in real danger. Besides, she may know who could want to target the family. So Huss travels to London to track the young woman down. While she’s there, she code switches from her own Swedish to English and although she doesn’t have native-like fluency, she’s fluent enough to get the job done. In the end, Huss and her team find out that these murders have everything to do with past events.
Of course, one doesn’t have to code switch to ‘fit in’ and get people to talk. In Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People for instance, Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin finds that just switching register is useful. Devlin is devastated by the breakup of his marriage, so when his ex-wife Liz shows up at his door asking to stay for a few nights, he’s hopeful that they might get back together. Late that night, Liz is murdered and her body is found in an alley. Devlin becomes a suspect and that’s logical. She wasn’t interested in a reconciliation and she was staying with him. It’s quite easy to believe he could have killed her. But Devlin is innocent and wants to clear his name. Besides, he feels a personal sense of responsibility. So he begins to investigate. He finds that Liz was mixed up with some very shady people including her current lover. One person who may know something about the murder is Froggy Evison, who works at the Ferry Club where Liz was known. Devlin wants to track the man down, but he also knows that not everyone feels comfortable talking to an educated lawyer. So when he finds out where Evison’s likely to be, he adopts an uneducated Scouse dialect as he speaks to Evison’s wife and neighbours. That turns out to be a wise choice as they’re more honest with Deviln than they probably would be if he used his usual register. Deviln’s flexibility about the way he speaks doesn’t in and of itself solve the murder. But it does get him some of the pieces of the puzzle.
Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher is a well-educated young woman who’s lived in several places. She speaks in an upper-class dialect a lot of the time, but she knows that not everyone is comfortable with educated upper-class people. So she knows how to adjust her speech when the need arises. In Cocaine Blues for instance, she discovers a cocaine ring operating in Melbourne. She tracks the source to powders sold at a pharmacy in a seedy area of the city and goes with local taxi drivers Bert and Cec to pay the store a visit:
‘She patted Bert and spoke in a slurred Australian accent.
‘You wait here, love, and I’ll get us something,’ she promised…
‘Some of them pink powders,’ she slurred…
‘Those pink powders for pale people,’ she finished, and held out her ten shilling note. The man nodded, and exchanged her note for a slip of pink paper, embossed with the title ‘Peterson’s pink powders for pale people’ and containing a small quantity of the requisite stuff. Phryne nodded woozily to him and found her way back to Bert.
‘Come on, sailor,’ she said, leaning on him heavily. ‘Let’s go back to my place.’’
The trip to the pharmacy yields an important piece of evidence that wouldn’t likely be easy for a sober person with an educated accent to get.
But these examples are just from fiction. In real life we adjust our language all the time whether or not we do so knowingly. Some time, pay close attention to the way you speak all day and see how many times you adjust your language. You might be surprised…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Michelle.