There’s an interesting theory of language that suggests that we adjust the way we speak in order to identify with a particular group. If this theory (it’s called Speech Accommodation Theory, or SAT) is correct, people often do that because they’re members of that group, and feel a connection. Or they want to be accepted into the group, so they adjust their language to express solidarity. If you’ve noticed that you change your way of speaking depending on the group of people you’re with, you know from your own experience how this works.
It happens in crime fiction, too, and it’s an interesting way for authors to show not tell, as the saying goes, what a character is like. It’s also an effective way for a fictional sleuth to ‘fit in.’ Let me just offer a few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express train through Europe back to London to deal with some new developments in a case he’s working. On the second night of the journey, one of his fellow passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed. M. Bouc, who’s one of the travel company’s directors, is also on board the train and asks Poirot to find out who the killer is. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car as as the victim, so Poirot concentrates his efforts there. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with a past incident. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the way language is adjusted in order to give a certain impression. If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and you do read it at some point, keep in mind that not everything is the way it sounds…
Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a member of the Queensland Police. He’s in the interesting position of being a part of two cultural communities, since his father was White and his mother belonged to one of the Aboriginal groups. He actually identifies himself in two different ways, and in more than one novel there are references to his dual identity. Bony adjusts his language and his cultural ways to suit the needs of situations in which he finds himself. When he’s with other Aborigines, he uses their language and their ways. When he’s with Whites, he speaks standard Australian English. What’s more, he’s even able to adjust his dialect if it’s necessary. This language adjustment is an authentic reflection of Bony’s own identity; it’s also a way for him to put people enough at their ease that they’re more willing to talk to him than they might otherwise be.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a Navajo Tribal Police officer, and a member of the Navajo Nation. He uses English quite a lot of the time, but he also speaks Navajo, and uses it to express his kinship with that group. Even when he’s speaking in English, if the person he’s talking to is Navajo, you’ll find that Navajo words, phrases and cultural references are sprinkled into what he says. And sometimes, he completely code switches to Navajo when he’s speaking to a fellow Navajo. Chee is a cop, so part of the reason he adjusts his speech as he does is to make others feel comfortable enough to tell him what he wants to know. In other words, it’s a deliberate adjustment made for a specific purpose. But he adjusts his speech that way in more casual moments too, so there’s a good argument that he also does it to belong – to be a part of his community.
One of Martin Edwards’ series features Harry Devlin, a Liverpool attorney who works with a somewhat down-and-out firm. Although he’s educated and uses standard British English, Devlin can easily adjust his speech to the Scouser variety of English that’s common in the Liverpool area. And he finds that that’s to his advantage in All The Lonely People. In that novel, Devlin is surprised to say the least when his estranged wife Liz comes back into his life, asking if she can stay with him for a bit. Devlin accepts, hoping that this may mean she is interested in a reconciliation. Two nights later, Liz is stabbed and her body found in an alley. Devlin is determined to find out who killed her, and it’s in his pragmatic interest anyway, since that will clear his own name. So he starts to ask questions. The trail leads through some of Liverpool’s poorer and more dangerous areas, and Devlin knows that he’s not likely to be trusted, to say the least, if he uses his own way of speaking. So he adjusts his speech and adopts
‘…a congested Scouse accent…’
when he talks to some of those he meets. That change doesn’t solve Liz’ murder, but it does mark Devlin as ‘one of us,’ in some people’s eyes, and that gets him information he probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a proud francophone Québécois, as are several members of the police with whom he works on his cases. And it’s very interesting to see how they interact when they’re speaking with other francophones as opposed to when they’re speaking with native speakers of English. For instance, in Still Life, Gamache and his team go to the small town of Three Pines to investigate the murder of former school teacher Jane Neal. Here’s a snippet of what happens when he speaks to a local police officer Agent Robert Lemieux. Lemieux was first on the scene, and secured the area, so his input about what and whom he saw is important:
“Bien sûr! I saw that man over there [indicating a possible witness]. An Anglais, I suspected, by his clothes and his pallor. The English, I have noticed, have weak stomachs.’…
It had also been Lemieux’s experience that the English had no clothes sense, and this man in his plaid flannel shirt could not possibly be francophone.’
Lemieux identifies closely with fellow francophones, so he adjusts his language (and his comments!) to express solidarity with them. Fans of this series will know that as a rule, things are different when the team members are speaking with anglophones.
One of Anya Lipska’s protagonists is Januscz ‘Janek’ Kiszka, a Polish immigrant who now lives in London. Kiszka speaks fluent English, and when he interacts with native speakers of that language (such as Lipska’s other protagonist DC Natalie Kershaw), he uses English. He sometimes misses Poland, but he’s comfortable enough in England. However, he’s culturally and linguistically Polish, and uses that language to identify with other Poles. Even when he’s speaking English with fellow Poles, he uses Polish expressions and makes Polish cultural references. He adjusts his language in great part to express solidarity with people from his own background. Kiszka’s ability to adjust his language to fit in is part of why he’s got a reputation in his own community as a ‘fixer.’ He helps his fellow Poles to get things done, to arrange paperwork, to negotiate life in London and so on. And that’s why Kershaw also finds his input useful. In Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke, she investigates cases that reach into the Polish community. Kiszka is a member of that group and provides valuable insights.
We may not consciously be aware of it, but we do adjust the way we speak, and there’s a solid argument that we do so at least in part to identify with a particular group (or to identify ourselves as not belonging to a given group). So it’s little wonder that we see these language adjustments in crime fiction too. Which ones have stood out in your mind?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Overture/Why Can’t the English.