I Will Say the Only Words I Know That You’ll Understand*

Style ShiftWe’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?’
Poirot laughed.
‘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 EdwardsAll 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Helene Tursten, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Edwards, Tony Hillerman

23 responses to “I Will Say the Only Words I Know That You’ll Understand*

  1. I think you are certainly correct about Poirot though sometimes his grasp of English is almost too good it seems to me and the ‘Franglais’ a bit inconsistently applied perhaps. I’m due to grab COCAINE BLUES from the TBR pile soon so thanks for mentioning it as I am way behind with my reading plans and need all the help I can get! The example you use from HALF CHILD is certainly one I can relate to – us bilingual people do sometimes pick and choose which nationality we choose to be for convenience’s sake, no question about it …

    • Sergio – You put that very well. Bilinguals code switch when it suits their purposes but they don’t always do so when they could. It depends on the context, the goal and so on. And that shows that code switching is purposeful rather than simply a reflex kind of thing. And it’s interesting you should mention thr inconsistency in Poirot’s way of speaking. I’ve seen a bit of what you mean and not just across books but within them. Still, overall I think Christie does a fairly good job of presenting Poirot as a multilingual who speaks in one way or another for a specific purpose or to make a specific impression.
      And as for Cocaine Blues, I do hope you’ll like it. I think Kerry Greenwood is quite talented and her novels really evoke the 1920’s. I like the Phryne Fisher character too.

  2. Two thoughts, Margot.

    First, we all, to some degree, speak in different “codes” to different groups. Think about conversations at work, which are likely to be filled with the specific jargon that is unique to each job. An efficient investigator, I think, would have to be fluent in the specific jargon of the people/circumstances he is investigating.

    Second, let me offer another example – a favorite, I think, of both of us would be Arthur Upfield’s Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. Bony is half-Caucasian, half-Aborigine, but he has the ability to be at home in both worlds, and the way he speaks (and behaves) when dealing with other Aborigines is quite different from the way he speaks (and behaves) when dealing with Caucasians – especially other agents of the police. He is respected and very effective in both worlds, and it is fascinating to see him switch between his behaviors.

    • Les – Right you are indeed about Bony. He’s certainly able to speak educated English when it suits his purpose. He is also at home with the language and ways of the Aboriginal groups with which he interacts. And Upfield has him do this without sacrificing his credibility and believability as a character.
      You make a well-taken point too about the jargon used in different workplaces. Each field has its own jargon and the sleuth does have to understand at least some of that jargon if s/he is going to interact with the people in that field. So sleuths do have to adjust their ways of speaking when they investigate. That’s one reason it makes so much sense that a sleuth would adjust her or his language when speaking to witnesses, suspects and the like.

  3. As always you have prompted me to trawl my memory for examples of your theme but while my sluggish brain/computer is booting up I think the current book I’m reading offers a related example. It is Peter Corris’ THE DUNBAR CASE and in it the investigator, Cliff Hardy, meets with a client for the first time – the client is a wealthy, well educated professor (because we know everyone who works in academia is wealthy right 🙂 ) but Cliff notices that after their greetings to each other his client’s voice – accent, tone or whatever – starts to sound a little more like his own. I too have met people who are very good at mimicking the voices of those around them – not in a nasty way but so that they are more easily able to blend in – I’ve found it more in the UK and the US when travelling – perhaps because there are so many regional accent variations and class variations too – here in Australia we do have a few noticeable differences between the states but there are far fewer localities and fewer people so there are not as many. I think the ability to sound like the people around you without causing offence would be a good skill for either an investigator OR a criminal.

    • Bernadette – I’m so glad you brought up The Dunbar Case. It reminds me that I must put one of Corris’ Cliff Hardy novels in the spotlight. I’ll confess I’m not thoroughly familiar with the series, but I like the Cliff Hardy novels and although I’ve never been to Sydney, it strikes me that the setting is quite authentic. So thanks for kicking me in the pants to do one of those novels.
      I think it’s interesting that Hardy finds his client adjusting his language. There’s a lot of research that suggests that people do change their speech patterns to emulate other people around them and as you say, it’s not to make fun or be nasty. There’s an interesting theory – I promise, I won’t go on and on about it 😉 – that we do that because we want to express solidarity with whatever group we’re emulating. If you think about job interviews for instance, the one thing a candidate wants to do is seem like the right ‘fit’ for the job. That includes fitting in socially and that includes language. So you sometimes see job candidates who subtly pick up aspects of the language of the interviewer. It’s fascinating stuff. Or perhaps that’s just in my brain… Ive seen that kind of adjustment among American ex-pats I’ve met who sound much more Australian/Kiwi/Canadian/UK than they do American, even if they’ve only been in the new country a short while.
      Interesting point you make too about regional differences in speech. There are quite a lot of them in the U.S. and some are awfully distinctive. Oh, and in case you were wondering, you’re quite right. Academics are all very well-off and drive nothing less than a Lamborghini or Bentley at the very least. And if you believe that…. 😉

  4. Such an interesting subject, and as ever your blog post is very much to the point. When we lived in the USA, our children had American accents at school and English accents at home, AND were fully aware of it. Once a girl was coming over to play who happened to be English too, and my son – about 7 – asked my daughter – about 9 – ‘oh so how will you talk, English or American?’ When they came back from the States they reverted to English accents very quickly – except for the use of the word gotten!

    • Moira – Thanks for the kind words. And your children’s experience is such a clear reflection of what research shows about the way we adjust our language. I think it’s fascinating that your children understood even at a young age that they had two ways of speaking, and were able to sort out when to use which. So cool!

  5. Because I live in a Spanish speaking country, both my Spanish and English suffer. I have to keep refreshing my grammar because the two languages are so different. I’m reading Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds and acting and language is important in that novel.
    Great post.

    • Clarissa – Spanish and English are really very different languages aren’t they? It’s so good that you and your son can be bilingual because you can speak English at home and Spanish when you need to. And thanks for mentioning Death in the Clouds. You’re quite right about the role that acting and language use play in that novel, so I’m glad you reminded me of it.

  6. Margot: In To Kill a Mockingbird the family cook, Calpurnia, explains to the 8 year old Scout that she speaks proper English around the family and black, she uses a cruder term, English among black people. She continues that she uses the different forms of English because that what is expected by the respective groups.

    I tell witnesses all the time to speak in their own way and not try to talk like lawyers. Most people do not sound credible if they attempt to speak differently from their usual words and patterns.

    • Bill – Thanks for the example from To Kill a Mockingbird. You’re quite right about the way Scout is expected to speak and it reflects the social realities of that time.
      And I’d well imagine that witnesses may need some coaching as to how to speak when they’re giving testimony. There is an urge to speak formally and use a lot of legal terms because one wants to be taken seriously, or because one’s a little intimidated. But as you say, people are not as credible in general if they speak in a way that’s markedly different from their normal way of speaking.

      • Sorry I did not make it clearer. I was meaning to say Calpurnia spoke in different ways depending on who she is with at the time.

        I agree Scout was learning how a young lady was expected to speak rather than how she was accustomed to speaking to people.

        • Bill – Ah! Thanks, that does make more sense. You’re quite right on both counts too. In fact among many other things, To Kill a Mockingbird is a clear portrait of the social structure of that place in that time, and learning to speak in different contexts is part of that.

  7. Even though my husband and I have left Greece we do occasionally say snippets to each other in Greek although goodness knows what we would sound like to a proper Greek. It’s just habit and we slip into it occasionally.

    • Sarah – Oh, that’s interesting! Just your experience living in Greece for a few years was enough to get you in the habit of adjusting your speech that way – that’s really fascinating.

  8. Interesting post, Margot! I loved the way that Poirot would use language as a tool (similar to the way that Miss Marple used age.)

    • Elizabeth – Thank you! I agree that Poirot is quite skilled at using language deliberately to get the result he wants. And yes, Miss Marple uses her age, which is also really effective. I like the way your Myrtle Clover uses her, ‘I’m just a gossipy old lady’ way of speaking too, to get people to talk to her.

    • That mention of Miss Marple’s use of age reminds me of another favorite, Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver. She is one of the sharpest and brightest investigators around…but she can disguise the fact and pass herself off as a fluttery-little-old-lady type when she wants to gather information from a suspect who is more likely to let his (or her) guard down that way. There’s a marvelous scene in “The Fingerprint” where she pretends to be very old-maid-spinsterish while talking with a distinctly low-life suspect who has no idea that she is pumping him for information – lots of flutters and “timid coughs” and the like lead him to underestimate her and reveal his own complicity in the case as he would never do if he thought Miss Silver was anything other than a rather foolish old woman!

      • Les – Right you are indeed about Maude Silver! She is quite skilled at getting people to feel comfortable around her and say much more than they think they are. She can be, as you say, the ‘fluttery old spinster’ when it suits her, and her way of speaking is deceptively mild-mannered and non-threatening. But it is most dangerous to underestimate her. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. I love this discussion (as you might guess, given my own mongrel background) and really have only a small contribution to make. I have noticed that when authors write about a country other than their own, they are sometimes tempted to use a lot of mannerisms or foreign expressions. You know, of the ‘Mamma mia! Porca Madonna!’ type. While native speakers don’t feel so obliged to add ‘local colour’.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m glad you’re enjoying the discussion, and that’s not at all a small contribution. If one’s not a member of a given culture and didn’t grow up with the language, it’s sometimes challenging to be authentic. It’s almost as though the author is trying to overcompensate if that’s the word. But as you say, native speakers of a language are often more subtle. I think it takes a deep understanding of a culture and language to be able to do speech and style shifts and so on in the way that native speakers do.

  10. I’ve just finished Randy Wayne White’s latest volume in the Doc Ford series, NIGHT MOVES. A character in it, a wealthy hit man, prides himself on his ability to speak in uncountable dialects and tones to make his listener believe he is an aristocrat or a rough crook from the barrio or any one of many other characters. It makes him even more mysterious and hints at the danger surrounding association with him.

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