Two dialectal dilemmas

In our writing workshops, we often tell people to write more like they speak. It’s a good starting point that quickly gets people to dump corporate jargon or cold formality. From there, we get people to hone what they write into something more distinctive and interesting.

It’s a simple formula, but it’s often tricky for people. It can mean ‘unlearning’ most of what they’ve been taught is good business writing.

This month though, we’ve been working with two groups of people it’s even harder for.

First I’ve been in Québec, helping a professional services firm in both English and French. Writing more like they speak comes to them relatively easily in English. But one of them pointed out that many of them have been made to feel that the French they speak in Québec is the sloppy, ill-mannered cousin of the supposedly pure, sophisticated European dialect. Writing that down at work makes them feel really exposed, despite the fact that it’s exactly what they use in meetings, and there’s a written Canadian standard emerging in newspapers, on TV news and the like.

So which variety do they dare to write in? Many of them felt flouting two linguistic taboos at once was quite a leap.

Second, two of our team are in India for the next couple of weeks, working in the call centre of one of our UK clients. Now, Indian English can sound very formal, and occasionally a little rude, to British ears. So we’re grappling with a different dialectal problem: should they write more like they speak, or more like the Brits speak? (That’s a tough act of linguistic ventriloquism to pull off.)

And how do you do that anyway? Our answer so far is to get them watching lots of British telly. Which show you watch matters, though; it’s going to throw their British customers if they launch into an Indian-accented stage-school Cockney they’ve picked up from EastEnders.

All of this is why I studied sociolinguistics at university. It’s amazing how the tiniest aspects of the language we use are the tip of iceberg-sized issues like education, and ethnicity, and class, and power.

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