Deep Dive: Speaking From Experience: Author & Editor Nalo Hopkinson

“There is no language that is bad language. And all language is beautiful.”  

In this interview from the 2019 World Fantasy Convention, author Nalo Hopkinson discusses the use of vernacular speech and dialect in storytelling, its ability to provide depth and realism to both characters and their surroundings, and the art of allowing the wonders of language to create their own compelling mysteries. Watch the following clip (transcript here) to get started on the following questions and exercises.

Discussion Questions

  1. Consider the kinds of vernacular speech — common or everyday ways of communicating — that exist in communities where you’ve lived, where you have relatives, friends, or personal history, or where you’ve had meaningful experiences.  This could look like detailed patterns of speech, unusual inflections, or unique slang. What are some memorable or defining examples of vernacular in your personal experience?

  2. What do you think the use of vernacular language can tell us about a character? Further, what can it tell us about the larger context in which a story takes place?

  3. What are some ways in which vernacular speech can be represented on the page? Consider any works you’ve encountered that employ vernacular language or unusual patterns of speech, and make note of their techniques. Then, consider instead some ways in which you might choose to textually represent the informal aspects of spoken language, real or invented.

  4. Consider and discuss your preferences as a reader when it comes to vernacular, dialect, slang, and esoteric terminology. Do you feel that it’s important to offer readers definitions or background for these story elements, or do you think that there is value to withholding context, direct exposition, and resources like glossaries?

  5. Consider the idea that vernacular speech may exist in both non-verbal and verbal forms. What are some non-verbal expressions of vernacular language — real or potential — that you can think of?

Writing Exercises

  1. Make a list of ten to fifteen local/regional terms or expressions from a geographic community in which you have personal experience. Then, rewrite each to express its actual spoken pattern of inflection, pronunciation, or accent. For example, the Southern American term ‘y’all’ might be more accurately spelled ‘yawl’ to reflect its actual pronunciation in many areas.

  2. Record a short, casual conversation between yourself and someone such as a classmate, friend, or relative, without worrying about taking notes. Instead, listen to the playback to take note of any examples of vernacular language that you notice. Using your notes, create a one-page fictional dialogue employing at least three distinct elements of vernacular speech.

  3. Outline a concept for a story that employs vernacular speech in a fictional context, e.g. a fantasy world, a future setting, or a distant civilization. To conclude, write a statement about what you think this story element helps to demonstrate in the narrative!

Additional Readings

Nalo Hopkinson is an award-winning Jamaican-born Canadian author, editor, and educator. Her published works include the novels Midnight Robber, The Salt Roads, and Sister Mine, as well as the short fiction collections Skin Folk and Falling in Love With Hominids. Her editing credits include the anthologies Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction and So Long Been Dreaming. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Learn more about her past and ongoing work at her website, Twitter, or Instagram, and don’t miss her full interview (19:10) with the SLF. 

Tags: vernacular language, vernacular speech, storytelling


Nalo Hopkinson: So this is a mostly Trinidadian English vernacular, with a little bit occasionally of Jamaican and some bits of Guyanese thrown in. And this is from the introduction. (reading) “It had a woman, you see, a strong hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush, the devil bush on the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree. When she walked, she foot strike the hard earth bup! like breadfruit dropping to the ground. She two arms hard with muscle from all the years of hacking paths through the diable bush on New Half-Way Tree. Even she hair itself rough and wiry; long black knotty locks springing from she scalp and corkscrewing all the way down she back. She name Tan-Tan, and New Halfway Tree was she planet.”

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Thank you. I know when I first read that I was super struck by it. I love hearing you read it because I think initially I’m encountering, as a reader, a sort of a dialect I’m not familiar with, a way of speaking; it’s going to be a little intimidating. When you read it, I think it comes very clear. But even on the page, it doesn’t take me very long to fall into the rhythms and to be able to follow. So, if maybe – I know you teach a few hours from here, you’re at –

Nalo Hopkinson: The University of California, Riverside –

Mary Anne Mohanraj: – at the University of California, Riverside. So I don’t know whether this is something that you work on with your students, if you have approaches that you give them along this sort of – just how you think about it when you’re working with language in these texts.

Nalo Hopkinson: First of all, I come out of a literary tradition in the Caribbean of privileging common speech. And that’s a movement that started when my father, who was a poet, a playwright, an actor, was still alive, and there’s people like Kamau Brathwaite, like Louise Bennett-Coverley who are saying “We speak like this.” It is not ‘bad English,’ it has its – and linguists who are discovering it has its own grammar rules, it has its own logic. And so there began a movement of writing the way people speak. So I already have permission, is what I’m saying. And also everybody’s speech is beautiful. I mean, if you listen, just listen to people talking on the street where they’re not, you know, trying to censor themselves for an English class. They flow. So one of the things I will do is put myself back in that space. I mean, my Caribbean English is middle class English, it still has its own stuff, but it’s not as, it’s not as deep, it’s not as basilectal.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Wait, I’m sorry, I don’t know the word you just used.

Nalo Hopkinson: There’s three words I’ve learned from linguistics and they are acrolectal, mesolectal, basilectal. And it’s a way of not getting into the trap of saying “This is upper class speech, this is lower class speech.” So they actually go to the center. And they measure speech by how far it is from the center.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Oh, that’s super useful.

Nalo Hopkinson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So basilectal is sort of what we think of as working class, farming class, common speech. Mesolectal is more like what you would get from – sort of white collar – and acrolectal is what we sometimes think of as BBC English. So I have permission, is what I’m saying, and I have the fortune of having grown up with an actor and a poet in the house. And also you can hear language being used, everywhere. You listen to hip hop, you listen to rap, you listen to any sort of music that comes out of an everyday tradition. And you can hear people using speech beautifully as working speech. So I try to tell my students to listen to themselves and to each other and when – They’re in class. So they think I want proper English. And – have you read me?

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