Write on Wednesday – Divided Languages

This week on the podcast, I interviewed Seumas MacDonald about the importance of culture in the development of language, and about ConLangs (or constructed languages) in fiction.

man and woman not communicating

The Prompt

Write a story where two or more characters come from different cultures and have difficulties understanding each other


  • You don’t have to make them speak different languages, or invent a language for this story. Think about the old joke about how the US and UK are two countries ‘divided by a common language’. When a language is spoken in multiple regions, it can get pretty specialized. 
  • It doesn’t even have to be country-to-country. Watch this clip of Kentuckian Jennifer Lawrence and Australian Joel Edgerton ’translating’ regional expressions from their homes. Some of Lawrence’s completely stumped me! You could write a story where one character uses expressions like these in moments of stress, completely confounding the people around them.
  • You don’t have to use real expressions or languages. Make up words if you want to. Even easier (and, depending on your sense of humor), make up fake regional expressions and pepper your character’s dialogue with them.
  • The important thing about this exercise is to think about the words and phrases we take for granted, and how unhelpful they might be if they hinder communication.
    For example, when I moved to the US I was ready to for confusion around ‘pants’ vs ‘trousers’ vs ‘underwear’ and to have to call a ‘pavement’ a ‘sidewalk’.
    What I wasn’t ready for was my inability to understand a lot of what was happening in politics because newsreaders insisted on using sports analogies from sports that (in spite of their claim to have ‘world champions’) aren’t very popular in most other countries. I didn’t know what ‘stepping up to the plate’ meant. I couldn’t even infer the meaning from the context. When someone was ‘throwing a Hail Mary’, all I knew was you would get in a lot of trouble for trying that in my church!
  • Think of a compelling reason to get two characters together, put them in a stressful situation (which is when we tend to revert to type, and at least in my case, it’s when all those old expressions from your childhood bubble up to the surface), create some conflict, think about what each character wants, what each character needs, and go!

If you share you story somewhere (and here’s why you might not want to) post a link here so we can come and read it.

Leave a comment to let us know what you wrote about today, and how it went!

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