I really admire Sharon Lee & Steve Miller’s Liaden books, because they handle issues of register and custom so well. For those not dragged backwards through a linguistics course at some point, “register” refers to the way people speak in reference to social roles. Most of us learn as children that one mode of speaking is fine with another child–a friend, say–but another is needed to satisfy expectations when talking to a friend of our parents. That’s register: everything from the choice of words to the tone of voice to the topics considered appropriate…communication changes with social situations.
I was working over some of Editor’s comments yesterday and the day before, and came across a scene where a character changed registers drastically (for a good reason.) We do that all the time in daily life: you’re chatting with a friend while eating lunch at a sidewalk cafe–friend-to-friend, casual–and you see someone at the next table suddenly fall out of his chair and lie motionless on the pavement. You call out for help in a completely different tone than you had just said to your friend “And you wouldn’t believe what that cat did next!” If you have the experience you may take charge and continue to give orders–the register of command. When the ambulance shows up, you subside from “I’m in charge for now” into “intelligent bystander” and answer their questions.
Register–when to change, and into what–varies with culture. I grew up in an area with two main cultures and multiple variants of each….and like most of the kids there, learned how to get along in more than one. So when I was imagining Paksworld, the various cultures arrived in my head each with its own set of registers, and the rules for using them. But those rules have been used without explanation…I “hear” the character speaking and write it down, and figure that you readers will grasp (subliminally, possibly) that manners in Fintha aren’t like manners in Tsaia, that the relationship between, say, Kieri and Aliam Halveric are clear even though you haven’t been told what signifies the exact status moment to moment. Every element of a conversation is intended to convey more about a relationship than is specifically stated–whether it works for a given reader or not.
Since I deliberately left out some this-world usages for nobility and royalty, what Paksworld has does not conform to the usage of any this-world court. But the degree of difference sometimes bumps into the expectations of unfamiliar readers–copy editors and the like–who want to make it fit the British model or the Chicago Manual of Style model. Neither fits. Some of the characters are expert in managing communication, formal in speech. Some are blunt, but with no intent to be discourteous (and in their own culture, they’re not.)
I’ve been trying, for the past several books, to figure out how to make it easier for editors and copy editors to work with my books, (and readers, perhaps, to understand them better) but it’s complicated. I almost need to write out complete etiquette manuals, anthropological treatises, etc. And that’s a lot of work…a lot of work that, if put in the actual books…would be so much infodump. I could simplify further, but then I’d lose the nuances that please me–that I enjoy.
So–if anyone’s interested–if this is the kind of thing that intrigues you–have any of you noticed changes in register, and different customs between the Paksworld cultures when it comes to the ways people speak in different situations?