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I am writing a historical novel with characters with complex ethnic backgrounds and personal histories. To get my characters' voices right I want to have a sense of what each might realistically have sounded like, including their dialects (speech patterns, word usage, and accents) and typical syntax and grammatical errors in English as a second language.

Can I ask related questions to guide my research in Linguistics.SE? Can I ask for suggestions of resources and primary sources?

My inclination is yes, because this topic is effectively a cross between historical linguistics and constructed language (I'm using them creatively), but it also concerns English usage, writing, and history, all of which have their own SEs.


For more specifics, my story is set in London c. 1840, and half of the dramatis personae are immigrants from British Guiana, but that includes:

  • a Scotsman (which part TBD) who moved to British Guiana for 15 years or so after serving with a bunch of Englishmen in the Royal Navy
  • his wife, who was born and raised there by a Scottish father and a native Guyanese mother (Arawak, probably Wapisiana because it's the language I can find the most about)
  • the Wapisiana mother, whose grasp of English is primarily based on her late husband's Scots speech patterns
  • their brood of children, who were raised speaking English and who quickly added some amount of London to their speech when they immigrated in their teens
  • an escaped slave who lived in British Guiana for decades (I haven't decided if she is first or second generation, but family from TBD place in West Africa)

What a tangle of languages, dialects, and accents! To make matters more complicated, British Guiana was until recently (from the perspective of my characters) owned and colonized by the Dutch, and it's right next to French and Portuguese colonies, there are many native languages spoken here, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade has brought in slaves from all over West Africa. (At least my characters immigrated before the planters started bringing in indentured servants from India.)

  • Welcome to Linguistics SE! This is a very interesting question and I appreciate the effort and detail you've put into it. Maybe you could propose a wording so other users can tell you if they think it's fine. Enjoy your stay :) – Alenanno Aug 12 '19 at 22:12
  • Reference and resource requests are always on-topic, I'd say. – jk - Reinstate Monica Aug 13 '19 at 14:25
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Published grammar and corpus requests are fine

Requests for a published grammatical description of some particular dialect or sociolect are fine. As are requests for a corpus of language for some particular dialect or sociolect.

Personally I don't think most of the specific examples you came up with would be good questions here. I can't imagine anyone has published a grammar of the English spoken by Guyanese children who learnt it from their Scottish father and their Wapisiana mother who learnt English as a second language largely from their father (unless the colonists had a very large contingent of Scotsmen, I don't know the history of that part of the world.) You would have to put the pieces together yourself.

Instead it would be okay to ask for resources on the English spoken in Scotland, in London, and in British Guiana from a certain period. There's a good chance people have written about each of these. Though please ask about each as a separate question.

  • Certainly, I would not expect to find studies that match so perfectly to my specific characters. – wordsworth Aug 16 '19 at 18:03
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Yes, questions looking for resources on languages, dialects, creoles, and language histories should be considered on-topic.

A big part of linguistics is documenting languages, so I would consider resource requests for language documentation perfectly valid. The question itself, at least as you framed it above, might be too broad for the site—but individual parts of it ("how would a Scotsman have spoken English circa 1840?") could get good answers.

(P.S. This is ofc just one user's opinion—if you agree or disagree, please vote the answer up or down!)

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