Creating Arabic-speaking foreigners in fiction


I’m an academic linguist turned novelist, and my academic training has been tangled with my creative practice ever since I tried to write fiction.

This article began out of curiosity. After I completed a trilogy bristling with Arabic speakers, it occurred to me that I’d achieved the technical effects of making them sound foreign virtually on autopilot. I started drafting a blog post trying to analyse the techniques I’d used to create foreignness.

Around the same time, I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s fiendishly challenging The Crossing with its swathes of untranslated Spanish dialogue. McCarthy brought me up with a start: His treatment of foreignness was a universe away from my own.

I had to look more widely. I put my blog post aside.

The framework

I made a fresh start with an article called How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction, where I used examples from Philip Kerr, Michael Mohammed Ahmed, Agatha Christie, Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway to develop a framework of propositions about how authors create foreign characters in fiction. In summary, what I proposed was:

Foreignising is manifested in voice—that of narrator, author or character.

The purpose of foreignising varies according to voice.

Foreignising techniques include:

  • Foreigner talk
  • Untranslated terms and dialogue
  • Definitions, including: Explicit definitions, Implied definitions

With a set of propositions to hand, I was in a position to return to my trilogy. and to further develop the framework.

The Siranoush Trilogy

The trilogy comprises a series of stand-alone novels, Cairo Mon AmourBury me in Valletta and The Sunset Assassin, set in Egypt, Malta and Australia respectively between 1973 and 1978. Each novel is written from alternating points of view of the key protagonist Pierre Farag and several others, all in close third person. This allowed me to foreignise the protagonists’ inner thoughts as well as their dialogue. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick with Pierre rather than bringing in the other characters.

Pierre is a half-Armenian and half-Coptic private detective from Cairo. He is inadvertently entangled in an espionage plot during the Yom Kippur War, which launches him on a chain of perilous scrapes across the world, ending on a crocodile farm in remote northern Australia. I portray him as an Arabic speaker since I know quite a lot about Arabic (my Armenian is so poor that I remained silent on that dimension of Pierre’s linguistic world).

Dialogue, inner thoughts, and a hall of mirrors

Foreignising dialogue is relatively straightforward, notwithstanding the mental tricks the reader has to unconsciously perform: If the character is supposed to be speaking in a foreign language, the author naturally composes the dialogue in English, but may choose to play some tricks to make it sound Arabic-flavoured, Russian-flavoured, etc. But if the character is speaking in English, the writer might tweak it with some foreigner talk using nonstandard grammar, odd vocabulary choices or even spelling out an accent.

The fragile notion of ‘inner thoughts’ throws up its own exquisite dilemmas. I frame Pierre’s thoughts for the reader in English, but I tacitly ask you to suspend disbelief and assume they occur mainly in Arabic. But it gets more tricky: I’m asking you to assume those thoughts rattle around his head in perfectly formed Arabic sentences that happen to look like perfectly formed English sentences on the page*.

A hall of mirrors, indeed.


Based on the proposed framework, I firstly foreignise Pierre as character, typically through his manner of speech; and when he holds the current point of view, I foreignise him as  author, typically through his inner thoughts.


Pierre is pedantically precise in his multilingual skills and restrained in his emotions—a man ‘closed in on himself’, who thinks carefully before he speaks. I often foreignise him by placing tripwires in his English competence. For example, in The Sunset Assasin, he travels to the remote Australian town of Broken Hill to interpret for a Syrian in a court case. But he is told on his arrival that the gentleman has “karked it overnight”.

“Oh dear,” Pierre said, disguising his puzzlement. Perhaps the police sergeant meant the Syrian had changed his plea. “Should I have a word with him nevertheless?”

I’m careful not make Pierre into a caricature through foreigner talk. The ‘bad Arab’ trope is so deeply entrenched in novels and films that I absolutely refuse to propagate it (see further discussion here) .But I justified a drop of foreigner talk in these examples from minor characters in Cairo Mon Amour, the first of which attempts to portray Russian being spoken badly by an Arabic-speaking Soviet Embassy driver:

“Comrade boss. Why Russian lady all go home?”

And in the second case, which depends purely on accent, an Arabic-speaking waitress repeats a customer’s order made in English:

“Tea wiz milk shocolate kek.”


The locus of author is where the hard work of foreignising goes on in The Siranoush Trilogy. Here is Pierre in Cairo Mon Amour on the last ship to leave Alexandria at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. He hasn’t had much to do with Americans, and he is shocked at the behaviour of the fleeing US diplomatic staff:

Braying like donkeys, [the Americans] complained that they “only ever sailed in fucking first-class” or “wouldn’t stand for a fucking starboard cabin.” The very air was thick with the ugly English word. It was as if a race of civilised beings had reverted to savagery. The women, Pierre thought, were even more vulgar than the men.

In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre reflects on finding his arch-enemy Colonel Dimashqi confined to an iron lung. He inwardly reflects with baroque verbal ornamentation:

… was this an evil dish cooked up from British duplicity and Egyptian bald-faced guile? Oh, the tricks of la perfide Albion.

And here, Pierre experiences a Wimpy Bar for the first time in 1975:

He’d seen the English seated before these Wimpies through the window of the ‘Bars’ where they were purchased: Flat anaemic buns containing a strip of grey meat, next to desiccated yellow potato chips.

Numerous other examples of the author voice occur in the following section, where we turn to foreignising techniques. As we will see, the discussion will elaborate the framework set out in the introduction.

A learnable set of Arabic terms

I chose a small set of Arabic words—initially defined and then left in the original—for the reader to learn through repetition and prompts. Several of these occur through the entire trilogy, e.g. khawaga ‘foreigner’, bawwab ‘doorman’, shabkah ‘network’, sharmouta ‘bitch’. The whole set amounts to about ten words in total, with no more than eighteen instances of a word in any of the books—just enough in my reckoning to garnish the text without overloading the reader. The words bawwab and shabkah, for example, are part of an important plot device: Pierre’s work as a private investigator entails maintaining his ‘network’, which includes Cairo’s doormen, his eyes and ears on the city’s apartment blocks.

Here’s how I embedded an explicit definition into Pierre’s inner thoughts:

He had spent most of the previous evening consulting his shabkah, as Fawzi called it; well, you could call it a ‘network’ if the word adequately described the troupe of misfits, malcontents, blackmailers, and square pegs in round holes who fed him scraps of information, shreds of rumour and dollops of sheer spite.

There’s a really smart trick here (I modestly aver): shabkah in line 1 is the signal for us to pretend Pierre is thinking in Arabic; the quote marks around ‘network‘ in line 2 signal that the pretence is briefly lifted.

Sometimes I tutored the reader obliquely with an implied definition, again in those slippery inner thoughts:

And then what if the lawyers discovered that he had been keeping the sharmouta in luxury all this time? How would she bear the shame?

Zouzou Paris, a ‘bitch’? Well, she would say that. Everybody else did.

Let me round off my set of learnable Arabic words with ya’ni, the Arabic conversational filler roughly equivalent to ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’, which occurs about a dozen times in Cairo Mon Amour. Here I put it in the mouth of Major Fawzi, a man who relishes his prowess in the English language:

“My dear friend Pierre Farag,” he began, “has persuaded me that your situation presents opportunities for all of us to profit. We have ya’ni put our noggins together in your absence.”

“Noggins?” Bellamy wasn’t sure whether Fawzi’s quaint English was part of a sophisticated act or simply the result of a diet of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse.

Well-known Arabic expressions

I also added a handful of Arabic expressions like In shaa’ Allah, inserted without translation in the hope that the reader will recognise them without help. Habibi and habibti, as Zouzou and Pierre address one another, fall into this category, occurring consistently untranslated throughout the trilogy.

Crosslinguistic puns

These can be pressed into foreignisation service if you’re lucky enough to find one or two. In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre and his wife Zouzou are involved in a conspiracy involving Stash, a political extremist who poses as a hippy; I have Pierre use the word khunfus (beetle) eleven times to describe Stash. It’s a colloquialism used in Egypt in the seventies, supposedly because hippies were associated with the Beatles. It comes in for some handy wordplay when Stash is found murdered:

“So the khunfus is a police informer,” Zouzou said. “Squashed like a cockroach.”

Cultural motifs

Soon after this remark, Pierre’s wife Zouzou has a glass of karkady, which by now the reader has learned is hibiscus flower tea. She yearns for a glass of this comforting drink at times of stress; the further the couple stray from Cairo, the stronger the yearning. I’d categorise this further as a cultural motif that pervades the trilogy. I had fun in The Sunset Assassin when a Sydney journalist visiting Zouzou mistook karkady for Ribena.

Another such cultural motif was kushari, the hi-carb Cairo street food; I used a kushari stall repeatedly as a meeting point; much more colourful that meeting at the Post Office! The reader’s tuition was delivered by an English speaker through an implied definition:

“As long as I don’t have to eat that horrible kushari stuff. If I have to make a run for it, I don’t want a belly full of lentils and macaroni.”

Unique Arabic words and phrases

Items occurring only once or twice in the trilogy were popped in with a definition when I felt I needed to remind the reader that the language in use is Arabic; I’m obsessively careful to know who is supposed to be speaking what in any piece of dialogue. This example is the sole instance of masri where I used an editorial definition to explain the meaning, and to confirm that Pierre is thinking in Arabic:

If anyone had bothered to ask him, “What are you?” he’d have said “masri”, ‘Egyptian’.

And in the next case, we have some brinkmanship between two Arabic-speaking British diplomats, this time with the implied definition tactic applied to a unique Arabic phrase:

“You’ve got some nerve. Bloody nerve, I’d call it. I don’t know why I don’t take you outside, point at you and yell gasus isra’ili.”

“Perhaps I am an Israeli spy, Don. Walk out the door and give it a try.”

And the following implied definition of a unique word occurred when Pierre’s nemesis Dimashqi asks Pierre’s forgiveness as he lies gasping in an iron lung. I have Pierre implicitly define bashar in his inner thoughts after the stricken Dimashqi utters the word in dialogue:

“I can offer a token of expiation.”

“There is no need. You have my forgiveness.”

“But still, we live in this material world. We are bashar, with debts to pay and accounts to be settled.”

Bashar– human? The man had lived the life of a devil. What kind of token could stand in expiation?

And here’s another tactic—a repeat definition of a unique expression, when the English version is uttered immediately after the Arabic phrase:

Allah yarhamuh.” The woman looked away, and then said, “I had a son too.”

“He died?”

“Nineteen sixty-seven.”

Allah yarhamuh, God bless his memory,” Lucy said.

Translated and repurposed Arabic proverbs

I threw in two of these for exotic effect:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?”

To quote the note background notes to Cairo Mon Amour, the ‘breeze around their turbans’ remark is my modification of an Egyptian proverb in J.L. Burckhardt’s Arabic Proverbs, (Curzon Press, 1994, p.3). The translation of the original reads, ‘If the turbans complain of a slight wind, what must be the state of the inner drawers?’

The second is my modification of another of Burckhardt’s proverbs. In the original (p. 114), ‘The owl has become a poetess’. I refashion this as:

“So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes.”

I should add that Johann Ludwig Burckhardt died in 1817, so I’m not sure that the originals would be recognised in contemporary Egypt. But that’s not the point; the repurposed versions are an Orientalist-inspired strategy to add exotic flavour to the text.

Let me add one more related device, the translated foreign simile, an example being ‘as confused as an ant’. I think this works in foreignising the text simply because English does not use this simile.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. I haven’t set out to establish an exciting new academic subdiscipline that will bridge linguistics and fiction writing; I learned long ago that they don’t march in step, but they do have interesting encounters from time to time.

While I was writing this article, I was conscious that I had focussed solely on writing in English. I’d love to hear from linguists or authors about how languages other than English create foreigners. Let’s start a conversation.

I’d also love to hear more generally from other linguists who write fiction: Right now I’m the sole example I know!

*I should make it clear that the notion of ‘inner thoughts’ discussed here is not underpinned by psychological theories about inner speech proposed by scholars such as Vygotsky.


You can find details of my novels here.

Copyright © 2022 by Stuart Campbell

How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction

Introducing the concept of foreignising in fiction

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a Basque man asks an American on a bus, ‘Where you go now? While the effect of foreignness is clear, how many readers would wonder how or why Hemingway achieved the effect? Very few, I think.

Except people like me. As a fiction author who happens to be an academic linguist, I’m interested in the techniques used to create foreign characters, foreign cultural milieux, locations, and mindsets. In this article I try to tease out the principles behind what I’ll call foreignising in fiction. In a subsequent article I’ll explore my own writing practice by analysing the foreignising techniques in my Siranoush Trilogy.

The article is organised around four questions:

  • What theories or principles of foreignising in fiction are available?
  • What is the purpose of foreignising in fiction?
  • What foreignising techniques do authors use?
  • What advice does my analysis suggest to authors?

Theories or principles of foreignising in fiction—or a lack thereof

My academic instincts told me to check out what others had written on the topic, for example in the field of literary stylistics, but I drew a blank. I did turn up references in the literature of translation studies, where a debate about foreignising versus domestication has bubbled on for decades with scholars wandering over a vast literary landscape to argue for and against a translation reading like a translation or an original text.

So with little help from my academic literature searches, I fell back on a few mentions on authors’ blogs on the lines of ‘try using a sprinkling of foreign words’, and ‘don’t confuse the reader’. An exception was Louise Harnby’s article on the problem of representing foreign accents. Jennifer Sommer’s well referenced piece on incorporating dialect into fiction is on the periphery of foreignising, but offers some good insights on reader acceptability.

It was time to shake out a set of propositions. I drew on a random selection of authors from Agatha Christie to Australia’s Michael Mohammed Ahmad to find out more about foreignising in fiction.

The purpose of foreignising in fiction

One approach to understanding foreignising is through the concept of voice—that complex bundle of stylistic features that make a piece of writing distinct. Voice is often specified as that of narrator, author or character, and I’ve tried to use these as lenses through which to examine foreignising. Each lens, as it turns out, reveals a range of different purposes for foreignising.

Foreignising through character

Perhaps the most famous example of a foreignised character in English literature is Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, whose voice is embellished not just with words and phrases like mon ami and n’est ce pas, but also with an elaborate formality: For example, Poirot comprehends rather than understands. Christie’s purpose is evidently to construct an exotic and instantly recognisable character—brand recognition if you will. But what about the man on Hemingway’s bus? His faulty grammar marks him as a foreignised character, but he appears only once. I suspect he contributes to the setting along with the rocky hills of the Spanish landscape. This tiny sample shows the contribution of vocabulary and grammar to what I’ll call foreigner talk. But what about a foreign accent? Neither Christie nor Hemingway seem to attempt representing a French or Spanish accent through spelling, and my suspicion is that foreign accents tend to be rare in contemporary fiction (unlike in film; see Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for a virtuoso effort). 

Foreignising through narrator

I chose Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe as an example of foreignising through narrator. As autobiographical fiction, the novel offers observations into the everyday lives of a chaotic, sprawling immigrant family in a Sydney suburb with a large Muslim population. The main foreignising technique is for the narrator to insert Arabic expressions into dialogue and exposition, along with English translations. The Tribe is an invitation: Join the family and get a sense of being one of us.

Foreignising through author

Philip Kerr’s March Violets works quite differently. We aren’t invited in; we’re already immersed from the first words. Bernie Gunther is a streetwise, smart-talking Berlin private detective operating in 1936 under the cloud of the Nazi regime. The first-person English text presents Bernie and all his interlocutors as monolingual German-speaking. We observe all Bernie’s external observations and internal thoughts through a magic Germanising lens. The effect is to persuade the reader that they are (almost) experiencing a German text.

Cormac McCarthy’s foreignising approach in The Crossing is quite different from Kerr’s. In pre-war America, Billy Parham journeys into a squalid and violent Mexico. Billy speaks English and Spanish, and McCarthy saturates the text with Spanish words and dialogue, largely untranslated. The experience of reading The Crossing is akin to a language immersion class; skip over what you don’t understand, keep going, absorb what you can. McCarthy’s approach is uncompromising with its sparse punctuation and absent quotation marks: This is Billy Parham’s bilingual consciousness—don’t expect the experience to be easy. How different from Kerr: Let’s make things as easy as possible for us to pretend this is Bernie’s monolingual German consciousness.

Foreignising techniques

Kerr creates a Germanised backdrop by peppering the text with a limited set of untranslated terms like MurattisBerliner MorgenpostThe Alex, Kriminalinspektor, Sipo, and Kripo. The reader suspends disbelief and accepts them as understood; the meanings eventually become clear from the context. This is in sharp contrast to McCarthy’s many untranslated Spanish words—güeritomenudocaídas, etc.—and entire chunks of untranslated dialogue, which cannot always be understood from context. I’ve tried reading McCarthy with a dictionary to hand—a pointless approach; far better to cruise the text, experiencing it on multiple levels of comprehension.

Authors exploit definitions in a range of ways. Kerr uses explicit definitions sparingly, eg. D-Zug is explained as ‘the express train’, and KZ as a ‘concentration camp’. McCarthy gives us an occasional helping hand by having Billy paraphrase in English a piece of Spanish dialogue in an internal reflection or a response to a speaker. I call this an implied definition.

Ahmad’s The Tribe is heavy with explicit definitions, in line with the book’s purpose to invite us into an alien world; unlike McCarthy, Ahmad doesn’t want us to misunderstand anything. A basic technique is to define an Arabic word at its first occurrence and then offer it untranslated on the assumption we’ll have learned the meaning. Sometimes a word is left untranslated, e.g. aa-jeen, which is easily understood from context as ‘dough’. Words like yulla and inshallah are presumably familiar to Ahmad’s readership.

Tips for authors

Here are a few tips based on the framework developed here:

  • Decide why you want to foreignise, e.g. to create a memorable character, to enhance a setting, to bring the reader into a foreign consciousness.
  • Determine the appropriate voice to foreignise, e.g. character, narrator, author.
  • Think about the amount of foreignising you expect your readership to tolerate.
  • Choose the techniques will you use, e.g. foreigner talk, untranslated foreign words and phrases, foreign words and phrases with definitions.

If you’ve found this article useful, please let me know. I’d be delighted to receive comments on foreignising in fiction from other authors and linguists.


Copyright 2022 Stuart Campbell

Stuart Campbell was born in London but has lived most of his adult life in Sydney, Australia. He was formerly a Professor of Linguistics, but has been writing fiction since 2011. His latest novel is The True History of Jude. Find out about his books here.

Creating a fictional human language – a beginner’s experience



Most people are familiar with the idea of constructed languages like Esperanto, Tolkien’s Elvish languages, and Dothraki from Game of Thrones. As a novel-writing linguist, I was keen to get it right when I invented two languages for a novel Patria Nullius I’ve just finished writing after a six-year slog.

Constructed languages or conlangs is a serious business. The Language Creation Society brings together experts like co-founder David J. Peterson, language consultant to Game of Thrones. Oh, by the way, people who invent languages are called conlangers, and I guess I’m now one.

I took the easy road in my twenty-second century world – inventing a Creole for a mostly depopulated Australia, and an English ‘underground’ dialect in a dystopian England. I anchored my creations in existing languages, and used linguistic theory to make them plausible.

My languages are mere fragments, nothing like Jasper Charlet’s extensively constructed Carite which even has its own opera Heyra. I have a skeleton vocabulary and basic grammatical rules, but no phonetics or phonology.

Orange Creole is named for the Australian town of Orange, where I located a climate refugee camp of speakers of Fijian, Fijian Hindi, Tongan and Vietnamese whose progeny created an English-based pidgin. This developed into a full Creole in the second generation.

Using Derek Bickerton’s Bioprogram Hypothesis, I was able to invent plausible basic grammatical features for a Creole. Vocabulary was adapted from the base languages and English, e.g. nowrotu ‘> an hour of two, meaning ‘in the near future’; the word for stomach – zazzy > Vietnamese.  Dạ dày.

Here’s an Orange Creole fragment: miyanim spisi yu ‘we are your fruit’, where miyanim (we excluding you) contrasts with miyanyu, (we including you), and spisi is derived from SPC, a brand of Australian canned fruit.

And here’s a bit of Arg, my English dialect spoken by a criminal underclass, which has developed progressivemodifiers ‘msorta, ‘mlike and ‘mkinda, as in we’msorta wait ‘we’re waiting’. My professional future gazing suggests that this is a plausible development.

Patria Nullius is starting its search for an agent right now, so Orange Creole and Arg are under wraps for a while (maybe a long while!). Meanwhile I’d be glad to hear from other linguist-novelists about how you deal with literary challenges. I promise a thread soon on how I incorporated an Arabic ‘feel’ into my Siranoush Trilogy.

If you’re going to talk like a pirate, do it properly!

Do you suffer from bruxism brought on by poor pirate accents? I do: I grind my teeth whenever I watch the BBC TV show Doc Martin. If you’ve ever watched this program you’ll know that in the English seaside village where the doctor practices, all the locals speak Piratese, or as I sometimes like to call it Yokelese.  But more of Pirate language in a moment.

My real gripe as a finicky linguist is that TV and film so often handle language use so amateurishly. I often get into foetal position and weep when an actor playing an immigrant with poor English is given an inconsistent mishmash of lines where in one utterance they speak in ‘me no understand’ fashion, and in the next produce perfectly formed complex sentences dressed down with a silly foreign accent.

And don’t get me started on those war movies vere ze Chermans spik like zis! Make ‘em speak German and add subtitles, I say. The worst such example of this genre is the (for me) unwatchable Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, in which Nicolas Cage should have got an Oscar for sustained performance of high front vowels and trilled r’s.  Maybe he’d had tuition from an actor I once met at an audition whose résumé included the ability to speak English in twenty-five accents, including both Eastern and Western Armenian.

Arrr! That’s Piratese by the way, for ‘back to the topic’. In Britain and Australia, it is customary for actors playing southern English rural characters to employ a couple of pronunciation tricks such as modifying the ‘o’ sounds in words like ‘coat’ and changing the vowel in ‘eye’ to the vowel in ‘boy’. The principal trick, however is to rhotacise, i.e. (in simple terms) to pronounce most of the r’s indicated by spelling. So, where a Londoner or Sydneysider would not pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘hard’, a speaker of Piratese would pronounce it. Give it a try. If you have young children or grandchildren, you can copy Captain Feathersword of The Wiggles, who speaks quite good Piratese.

So why are my teeth a millimetre shorter than they should be? It’s because of the basic mistakes that Piratese speakers make. Why do I keep hearing actors saying things like “Hello GrandmaR” and “Where’s LouisaR?” where no ‘r’ exists in the spelling? Well, the reason is that they overdo a little rule that allows us non-rhotic speakers to pop in an ‘r’ when the next word starts with a vowel. So, while we don’t say the ‘r’ in ‘Here’s my car’, we can say it in ‘My caR is in the next street’.

OK, all clear so far. However, the brains and mouths of native Londoners and Sydneysiders wickedly conspire to play the ‘India office’ trick on us. Try saying this phrase quickly and not making an ‘r’ at the end of ‘India’.  No ‘r’ in the spelling – we just overextend the ‘caR Is’ rule to ease the transition between the last vowel in ‘India’ and the first vowel in ‘office’. Try it: IndiaRoffice.

Arr! What bad Piratese speakers do is push the rule too hard by sticking the ‘r’ on the end of words that end in a vowel but are not followed by a vowel: While it’s fine to say ‘GrandmaR isn’t here’, it’s a plank-walking offence to say ‘Here’s GrandmaR’.

If I can be shamelessly unscientific for a moment, we non-rhotics are like carriers of damaged linguistic DNA; a few centuries ago all English speakers pronounced all their r’s, until the effete London court gave them up and the fashion spread through the hot chocolate drinking classes. But not all our telomeres were degraded, and the vestigial ‘r’ still pops up here and there in the attenuated fin de siècle speech of Camden Town and Bondi.

I’m astonished that few people I’ve spoken to seem to notice these errant r’s, or, when the mistake is pointed out, care. But I do, which is, I suppose one of the burdens that we sad scholars of linguistics carry. For years I’ve struggled to answer the question ‘what’s the use of linguistics’ at cocktail parties, and I’m beginning to think that it’s to keep dentists in business.


Now, if I’ve sparked your interest in linguistics, have a look at my latest novel The True History of Jude, which has no pirates in it whatsoever.

Going easy on the f-word in fiction

Writers are getting more foul-mouthed

The recent Guardian article on the increasing rates of foul language in literature got me thinking about my own use of the f-word and its derivatives.

I checked my f-quotient in my last three novels and – yes, my language is getting fouler with every book, rising from a demure 0.012 f*cks per hundred words in my first novel to 0.031 f*cks per 100 in Cairo Mon Amour, my latest.

Highly skilled at cursing

Confession time: I spent my early years on a council estate just outside London, and I Iearned to handle the f-word like an East End fishmonger. Later I became part of the Australian intelligentsia, and honed my skills so that I could out-f*ck any Professor of English Literature in the room.

But why do I use  f*ck in my novels?

Here are the results drawn from the 26 f*cks in Cairo Mon Amour:

  1. Sometimes I use it to locate a character on the British class scale:

Bellamy said, “If we’re right about this we’re finished when those f*ckers from Ealing work out that they’ve put us together.”

“How come you talk like a barrow boy sometimes? I remember that from Shemlan. It’s quite a turn on, you know!”

2.  Here’s a similar example, where I contrast the restrained and courteous Pierre with a thug:

“It’s a .22 calibre model 70,” he grunted. “Israeli military issue. Good quality. Liberated from the enemy. Probably used to shoot some poor Egyptian f*cker. Haha!”

“Take it back,” Pierre hissed.

 3. And here’s Pierre learning to swear in English:

“Well, sort of gallop like f*cking hell. We’re being shot at.”

 4. In this example my Soviet diplomat Zlotnik is supposed to be speaking in Russian, and the f*ck is a translation of the common Russian curse:

 “Where’s that f*ck-your-mother Englishwoman gone?” Zlotnik rarely cursed. It had all unravelled, all gone to shit. He sank into the sofa.

5.  In this last example, I have a bunch of American diplomats fleeing Egypt on ship. There has been a stream of f*cks as they lose their cool. Here’s the last one:

As the Cynthia’s engines groaned rheumatically into life, an American in a suit and a baseball cap pointed at the Soviet ship and shouted, “Look, they’re unloading f*cking missiles!”

I’m actually very pleased with my self-diagnosis: Every example has been strategically selected. There’s not a gratuitous f*ck in the book. Obviously, I was well trained!

Let me know what you think!


Click any of these links to buy a copy of Cairo Mon Amour

Austin Macauley Publishers


Australian Indigenous languages: A white linguist looks back.

Stan Grant’s account in The Guardian of his relationship with the Wiradjuri language jolted me back forty years to the language work I did as a Masters student at the Australian National University. For my major assignment, I was handed a box full of field notes and audio tapes collected by the American linguist Ken Hale. The box was marked ‘Wambaya, Barkly Tablelands’. My job was to write a grammar of the Wambaya language, which I was told was on the verge of extinction.

‘Jolt’ is an apt word: Stan Grant’s article left me feeling unsettled about my own relationship with Indigenous languages in general, and about the nature of the work I did four decades ago. I’ll come back to this later.

More generally, it made me reflect on how non-Indigenous Australians might respond to Grant’s argument. The comments following the article give us at least a preliminary answer.

I counted 121 actual comments, with 53 ‘removed by a moderator because’ they ‘didn’t abide by our community standards’ By way of comparison, an article on housing affordability with 123 comments had only two removed.

I roughly categorised the 121 unremoved comments as follows: About half were facetious, trivial, or off the point; some of these presented good arguments about the link between language and culture but didn’t address Stan’s argument.

On the positive side, about a quarter supported the thrust of the article or praised the quality of the writing, while the nay vote was represented by thirteen percent who rejected Stan’s argument without being rude about it.

Finally, there were half a dozen people who scolded Stan for ignoring his British heritage, two who argued that although they weren’t Indigenous their pain was equally valid, and seven who were personally insulting to the writer.

The verdict? My suspicion, based on the wording of the comments, is that opinion on Stan Grant’s article falls into two distinct camps, with attitudes pretty well entrenched on both sides. Let’s guess that half of the 53 removed responses opposed the article (and the other half were irrelevant insults or ravings): My tally is that only a minority of an admittedly small and imperfect sample are sympathetic to Stan’s views.

This is hardly surprising given the vast gulf of understanding about Australian language issues among non-Indigenous Australians. I count myself among the ignorant despite the fact that I know a little more than the man on the Toorak tram or the 440 bus to Leichhardt.

My acquaintance with these languages began at seminars at The University of London given by the celebrated linguist Bob Dixon. I had been trained to analyse the grammar, sound systems and vocabulary of exotic languages and, boy, these Australian languages were fine specimens: Weird ‘genders’, sets of consonants I’d never seen elsewhere, and sentence grammar that was ‘ergative’, i.e. not observing the ‘normal’ subject-object distinction. A year later in Canberra I’d had further training and I was let loose on Wambaya.

I am still tremendously grateful for that chance that I was given to boost my knowledge and skills as a linguist. What bothers me in hindsight is that the only human connection I had with the speakers of Wambaya was the scrapy voice of an old man saying words and sentences onto a reel to reel tape in some spot in the Barkly Tablelands that I could not begin to imagine. I did no fieldwork. I was a young white linguist in a hurry.

As I moved up the academic career ladder, I advocated for the teaching of – or about – Australian languages in my university, but all attempts failed. The lack of support from the Indigenous side was especially puzzling; language just didn’t seem to be a priority. It was around this time that I began to use the metaphor of the sliding door to characterise my experience with Indigenous life on campus: The door opened enough to give me a glimpse, but closed too quickly for me to see what was really going on.

Years later, I found myself with an entire Indigenous education centre in my management portfolio as a Pro-Vice Chancellor. The sliding door began to stay open longer, especially during the very long meetings that I spent with Indigenous colleagues thrashing out submissions for funding. I was warmly welcomed when I decided to work in the centre for a day a week rather than in the stress-filled senior management area where I belonged.

My best memory is being taken by a Wiradjuri senior colleague to a huge annual picnic on the outskirts of Sydney, where I witnessed the amazing depth and diversity of the Indigenous community of the region. There couldn’t have been a starker contrast with listening to that recorded voice decades earlier.

I’m happy to report that Wambaya had 89 speakers according to the 2006 Census – not exactly a big crowd, but at least the language is not extinct. Stan Grant would no doubt be very pleased.

Stuart Campbell is a former Professor of Linguistics and Pro-Vice Chancellor. Nowadays, he writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

New scholarly book evokes warm memories

New-Insights-into-Arabic-Translation-and-InterpretingI took time out from writing fiction last year to contribute the introduction to this new book, edited by Associate Professor Mustafa Taibi from Western Sydney University. In writing the introduction I took the opportunity to honour the memory of the Iraqi scholar Dr. Safa Khulusi, whose  Arabic classes I attended at the Polytechnic of Central London in the seventies.

The invitation to write the introduction evoked warm memories of academic colleagues, teachers, and students from the Arab World.

You can read a sample of the book by clicking the  Look Inside button here.


Learn about Stuart Campbell’s novels here.