There’s a section in my book where Abigail and Ester go out into the markets, in the end of chapter 4. We hear all the shouting of the merchants selling their wares (all the Hebrew words I use there are foods), and one of them hails Abigail. This merchant acts as though he doesn’t notice Ester at first, and then finally greets her in Greek, though he had been talking to Abigail in Hebrew.
I hope that the subtlety of this comes through clearly, but just in case you were left scratching your head about the whole thing . . .
When the merchant switched his language before talking to Ester, he was in effect saying that she wasn’t a Hebrew, so he had to speak to her in Greek. Ester pretty much ignores it by answering him in Hebrew, but Abigail gets offended on her mistress’s behalf and then refuses to answer him in Hebrew. Get it?
I got the idea for this from reading The Charterhouse of Parma; it’s a French novel about Italians, and the subtleties in the ways language were used astounded me. When they wanted to insult Napoleon, they called him “Buonaparte” instead of “Bonaparte”–in effect, this says he’s more Italian than French, which he denied with all his being, though his birthplace of Corsica is about as Italian as a French district can get.
It really made me think about how we use the very language we speak to insult each other. I wanted to use something like that in this book because of the multi-lingual aspect of the characters. I took great care in choosing what they spoke in which of the three languages featured, and I hope those decisions help reflect the languages themselves as well as the speakers.
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