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Heteroglossia is the idea that different forms of language can exist within a single cohesive text. This is the case for some types of texts communication, but not others. For example, it would usually be improper for a piece of technical writing, a business plan, a public notice to include more than one dialect or type of language. The common types of text that can include more than one linguistic form or dialect are largely works of fiction, including novels, plays, and short stories.
The term heteroglossia can be traced back to a Russian linguist named Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin pointed out the significance of novels and other forms of fiction writing having multiple dialects or forms of language mixed together. A work by Bakhtin in the 1930s, the title of which translates to “discourse on the novel,” points out some of the ways that heteroglossia can have an effect on communication.
One theory regarding heteroglossia is that multiple dialects or voices within a narrative can work with or against each other in specific ways. The contrast between these voices, according to many literary experts, is part of what creates meaning in a novel or similar work of art. Academics who reflect on or study this idea can provide many different examples of how these uses of different voices can provide insight to readers on the political, cultural, and social context of the work.
In identifying this linguistic phenomenon in fiction, the student should start with the omniscient narrative. This narrative should not change from one part of the text to the next in terms of voice or dialect. Within this greater narrative, other voices emerge, primarily as the voices of individual characters. Even one character can have more than one dialect or voice, according to his or her intent. Heteroglossia in fiction tends to highlight the use of multiple forms of language in societies that use formal or informal means of address, local or regional dialects, or any other change in language for religious, cultural, or social reasons.
One aspect of heteroglossia is that using it correctly takes some skill and knowledge on the part of the writer. When writers fail to use heteroglossia in a technically correct way, much of the effect of the novel or piece of writing starts breaking down, and may even become offensive; for example, a poorly researched or exaggerated attempt at reproducing dialectal speech could be construed by some as a sign of prejudice. Using heteroglossia effectively, however, is part of the greater task of the writer to provide a realistic and authentic context for the reader.
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