['Lingua Franca' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games. This time – a look at the way that dialects affect play.]

After a short prologue, the first thing said to you in the new DS translation of Enix's classic JRPG Dragon Quest IV is the following request, made by a servant to the king;

"His Majesty is aboot tae make an announcement tae youse all. Simmer doon an' listen noo."

The almost uninterpretable utterance is then followed up by more slovenly spoken English, until you soon realize that everyone in this world responds to you in such a manner, even the king himself! Later on, in the following chapter, you'll progress to another one of Dragon Quest IV's quaint, little villages and the small township will again have their own oddities of spoken language.

Initially it took me some time to wrap my head around what exactly developer ArtePiazza were intending by littering obscure English nuances throughout each villager's dialogue. Each new location has their own flavour of spoken language, they effectively have their own individual dialects. I'm not too sure whether indeed dialects are actually at play here. There appears to be a lack of specialized vocab and grammar to justify the classification of dialect (therefore making it instead an accent).

On further investigation, the press release for this title proudly notes a selection of 13 unique dialects based on global communities. Within the thirteen dialects there are Russian, French, Bristol and Scottish variations among others. I'm personally hesitant, but let's run with this.

Negative Interpretations of Dialect

The inclusion of dialects in video games stirs about some interesting implications. By using dialects as the main form of communication, it validates dialects within the language that the game operates. In other words, Dragon Quest IV is declaring that the English language does indeed have dialects.

Depending on the player, this may or may not sit right with them, therefore impacting on their experience with the game, particularly so in a title where language is a critical component of play. As proven somewhat by this article on Dragon Quest V (which also features dialects in the same manner), some players might simply refuse to acknowledge, or even be aware that English (/language in question) does in fact have different dialects, hence creating a dissonance between player and game.

For me personally, as an Australian, I rarely think of English as a language with dialects, sure there are variations, but we rarely consider those variations significant enough to label distinctively as dialects. You Americans (yes, you Americans!) say that we [Aussies] have an accent, rather than speak a dialect; so even if we actually do speak dialects, both countries are less acquainted with the term and therefore don't think with this connotation.

Hence I spent a good half hour confused as to why everyone was speaking with a broken English tongue – it took me right out of the game. Dragon Quest IV was localized in Europe; a continent with many languages, so I suppose (and am taking the assumption that) when people from Europe play this title, they might have not encountered the same confusion, instead pick up on the dialects intrinsically.

Dialects also rarely have written forms, so rendering dialect as text demands that the writers (or in this case: localization team) construct their own written approximations based on the oral forms. This vocabulary is therefore specialized, and while an English reader can interpret the text as having similarities to accents, it's still difficult reading to digest. This makes the reading of text a burden for the player, as they need to constantly self-translate chunks of dialogue.

Furthermore, when interrogation of villagers is required to progress, the oddly spoken English can become more of a hindrance than a help. As to how this was handled in Japanese, I'm unsure, but one would suspect that dialects would have taken on an entirely different meaning, which we'll get to later.

Perhaps the largest issue with dialects is something that goes well beyond localization, and represents important differences between east and west. In western culture, dialects are often derogatorily viewed as strange divergences from the normally accepted English vernacular. They're associated with people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

It seems clear that the inclusion of dialects in DQIV is there to colour each township with a distinct linguistic flavour - and the game is no doubt effective at doing so. In western culture though this also reduces the NPCs to a bunch of backwards-sounding, uneducated hicks. Dialects (or even just accents) have different connotations in different cultures (one would wonder if I'd be fretting so much over this issue if this were in a Japanese context).

Therefore when implementing dialects into games, cultural misunderstandings can become a natural occurrence, proving that games are unique to the cultures that interpret them. The Dragon Quest IV I'm playing is very different to the one being played in Japan. Such a seemingly negligible cultural nuance can blow open one's perception of the whole product.

One of the initial impressions I had while plodding through Dragon Quest IV's quest was that the by using “exotic” English dialects and situating itself in a series of small-time, country villages, the game was poking fun at people from less fortunate backgrounds. That is, I assuredly feel that Dragon Quest IV could be interpreted as racist – or at least derogatory to those which accents/dialects. I don't believe that such an innocent game would dare imply such things, but it's very easy to see how one could interpret this.

Ask yourself this question. Having read the above quote at the top of the article, what impression did it give you of the speaker? Probably not a very positive one, I suspect. It sounds uneducated and broken. Now imagine that everyone in a given area speaks with the same awkwardness and you begin to understand how one could infer a negative image of these cultures. Further still, never we forget that these dialects are based on actual global dialects. How then does a player from Russia, France, Bristol or Scotland interpret the text? I'd sure like to know.

Positive Interpretations of Dialect

The interesting thing about dialects is that like language they're containers of culture. Our cultural norms are embedded within our language, dialects too contain specialized vocabulary, grammar, phrases and language techniques unique to a culture that shares the language of many cultures. In order to prove my point, here's a clichéd examples of culture in language and dialect;

In English we only have a handful of words used to classify snow. In languages used by the Eskimos though, there are many variations of snow depending on the hardness or softness. This additional vocabulary is required to operate in freezing-cold living conditions (building igloos, walking on stable ground) and hence representative of that culture.

Games such as Dragon Quest therefore have the potential to familiarize and hence teach these cultural norms to the player, giving them a knowledge that extends beyond the game itself. There are a few instances in which NPCs will spout out an unfamiliar word here or there but ultimately it's quite rare.

I suspect that this is due to the Japanese-English translation; where perhaps many of the dialect specific words as written in Japanese couldn't find an appropriate translation with the same level of significance in the narrative, in the respective English dialect. This hypothesis makes reasonable sense, after all, dialect quibbles aside, Dragon Quest IV has quite a good localization. Unfortunately, the potential here is lost in translation, but worth noting nonetheless.

The other main strength of Dragon Quest IV using dialects is the fact that it does acknowledge different cultures, and does so through the wise use of language. Very few games use language (besides crusty German accents) to express cultural divergence, and the ones that do (the Zelda series for instance) ensure that the linguistic differences are rather subtle, such as address or fixed phrases (rally-ho!).

While the application in Dragon Quest IV can be misinterpreted as derogatory towards some cultures or simply misunderstood by the player, including dialects only makes the player more conscious of multilingualism and multiculturalism in games, and indeed that's a strength.

I think that no matter which medium we're discussing, incorporation of dialects is tricky business. One suggestion for a western target audience would be to dig underneath the connotations of dialect and weave this to a narrative advantage. This was done successfully, and to much acclaim in the book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo.

This novel took the form of the diary of a young Chinese girl living abroad in England. Her diary was written entirely in Chinglish, that is English affected by Chinese grammar and speaking patterns. The use of Chinglish allows the reader to understand, and in the end form an appreciation, even admiration for someone living in a foreign context and struggling with a language that they're still coming to grips with.

It's a psychological battle to live in an unfamiliar place, let alone live in an unfamiliar language, and the use of broken English depicts that mental frustration to express oneself with a cold accuracy, ensuring the book is undertoned with a gritty realism. Her English does improve, and you see the natural progression from Chinglish to “proper” English transitioning through the tale.

In this instance, the weaknesses that westerners see in dialects was exploited and used to create sympathy of the lead character and her challenging world. A powerful way in which dialects can be utilized in media.


It isn't my intention to scrutinize Dragon Quest for all its missteps in handling dialects. Rather, using DQIV as a case study allows us to understand the challenges of adapting dialects into video games amidst a series of cultural connotations.

On one hand dialects can be detrimental to the concept of “fun” and deconstructive to play, but on the other, it has the potential to nurture cross-language and cross-cultural understanding in a very intelligent manner.

[Daniel Johnson spends too many late nights conversing Mandarin to friends in Shanghai. He studies language and culture, and shares most of his video game musings on his blog at danielprimed.com]