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Being a language person, I always like to see it when authors include foreign phrases and words in their stories. I find this can add a whole new dimension to the narrative as far as richness and readability are concerned. In a previous post I wrote about Christopher Isherwood and how he effectively incorporated German terms and turns of phrase in his novels. Today I’d like to take a look at A Different Sun by Elaine Orr.


Elaine Orr’s novel A Different Sun takes a well educated and well-heeled woman from antebellum Georgia and transplants her into the dark, moist soil of Africa, where by means of a depressive missionary husband 20 years her senior she is able to fulfill her life’s calling. Along the way, she experiences not just a spiritual awakening, but also a social stirring that juxtaposes many things that cause her to examine the different facets of her life: her world at home and her existence among the native people of Africa; the black and white races; the English language and Yoruba, the language spoken by the tribal groups in Nigeria, her new home. In A Different Sun, it’s easy to see Elaine Orr successfully uses Yoruba words and phrases to add authenticity to her dialogue; this in turn helps her create a vibrant setting for the reader.

Since a good portion of the novel takes place in 19th century Africa, the reader can reasonably expect a great deal of description that captures the lush and exotic images often associated with this continent – and the reader is not disappointed in this respect. At various points in the narrative, Orr evokes stereotypical images when she describes elephants, colorful natives, and tropical birds, but at other times her depictions are more lyrical, such as on page 76 when she writes about a jungle with a “variety of greens emerging with the rains” or on pages 81 and 116 respectively when she describes “the palm tree forest on a distant hill [that] was cloaked in mist” and “the yeasty smell of gari cooking on a nearby fire…” With this last example, the author is able to amplify her descriptive prose with the use of a foreign word, gari, instead of its English counterpart, cassava. When a writer opts for a foreign word in his or her prose, it can serve a number of purposes, least of which is the education of the reader, especially when, as in this case, the foreign word is then explained. On an aesthetic level, however, it goes beyond the didactic and provides a more vivid and authentic experience for the reader. Implementing foreign words also makes the reader sit up and take notice of the surroundings in the narrative.

One of the first instances of a foreign word being used in A Different Sun is also the most commonly used: oyinbo, which, as Henry explains to Emma as they’re en route to Africa, is the Yoruba word that refers to a white person. “You’ll be called oyinbo for ‘white person,’” he says on page 68, “but it’s not to be taken unkindly…” This term is repeated many times throughout the remainder of the narrative, and every time it’s used it reminds the reader that most of the action is playing out in a foreign culture, much in the same way that it constantly serves to remind Emma that she’s a white woman in a black world.

Throughout the narrative, at least every two or three pages, but sometimes several times on a single page, Orr introduces individual foreign words in such a way that the reader is easily able to comprehend them – almost always with an exegetic translation, as in the instance above – but while benefiting from the exotic tone and connotations lent by the word. When she uses words such as orishas or ‘community gods’ on page 77, alufa or ‘priest’ on page 81, or fufu, a food item on page 89, wahala or ‘trouble’ on page 102, shekere or ‘a beaded gourd’ and iya or ‘a mother’ on page 111, or agbada for ‘a male robe’ on page 137, she adds to her effectiveness as an author by creating a more authentic atmosphere in a linguistic sense, which in turn contributes to a more genuine, stimulating narrative for the audience.

This is also the case when Elaine Orr incorporates longer phrases and entire sentences in Yoruba. She explains on pages 108 that O daa ro means ‘You may rest for the night’; E ku ise o means ‘good work’ on page 111; E pele o is the way to say ‘sorry’ on page 116; E se is the phrase for ‘thank you’ on page 140, and so forth. These random, but frequent inclusions of foreign words by Elaine Orr add authenticity to her dialogue and descriptions, and this helps her create a vibrant and satisfying setting for the reader.

Elaine Orr, admittedly, probably has it easier than the average writer when it comes to including Yoruba words in her narratives because she was born of missionary parents in Nigeria and grew up speaking the language. That doesn’t mean that you should shy away from incorporating a bit of foreign language in your writing, however. For some good tips on how to effectively use foreign language words in your own writing, check out this blog by Cora Besciano.