Follow TV Tropes


Elective Broken Language

Go To

Edward Cunningham: Hey! How come you speak perfect English all of a sudden?
Doctor Lao: Oh, it comes and goes. Whatever dialect the mood requires.
Cunningham: Oh, it just comes and goes?
Lao: Whassamatta you? Allatime asking silly questions! Wise guy!

Just like a character may choose not to speak or not to speak coherently, they may also willfully employ broken or idiosyncratic language. There may be various reasons for this: for instance, it can be part of Obfuscating Stupidity, a part of Fauxreigner's image, or a Cloudcuckoolander's peculiar way of self-expression. An increasingly common use of this trope is a subversion of Japanese Ranguage, Asian Speekee Engrish, Tonto Talk and other similar tropes: a foreigner who actually has a good command of English may amuse themselves by deliberately playing up racial stereotypes.

May overlap with Language Fluency Denial. See also Hiding Behind the Language Barrier and Eloquent in My Native Tongue. Compare Keeping the Handicap, for someone who can get rid of their physical impairment but chooses not to.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • The Sandman (1989): Emperor Joshua Norton acquires a Chinese manservant, with whom he speaks in perfect English. When a drunken sailor comes up asking where the opium dens are, he responds with "Very sorree, no speak English".
  • Watchmen: Rorschach speaks in a very distinctively clipped, telegraphic style. This is downplayed when he's not wearing his mask, and we see in flashbacks that he didn't do it at all before his breakdown. The implication seems to be that he just can't be bothered any more with the elaborations of formal speech.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Star Wars, Yoda's peculiar speech pattern is strongly implied to be a conscious choice, since he does speak standard English occassionally. As speculated by Ben Skywalker in the Fate of the Jedi novel Backlash, he mangles his speech to get people to listen attentively to what he says (and perhaps also to mess with them).
  • Crazy Rich Asians: Goh Wye Mun, father of the protagonist Rachel's best friend Peik Lin, introduces himself to Rachel while the latter stays in the Goh family's mansion in Singapore with a wildly exaggerated Asian Speekee Engrish accent as a joke before dropping it and speaks in a perfectly normal American English accent (having studied at Cal State-Fullerton). He is played by Ken Jeong, so...
  • Ivan Vanko, the Big Bad of Iron Man 2, pretends to speak poor English around Justin Hammer (whom he, like everyone else, considers an idiot), but speaks coherently to Tony Stark because he views the latter as a Worthy Opponent.
  • Master of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome speaks some kind of broken English until Blaster gets killed, at which point he reverts to a perfect English.
  • The eponymous wizard in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao casually switches back and forth between speaking in a stereotypical Chinese accent and perfect English.

  • In Council Wars, Bast the Wood Elf sometimes speaks in broken English or Yoda-like syntax, while at other times, she talks completely normally. Given her playful and eccentric personality, most likely she does it just for amusement.
  • In the sci-fi short story Course of Empire by Richard Wilson, a couple of humans are sitting around talking about humanity's attempts to colonize other worlds. Then an alien walks up to them and tells them in Pidgin English to get back to work. They do so, griping that they know the alien is perfectly capable of speaking good English, but is just doing this to rub it in that the aliens turned out to be better colonizers than humans.
  • Hantai Annie Wong from School For SPIES series by Bruce Hale speaks pidgin English and often uses Japanese words and expressions. It is revealed in the third book of the series ("Ends of the Earth") that she can speak English almost perfectly, but usually prefers pidgin in order to "keep people off balance", and because she feels it as a "part of her".
  • In The Three Investigators novel "The Secret of Shark Reef", there is a Japanese gardener called Torao. It turns out that he took on gardener's job in order to investigate the past of his grandfather; his broken English was part of the act (downplayed example, since he was doing it only temporarily).
  • Mother Jilo from Jack Douglas Horn's Witching Savannah series speaks broken English and refers to herself in the third person as a part of her "voodoo doctor" persona.
  • In East of Eden, Lee pretends to speak English in stereotypical Asian Speekee Engrish fashion:
    "Lee," he said at last, "I mean no disrespect, but I've never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years."
    Lee grinned. "Me talkee Chinese talk," he said.
    "Well, I guess you have your reasons. And it's not my affair. I hope you'll forgive me if I don't believe it, Lee."
    Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren't foreign any more, but man's eyes, warm with understanding. Lee chuckled. "It's more than a convenience," he said. "It's even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all."
  • Philo Vance: Liang, the Coe family cook in The Kennel Murder Case, has apparently been pulling this one on the Coes all along. Vance immediately calls him out on it, and Liang goes back to speaking standard English — it was Obfuscating Stupidity, Liang went to Oxford.
  • Belisarius Series: Despite being fluent in several languages, Ousanas often deliberately speaks pidgin, either as a ruse or as a joke. Often it’s because, as dawazz to a teenage prince of Axum, it’s his royally-mandated job to be a Servile Snarker so his charge doesn’t get too full of himself, and “baby talks” down to his “fool prince” when he’s being stupid or hotheaded.
  • Hercule Poirot admits to a friend in Three Act Tragedy that he's perfectly capable of speaking proper English if he wants to, but he chooses not to because he's found it helpful to appear as an amusing and non-threatening foreigner.
    Poirot: It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say — a foreigner — he can't even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people — instead I invite their gentle ridicule.
  • In A Series of Unfortunate Events, both Olaf in his "Gunther" disguise ("The Erzatz Elevator") and Madame Lulu/Olivia Caliban in "Carnivorous Carnival" speak very peculiar English as a part of their Fauxreigner image. Downplayed with Olaf (since he does it only as a part of one particular disguise), and played straight with Lulu who has been doing it for a large part of her life (Lulu's language is actually more idiosyncratic than Olaf's: for instance, she also refers to herself in the third person).
  • In Dune one character speaks very oddly with random pauses, spacings, and emphasis. This odd speech is to prevent the Bene Gesserit True Seeing on him.
  • In Firekeeper series by Jane Lindskold, the titular character usually speaks pidgin language because she believes proper grammar to be "unnesessary"; however, she can, and does, speak normally when she needs to make sure she is understood.
  • In Venus Prime, Luke Lim can speak English perfectly well, but uses an exaggerated stereotypical accent when dealing with white people in the hopes of putting them off.
  • A downplayed example from Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers series: in The Mystery of the Vanished Prince, Bets and her friends pose as Princess Bongawee and her retinue as a part of a prank. They speak broken English and their own made-up language.
  • Tekla in Seveneves intentionally uses Russianisms in her English. Her justification is that having to rebuild mankind from a group of seven, future mankind will have a single language, and since 5 of the 7 Eves are anglophones, it will probably be English. Thus intentionally mixing Russian in English is the best way to further her cultural heritage. It is shown that some Russian letters even made it into the future language.
  • In the "Mysterious Caravan" book of The Hardy Boys, the Hardys' friend Phil Cohen had to sneak into a restaurant to spy on a trio of treasure hunters. The chef who intercepted him (Phil tried getting in through the back/kitchen door) tried reasoning with him with perfect English (this part of the book is set in Jamaica, and the chef is a local), and Phil replies with gibberish to not attract attention. When his quarry leaves, so does Phil (again through the back), and the chef mutters that wherever Phil came from, he sure has strange traditions! When Phil reports to his friends later, they all burst out laughing.
  • In Tiger Saga by Coleen Houck, the eccentric, Yoda-like Indian sage Phet pretends to speak broken English and refers to himself in the third person. He can speak perfect English; moreover, he actually doesn't exist, and his appearance is just a "mask" used by two other characters.
  • Discworld:
    • In Jingo 71 Hour Ahmed plays with this, he can speak fluent Morporkian when he wants to, but is as foreign as possible because "everyone knows foreigners are stupid". (In Klatch, he plays up his Morporkian education for the same reason.)
    • In Thud!, the reason that anti-vampire sentiment in Ankh-Morpork has never seriously affected Otto Chriek, iconographer for the Times, is that Otto carefully plays up the "funny" side of vampirism, including a heavy Vampire Vords accent, so he's not seen as a threat.
  • In A Forgotten Magic by Kathleen O'Brien, the housekeeper Frances knows English perfectly, but "occasionally chose to ease tense moments by affecting a comical foreign confusion" (in particular, she likes to mix up metaphors, like "take the lion by the horns").
  • In Empire from the Ashes, Jiltanith speaks Flowery Elizabethan English (she learned it when she stayed on Earth during the Wars of the Roses), and refuses to modernize it as a way to show disdain for the modern world.
  • In Herman Wouk's novel City Boy, Mr. Krieger, a New York City small businessman, uses only the minimum words needed to convey meaning; e.g., "Me and Mr. Powers go cup coffee" or "Hard feeling nothing worth. What good? Look future." He speaks this way because he lacks self-confidence and is afraid that any sentence he says might entrap him, so he never utters a full sentence, speaking "only about one word out of four. This ingenious principle enabled him to deny anything he said, on the grounds that he had been misunderstood, if it happened to sound wrong once out of his mouth."
  • In My Friend Mr. Leakey, a children's book by J.B.S. Haldane (yes, the biologist), the titular wizard's friend Mr. Chandrajotish, an Indian sorcerer, speaks broken English. He explains that he could enchant himself to "ispeak English like a beroadcast announcer" but doesn't, because it's funnier.
    Mr. Chandrajotish: When Englishmen first speak Urdu they say, "saddle the European" when they want to say, "saddle the horse", so why should not I too make mistakes?
  • Hawk does this, sometimes several times in the same conversation. Depending on who's present, it will usually be Obfuscating Stupidity, or to wind somebody up. Spenser personally believes that Hawk does it mainly because it fits his sense of humor; this is because he'll even do it to Spenser, who knows better.

    Live-Action TV 
  • One of the interns on Bones chose to do this for a long time, simply to stop people commenting on his deeply committed Muslim faith.
  • Nelson in Life on Mars (2006) does this, speaking with an exaggerated Jamaican accent to other customers in the Railway Arms but speaking with a British accent to Sam; he tells Sam that "Folks seem happier with the other Nelson". Word of God say that this was inspired by Lee from East Of Eden.
  • The Walking Dead: The leader of the Scavengers drops many supporting words from her speech, giving her an oddly clipped manner of speaking. It's later revealed that she can speak normally if she wants, she apparently just thinks that this makes her more eerie to outsiders.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • This is the origin of Carlito Colón's speaking mannerisms, as when he was given the Razor Ramon knockoff gimmick, Vince McMahon Jr felt he wasn't spic enough, so Carlito began things like the occasional Third-Person Person.
  • Shinsuke Nakamura speaks fluent English, even well enough to serve as translator for his fellow Japanese wrestlers. However, during a 2017 heel turn in which he turned on fans and rivals, he started refusing to do interviews to explain his actions, simply saying "No speak English." He also changed his theme song from a non-lyrical chant that's easy for people to sing along with, to a lyrically complex, specifically to alienate English-speaking audiences.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of Planescape, members of the Xaositect Faction may randomly make use of "Scramblespeak", a Factional argot in which the order of words in a sentence is jumbled up however the Xaositect likes. This can be very confusing, if not infuriating, for those who don't have a grasp on the idea, especially given how indecipherable the Cant (Sigil's native slang) can be to outsiders. It's justified because the Xaositects worship chaos and emulate it by giving themselves over to whatever random whim strikes their mood; it's not supposed to make any real sense. And, yes, doing it just because they think it's funny, or they want to annoy someone, is as good a reason to use it as any.

    Video Games 
  • Destiny: In the first game, you meet Variks the Loyal, a non-hostile Fallen diplomat who speaks in broken english and a heavy accent when dealing with humans. In the sequel, other english-speaking Fallen appear, except they all speak normally, even the definitely hostile Psychopathic Manchild Mad Bomber. An idle line of dialogue from the Fallen crime lord Spider reveals Variks was feigning it to put humans at ease around him.
    Spider: Ah, I miss Variks...did you know the Awoken really believed that ridiculous accent of his? He had them wrapped around his claws!
  • In Fahrenheit, a Japanese-American bookstore owner Takeo speaks in stereotypical Asian Speekee Engrish fashion. It is later revealed that he does it merely because customers like "that wise old Japanese master stuff", and he was actually born in the US.
  • In Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist. Hopalong Singh, the Chinese chef, can speak perfect English, but Mom pays him to Speekee Engrish instead because he'll sound more "authentic" that way. One of the Native Americans says he only uses Tonto Talk to make the tourists happy.
  • In Gilbert Goodmate And The Mushroom Of Phungoria, the protagonist meets an Indian chief who admits that they sometimes deliberately speak in Tonto Talk just to mess with white people.
  • In Planescape: Torment, you can encounter the Xaositects and confront — or even learn — Scramblespeak yourself, as mentioned under Tabletop Games.
    • Additionally, there's the NPC Ravel Puzzlewell, a Night Hag who's gone a little... peculiar... after centuries imprisoned in an extradimensional prison. In addition to randomly switching from normal speech to Yoda-esque Object-Subject-Verb order and back, with the occasional bit of Third-Person Person, she's prone to partially or wholely repeating sentences by substituting words with their textual homophones. She may also go off on something of a tangent or switch topics entirely based on a homophone that particularly catches her attention. It's unclear how much of this is her own particular choice of speech and how much stems from her lingering madness.
  • Thief: the Trickster God, just called the Trickster, god of the Pagans, can speak perfect English, as revealed by his disguise as the nobleman Constantine. He chooses to speak like the Pagans because he disdains human society. Whether this is true of the Pagans as well is unclear.
  • Undertale has the Tem Shop Keeper, who speaks in poorly-capitalized broken English like all the other Temmies. However, if you refuse to sell an item she really wants, she gives you an evil smirk and says "You will regret this." If you helped her pay for college, she has an even more elaborate response:
    Is this a joke? Are you having a chuckle? Ha ha, very funny. I'm the one with a degree.
  • Xenoblade Chronicles 2: a side quest reveals that, at least in this game, the Nopon's speech patterns were tailored specifically to play up their cuteness and manipulate humans. It was started by a Nopon ship captain and the entire race followed suit. It is unclear whether current-day Nopon are capable of speaking normally and each intentionally choose to speak like this for this reason, or if this change naturally became a part of Nopon culture and the original reason and purposefulness was lost to the average Nopon long ago.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Her Jentle Hi-ness, the letter G is not said because the Queen banned it and executes all who dare to speak it. The characters get around the G by using J like saying jentle instead of gentle or just removing it entirely like in the word Hi-ness.


    Web Original 
  • Matlal, the witch doctor of Subeta's Omen Islands, TALKS LIKE TONTO IN ALL CAPS, with loads of (largely-vegetable based) innuendo to top it off, but he holds a college degree and only talks that way because people expect it.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Gina Lollobrigida was an unusual example. When she came to the United States, she actively started to learn English, but the movie studios and her co-star Humphrey Bogart liked her broken English and thick Italian accent so much that they advised her not to learn "too much" of it. To the end of her life, she mangled her English grammar and spoke with a strong accent in spite of having starred in American movies for several decades — but this probably helped her movie career instead of hindering it.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger is a similar case, as his thick Austrian accent became a major part of his screen persona and public image. Schwarzenegger admits that his natural accent has actually faded a great deal after spending decades in the United States, but that he still uses his trademark "Ahnuld" voice in public appearances because it's what the fans and media expect from him.