Language Once Again

During the discussion of the first page of an anonymous, unnamed fantasy novel over at Dear Author the horrible thou-shalt-not-use-historically-incorrect-language-monster once again raised it’s ugly head. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that this is a topic which regularly has me wanting to bang my head against the nearest wall. *roll eyes* And as this ties in with something I’ve covered at the “No iPods for Regency Rakes” workshop, here’s an excerpt from the “Anachronisms – when to embrace them” section of my workshop:

Language: This is when it gets tricky because quite a lot of people think it’s not only possible, but also desirable to accurately recreate the language of the past. In one amazon review of a novel set in Shakespeare’s time, the reader in question complained that the dialogue wasn’t Elizabethan enough. In the AAR review for my April release, BEWITCHED, the reviewer made a big point of my historically inaccurate language: in a story set in 1820 I had *gasp* used the word “heck”, even though the earliest record of this word is from 1865. On one message board a reader thought the use of “to screw” in CASTLE OF THE WOLF inappropriate. Even when I explained that this word is, in fact listed in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, she was still adamant it’s totally inappropriate for a story set in 1827 because it sounds too modern. Same goes for “whatever” (a contraction of “whatsoever” that appeared some time around 1300!!!).

Discussions like these always make me want to go and bang my head against the nearest wall.

Because, let me tell you, it’s neither desirable nor really possible to accurately recreate the language of the past, not even the language of Jane Austen’s time. First of all, you have to bear in mind that you’re writing for a 21st-century audience. You want to use words that people actually understand. Of course, you can sprinkle old-fashioned words and phrases into your dialogues to further the illusion of your historical setting, but this has nothing to do with recreating the actual language. For even in 200 years the English language has changed considerably. From David Crystal’s wonderful Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language: “Early 19th-century English can, however, deceive in its apparent familiarity. There are hundreds of instances where words have changed their meaning, often in highly subtle ways” (76). Here are few examples Crystal has taken from Austen’s novels:

  • “the supposed inmate of Mansfield Parsonage”
  • “She was now in an irritation as violent from delight as …”
  • “three of four Officers were lounging together” (to lounge = to stroll)
  • “whatever the event of” (today: “whatever the outcome of”)
  • “she saw her in idea” (today: “she saw her in her mind’s eye”)
  • “suppose you speak for tea” (today: “suppose you order tea”)

Other language changes affect grammar:

  • “So, you are come at last!”
  • “What say you to the day?”
  • “to be taken into the account”
  • “She was small of her age.”

And this is just the early 1800s! Imagine going back a few more centuries! Can you imagine your hero saying this to your heroine in the throes of passion: “Lemman, love me al atones, or I wol dyen, also God me save”?* Or would you care for him to introduce himself like this: “We synt gum-cynnes Geata leode”?** And, of course, if you write anything set in England before the 8th century, you really want to take care not use any of these horrid Scandinavian words such as sky, skin, skull, skirt … (You shouldn’t use “skunk”, either, but for altogether different reasons. *ggg*)

So you see, it’s really not possible to give an accurate version of the language of the past in your novel. All you can do is to create an illusion of the past for your reader. And let me tell you, you won’t be able to please everybody anyway, whatever you do.

* from Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”: Sweetheart, love me at once or I will die, so God save me.
** from Beowulf: We are Geats by birth

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