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Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Archaic language

So here's the thing: I wrote a book set in the early Rennaissance. This presented me with a number of issues - how people would think, what they'd wear, how they got from place to place - all of which had their own set of demands. But none was more important than how they spoke.

Dialogue is crucial to establishing character; what people say tells us how they think. If you're writing a book set in your own era, you're writing at a great advantage: your ear is already tuned to all the subtleties of local speech. But wander even a little away from your home turf, and infelicities start popping up like weeds. Even if someone's writing contemporary style, a slight change can affect it. I can think of many American writers who've used idioms slightly wrong for their English characters: phrases that were grammatically correct but very subtly off. (Americans in transatlantic Internet threads who've picked up the word 'wanker' from their British cyber-friends, for instance, often use it in a way that feels not quite right.) Similarly, I'm sure English writers do the same thing to Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders if they're not careful. Often you can hear the echo of quotation marks clicking down onto the word; either it's used in slightly the wrong context, or with slightly the wrong connotations. Word usage isn't just about the basics of grammar; there's also the issue of common usage, the the conventions there are manifold and delicate.

There's a certain latitude in alternate histories because the real people of that time and place aren't around to correct you. But at the same time, it's important to use language that doesn't throw the reader out of context. In the context of science fiction and fantasy, the famous essay on the subject is Ursula LeGuin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, which states the following: 'the point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different.' - and that if you're setting something in Elfland (by which she means the numinous world of the imagination), your speakers need 'the genuine Elfland accent'; they need to speak in a way that couldn't possibly be mistaken for the modern world.

I hadn't read the essay when I started In Great Waters, but I instinctively agreed with its principles - or at least, with the principle that language needed to suit setting. Bareback, after all, is set in an imaginary world and the characters' speech is entirely modern, but that was a deliberately chosen effect: the whole idea of the book was to throw the idea of 'normal' into question, and having characters speak like normal contemporary people about abnormal events helped create some tension about the idea.

But then, the world in which the live is very similar to ours except for one crucial difference. Other eras have other priorities which affect how people think; they have different etiquettes; the pace of life is not the same. If your characters talk exactly like you do, it feels pointless; you might as well have set it in the modern world. It simply makes the author look as if they haven't immersed themselves in the world they've created, and if they haven't done that it's unreasonable to expect the reader to. Why jump into a pool the architect won't swim in?

At the same time, there are great effects to be had from contrasting dialogue with description. A shining examplar of this is Toni Morrison. Her narrative prose is vivid, extraordinary; dense with metaphor and vibrant with eloquence, challenging and elegant as poetry. Her characters speak vividly too, but their speech is to the point and colloquial. The narrative accent is entirely new; as it twists and tends language into new forms, it takes on an air of timelessness: we've never heard anybody speak like this. The characters' accents, on the other hand, are concrete and real: they're of particular times and places, the accent of a specific people. Between the two styles exists a lively harmony that makes the books infinitely richer, and conveys an important truth: the language of thought and experience is not the same as the language we use in conversation.

So dialogue was important. But there was a balance to be struck. To have completely period language presented two major drawbacks. First, I'm simply not a linguistic historian, and anyone other than an expert is liable to take a nasty purler trying to recreate a whole idiom. Second, even if I did manage it, it's close to a foreign tongue: readers would have to work so hard to understand what the characters were saying that most of the emotional impact would be lost. Perhaps if it had been written to be performed rather than read it might have been different - Shakespeare and his contemporaries are far easier to follow on stage than on the page - but this was a novel, and overly period speech would simply slow the reader down.

On the other hand, modern speech was totally inappropriate. These were not people in a modern situation. Our contemporary speech is casual, informal; we mostly speak it to our friends. We live in a world that idealises democracy even if it doesn't always live up to it, and that considers formality to be stiff and uncool rather than elegant or gracious; our idiom reflects that. The characters I created live in formal surroundings, in situations where careless talk can literally mean the difference between life and death, where rank is essential and language itself is an issue: one of the protagonists doesn't speak English at the beginning of the story and dislikes having to learn it, so using it at all is a political act of sorts. Very few of the characters are relaxed; sharing their thoughts at all is a difficult proposition, fraught with issues of trust and caution.

So how to manage it? In the end, the only thing to do was strike a balance. What I put together was a form of speech that was simple-sounding but governed by slightly antiquated grammar. I stuck to a few simple rules, bending them only when it was impossible to convey things otherwise. Some of it I wrote by ear, but here are a few concrete rules:

- Contractions were to be avoided; 'he is' rather than 'he's' became the order of the day. Very possibly Renaissance people did contract words - and sometimes different words; Shakespeare used 'a' as a contraction for 'he' on occasion, for instance - but on the page, 'he's' looks casual, and hence overly modern.

- Some archaic words were favoured; 'You say it very ill' rather than 'You say it very badly', for instance. Others, equally appropriate, were ruled out. 'Mayhap', for instance, would have been correct contextually, but I wasn't prepared to use it; it's a word I personally associate with high-fantasy novels of the kind that seem to have flushing toilets and machine-washable clothes in the background - ie rather sentimental. (It also has a slightly countrified air to my ears, I'm not sure why. Possibly it's because of the archaic rural use of 'happen', as in 'Happen I'll come by on Tuesday', but I'm really not sure.) Archaic words that sounded too much like they should be spoken at a costume party were out, but archaic words that were plain and clear remained.

- Most importantly - though I don't know if this would leap out at a reader - the present continuous tense was used with care. The present continous is the tense I'm using as I'm typing this sentence you're reading - words that end in 'ing', basically. The present continuous has been on the rise for centuries, and it's still increasing in usage; people nowadays sometimes say 'How are you spelling that?', for instance, which would have been grammatically incorrect just a few decades ago. Language changes all the time. But a few centuries ago, it just wasn't used as much. There are only a few examples in Shakespeare, and they're quite specific. For instance, in The Two Gentleman of Verona:

DUKE: Sir Valentine, whither away so fast?

VALENTINE: Please it your grace, there is a messenger
That stays to bear my letters to my friends,
And I am going to deliver them.

Or I am dying, Egypt, dying, in Antony and Cleopatra. Or Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe, in Othello. What you'll notice about these is that the present continuous is used to indicate that something is in progress at the time of speaking. If you say 'I am going', it isn't a prediction of the future, it's a description of what you're doing right this second. So that was the way I used it in In Great Waters; 'He will be king' rather than 'He's going to be king', for instance. The present continuous was reserved for simultaneous expression, such as 'He is hurting your wife' when her screams can actually be heard in the background. It's interesting how much it changes language when you simply drop a commonly-used tense.

All these things became an interesting issue to debate with myself as well. I can't even tell you how long I hesitated over various choices - whether to keep 'What have you been doing', for example, which used the continuous form of the verb (I kept it in the end, because 'What have you done' would have conveyed a different meaning). There was one character I kind of wanted to use contractions, but I eventually decided against it in the name of consistency.

I live in continual fear that stuff has slipped through the net, but on the whole, my use of language in dialogue was impressionistic rather than historically accurate. What I was aiming for was a reasonably timeless form of speech, antique-sounding enough to give an archaic feel but modern enough to be clearly comprehensible.

Another element is that it's contrasted with another language: the language of the deepsmen. I had no intention of trying to reproduce such language on the page: the deepsmen are a different species with entirely different vocal apparatus, and the English alphabet was simply not designed with their phonemes in mind. As a result, it's presented entirely in italicised translation (I have no time for Tourette's Foreignitis) - but as it's translated for the benefit of the reader, it's translated into a somewhat more modern style. As languages go it's unusually direct, and hence needed to be rendered directly to the reader in a style familiar to them. Similarly, thoughts are often presented in a slightly less archaic form, because the language of thoughts is universal and not precisely verbal. There are several languages in play, in fact, all of them rendered in English and all of them to some extent a translation.

Any rendering of speech is partly artificial. In The Journalist and The Murderer, Janet Malcolm remarks:

One of the striking instances of the necessity for this mediation - showing how the literally true may actually be a kind of falsification of reality - is offered by a transcript of tape-recorded speech. When we talk with somebody, we are not aware of the strangeness of the language we are speaking. Our ear takes it in as English, and only if we see it transcribed verbatim do we realise that it is a kind of foreign tongue. What the tape recorder has revealed about human speech - that Moliere's M. Jourdain was mistaken: we do not, after all, speak in prose - is something like what the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies revealed about animal locomotion ... As everyone who has studied transcripts of tape-recorded speech knows, we all seem to be extremely reluctant to come right out and say what we mean - thus the bizarre syntax, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, the repetitions, the contradictions, the lacunae in almost every non-sentence.

Any novelist writing dialogue has to decide on a balance between realism and naturalism - which are not the same things. Any rendering of speech is an approximation. The thing to do, ultimately, is to consider how convincing the reader will find it and what use of language best conveys atmosphere and emotion. Idiom is a fascinating mass of subtleties that you play with at your own risk.

Actually, even while reading it your use of spoken language struck me. The lack of contractions was obvious (and predictable -- not that this is a bad thing, because I think 'lack of contractions' and 'a few, carefully selected, archaic words and phrases' are the standard clues to time, and you need to take people's expectations into account to make your language use sensible), but it took me somewhat longer to notice how you were using verb tenses.

(When I say you, I mean the generic you.)

What your description reminds me of is actually how costume designers say they create 'historically accurate' costumes. They don't. They work on the history, yes, but they fit it to modern sensibilities (both of what we like now and what we think people wore in that period), because true accuracy would (a) seem ugly and unfashionable today (even if this is desired, it's the wrong kinds of ugly and unfashionable) and (b) take up so much focus it would not do justice to the film/tv show/etc. And it seems like the same balancing act one has to do with archaic language. (Or, I think, naming in fantasy novels. I've given up entirely on books where the evilness of a character is directly proportional to the number of x's in their name and home town.)
Of course, names were entirely another issue in this book. There were only so many first names that anybody in the era was likely to have; if I'd had any more major male characters I think I would have started to run out...

Re your discussions of language and the many criticisms of the LB books to be found over on Slacktivist.

One of the _many_ things that drove me crazy about _The Secret on Ararat_ (number 2 of the Babylon Rising prequel series) is that the speech patterns of various characters do not vary in the ways appropriate for individuals from different cultures and times. Villains speak, well, as villains always speak. Characters from the time of Noah speak in ways FAR TOO SIMILAR to the ways we speak today. And the internal thoughts of those characters are amazingly anachronistic. Apparently Noah felt _exactly_ the same way about his wife as would a suburban, happily married, American.

I don't pretend to know the speech patterns appropriate to Noah's time but I am willing to bet they weren't that similar to our own. If only for the reason that they weren't thinking and speaking in English. That has vocabulary and grammatical implications.
I recall you posted once before about names. I think there's also a cultural difference in what names mean, because some of your explanations felt off. But part of why I stopped reading historical novels is because I couldn't keep track of which Katherine (Elizabeth, Anne, Jane, Henry, William, etc) is which: there would be double or triple the number of characters as names.

But I was mostly thinking about the fantasy novels where Lord Xarxxg'th of Kox'k'g'thm is the epitome of evil. Vowels are not anathema. Just read some Polynesian history and hear about all the bad people who killed millions of people without a single x to their nam.
That's why a good historical novelist will work in ways of reminding you that this particular Anne is "my lady Neville," or that particular Henry is "his grace of Northumbria." And even then, I find myself using those handy genealogical charts or lists of characters in those kinds of books!

So your people mostly had those names which indicate, at the same time, plain Englishness and English royalty. Which made the couple of exceptions even more evocative.

Thanks for responding to my question, Kit, and for that useful term, "Tourette's Foreignitis." So that's what that annoying style is called!

Did you read, or re-read, any great amount of period writing before you began playing with your style for this book? Or did you prefer not to absorb too much archaism? (Is that a word?)

I find I don't think of In Great Waters as a "historical novel," anyway. It's a novel set in a previous although alternate era, and the setting matters; you wouldn't have the same story in another time and place. And it's not the fantastic element that makes the difference, either; plenty of writers produce "historical fantasy." But I suppose, in this book, it's not the history that was the point.

I'm rambling here, and out of time, so never mind.
Did you read, or re-read, any great amount of period writing before you began playing with your style for this book?

Historical biographies more than period fiction. That's where 'my lady Princess' comes from, for instance; there's a story that Queen Elizabeth I as a child dropped in status after her mother's fall from grace, and noticed the change of address, asking 'How haps it, Governor, yesterday my lady Princess, today but my lady Elizabeth?' So 'my lady Princess' was the proper form of address; 'my lady Anne' would have suggested an ordinary noblewoman rather than royalty.
On Limited Names

That's why we use nicknames, pet names, place names, and such and so forth.

On Manners

It's not that we're informal, it's more that our formality takes a different form than it did years ago. Today instead of earning the right to use someone's personal name, you have to earn the right to use their family name. Note how adamant some people get that you use their first name, and how at times it can nearly come to blows.
Today instead of earning the right to use someone's personal name, you have to earn the right to use their family name. Note how adamant some people get that you use their first name, and how at times it can nearly come to blows.

I think you move in different circles from me; that doesn't tally with my experience at all.
I can think of many American writers who've used idioms slightly wrong for their English characters: phrases that were grammatically correct but very subtly off.

One of my favorite authors, Barbara Metzger (nom de plume Elizabeth Peters) has a passage in one of her books where the very English heroine writes that her American acquaintance says something about his flag, calling it "the stripes and stars." She then adds something on the order of "(and I fancy myself that I am reproducing his quaint idiom correctly.)"

(It is always, ALWAYS "the stars and stripes.")
And good on you for picking up that clue about the present continuous. (I've taught Renaissance English and it's something I try to always mention.)
I think this is even trickier than you paint it: Language without contractions can very easily lead to stilted dialogue rather than archaic sounding dialogue, for instance.
I agree with what Wolfa said about the illusion of historical accuracy. If Shakespeare in Love had used authentic Elizabethan accents (close to what we'd hear in some rural parts of the South) who'd have taken it seriously?
The original Mission Impossible series used to make up linguistics for the Iron Curtain countries the IMF operated in, with signs saying "Staatzpolizei" or the like--easy to understand, vaguely foreign.
I agree with you that it's tricky to get language right: I have several books on slang, but if it's not an era/culture I'm familiar with, it's hard to know whether a word really saw common use or if the writer just dredged it up from an obscure source.

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