Sunday, 26 September 2010

Language in the Historical Novel

One of the debates that rages - or, at least, grumbles gently – in the hist fic community is about language. Should you, or should you not, use language that is recognisably different from that used in contemporary fiction or what I like to think of as now-fic.

I had fun with this in my (sadly unpublished) last novel, Not One of Us, in which I played with the notion that somebody in the present might have written a supposedly historical document. How good was the language used? Was it authentic enough? Was it, possibly, too authentic?

In Testament, though I wasn't consciously playing with it, the language used in the contemporary sections is markedly different to that used in the fourteenth century sections.

I've consciously ratcheted this up in The Black and The White. Though I had a policy of using Anglo-Saxon sounding words in Testament's fourteenth century bits, I wasn't by any means ruthless with myself. This time, I decided to be far more rigorous. I didn't want it to sound too overtly 'historical' – I wanted to give it contemporary credibility (eg all my people use contractions – don't, won't etc and generally sound like people talking to each other not people going 'ooh, look at me, I'm being all historical) but to mark it, somehow, as different. So I decided to confine myself, as much as possible to English words which had their root in the period.

Now, I'm sure I haven't excluded all those latin-derived words that the eighteenth century grammarians and linguistic style-gurus were so keen to import into English to give it what they considered to be the necessary gravitas – one or two are bound to have slipped in under the radar (in this context that should probably be 'watchman's eye') here and there – but I have checked every time I find myself about to use a word which sounds appropriately medieval. To this end, as I use a mac, I have put on my dock a little dictionary/thesaurus gizmo which means I can check words out without having to go out of my document and online (or open my dictionary which will probably fail to have migrated to whatever room I'm writing in) each time.

Take the word 'bewilder' – it has an Anglo-Saxon feel. You feel that, if Chaucer didn't use it, then he missed a trick. The prefix be- clearly puts it with definitely Old English-derived words like 'bestride'. But no. My dictionary gizmo (powered by Oxford dictionaries so, surely, it must be right) tells me that bewilder didn't come into English until the late 17th century. So, do I use it because it sounds right, or not use it because it didn't appear for another two and a half centuries – at least in print? It's a tough one. I proceed on a case by case basis. If it sounds right, I'll usually go with it and not be too purist about it.

One thing I have learned though is that, as previously expounded in these posts, the fourteenth century is when it all happened for England. The sheer number of words which – when you look up their derivation – fall into the category of 'Late Middle English' (ie early fourteenth to mid fifteenth centuries) is vast. And, I suppose, it's not surprising. With the time taken for English to mingle successfully with Norman French, this period is when English became recognisably English rather than Anglo Saxon (aka Old English). Most educated people can have a go at Chaucer – granted, some of the words have changed their meaning (vertu in the bit below means power, for intance) and some have gone out of use but you'd mostly get the gist. Here are the opening lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

the droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

and bathed every veyne in swich licour

of which vertu engendred is the flour

Not too difficult. But even educated speakers of English would have considerably more trouble if they were presented with chunks of Anglo Saxon. Here's the beginning of the tenth century poem, The Wanderer.

Oft him anhaga

are gebideð,

metudes miltse,

þeah þe he modcearig

geond lagulade

longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum

hrimcealde sæ,

wadan wræclastas.

I'm guessing that, unless you've studied Anglo Saxon at some stage, that's pretty much gibberish to you. Let's face it, it's even got letters we don't use in modern English.

[If you're dying to know what is says, it's this:

Often the soliary one

finds grace for himself

the mercy of the lord

although he, sorry hearted,

must for a long time

move himself by hand (ie row)

along the waterways,

the ice-cold sea, tread the paths of exile.

Not, sadly, my own work – thanks to for both original and translation.]

So, the fourteenth century produced our language, aided and abetted – certainly in terms of speed of uptake by the upper classes – by the Black Death.

But more on that in another post.


C. N. Nevets said...

As a reader, I'm very forgiving of vocabulary, but strikingly less of idiomatic expressions. I'm willing to assume that basic communication is going to be in language that we can understand and that's good, but since most idioms embody cultural references in way or another, they seem to fall into a different category.

Alis said...

I completely agree, Nevets. Writing historical fiction you realise just how many of our idioms come from the last couple of centuries - sporting and military, mostly.

Tim Stretton said...

The novelist writing a story set in the 14th century is trying to give the reader the impression of being in that time for the duration of their reading.

The language is one way--certainly not the only one--of doing that. Sentence construction and vocabulary are important tools for showing that we are in a different time, but it is counterproductive to use only words available at that time.

Frances Garrood said...

I think Nevets has hit the nail on the head I(not a 14th century expression!). If a novelist tries to replicate too closely the language of the time about which he's writing, it can seem clunky and self-conscious. For me, the important thing is for the story to flow; but of course no anachronisms, modern idioms etc. The other thing I find is that too much research of any kind shows in the writing; it can scream "I've done research. I know all about this". In my first novel, some of which is set in the 1940s, I put in so much dried egg (I'd done the reaearch, you see) that I ended up taking the whole lot out because it was getting ridiculous (I've still no idea what dried egg looks/tastes like).

Neil George Ayres said...

Am I the only one who finds that Alis considers the historical root of every word she writes incredibly impressive?