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I had fun with this in my (sadly unpublished) last novel, Not One of Us, in which I played with the notion that somebody in the present might have written a supposedly historical document.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
þeah þe he modcearig
hreran mid hondum
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 www.anglo-saxons.net 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.