This article first appeared on my blog a long, long time ago. It’s still relevant, so I’ve updated it, with clean links, for the many new blog readers who missed it the first time around — t.
I was culling some reviews the other day and came across an old one for one of my historicals and a phrase caught my eye. I’ll have to paraphrase. It went something along the lines of
“…and the characters spoke modern English. They didn’t even sound like they were in an historical novel!”
Clearly the review wasn’t a glowing, positive one. And yes, I do keep all my reviews, even the nasty ones. There’s always something to learn from them.
In this particular case, it reminded me that other readers and reviewers have made the same observation before. Some have even complained about the fact that the characters in the costume dramas haven’t been flinging “thou’s” and “anon’s!” and all the other silly fripperies of medieval language across the page like excessive ink drops.
I thought it would be worth explaining myself as I have (re)released a handful of historicals lately. (Diana By The Moon, Heart of Vengeance) This discussion also holds for my other historical novels. (Forbidden, Dangerous Beauty, The Royal Talisman, and even to a certain degree, Chronicles of the Lost Years, and The Case of the Reluctant Agent. 2017 update: And most recently, Rose of Ebony and Soul of Sin, from the new spin off series, Scandalous Scions — yes, I’m back into historical romances once more and loving it. – t.)
English is a bastardized language. It’s based on Anglo-Saxon, but any resemblance to that almost dead language is all but gone, now. English has evolved, and borrowed heavily from Norman French, Roman Latin and every other culture that has trampled its way through the culture and lands of English speaking people everywhere. Unlike many other languages, English is incredibly flexible and adaptable. It makes things up on the spot and changes almost overnight. Cynicism is possible in English,while some languages just can’t cope with it, for example.
When I first moved to Canada, I figured I’d be fine. It’s a Commonwealth country, just like Australia. Everyone speaks English in Alberta. They just have North American accents, but I’d spent eight months listening to Mark on the phone, so no worries.
I had a permanent headache for six weeks. I had to concentrate every second of every day, listening to people and sorting out what they were saying. It wasn’t just the accents. It was the words they used. The phrases. The slang.
Mark’s father, during the first family dinner we had, asked me to get the “gradgekies” for him three times while I stared at him with my heart thundering, wondering why my brain wouldn’t connect up. It ended up he wanted the garage keys.
In Australia, most people have a car port, and it doesn’t have keys. It’s just something to keep the sun and rain off the car.
If you were to jump into a time machine and flip back a mere hundred years, you would have a hard time following the English language. Go back another hundred years, to 1817, and the language would be harder to follow. The Regency period was full of local idiom and slang, and words you’d never heard before. The accents would be strange. And that’s just a couple hundred years. Devoted Regency readers understand a great deal about the language and idioms, but you as the average reader would not. Regency devotees would know that a woman described as a barque of frailty would have reason for being insulted.
Skip back just a bit further in history. Just a few hundred years. Medieval English is impossible to follow unless you have studied it. Try this, for example — it’s the prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geofferey Chaucer.
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;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In southwerk at the tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.
But nathelees, whil I have tyme and space,
Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun
To telle yow al the condicioun
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
And whiche they weren, and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne;
And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne.
It’s sort-of understandable, right? If you sit and work at it, you can almost figure out what they’re saying…and this is English!
Can you imagine what it would be like trying to read Heart of Vengence (which is set two hundred years earlier than the Tales), if I wrote it in the genuine language of the time? Even if I wrote just the dialogue as people spoke back then, there is no way you’d be able to zip through the prose and absorb the story.
To be absolutely, technically correct: If I were to write a book that had any sort of accuracy in language, as the reviewers and readers indicated they wanted, then (in the case of the medieval novels, for example)
- I’d have to be writing Norman French for the lords and ladies and
- I’d have to be writing medieval Saxon for the serfs and peasants.
In neither case would you, the readers, understand what I wrote.
What those reviewers and readers are really asking for is icing. Decorating. Verbal costume jewelry. And lots of it.
And that’s where I run into a problem.
The purpose of romance novels is to tell a story and entertain the reader. Mostly, that is done by spinning a tale so well, the author draws the reader into the world she’s building to the point where readers forget they’re reading. They become immersed in the story and see the story, not the words. Anything that jolts you, the reader, out of the story spell must be avoided at all costs. That includes clunky sentence structures, bad scene endings or transitions, poor word choices, etc.
This is one of the reasons why I (struggle to) write in US English and have my manuscripts lined edited in US English — the vast majority of my readers are in the US, and they find non-US English jarring. (Which explains why some of my books written in non-US English get dinged in reviews for having “typos” — and why I stopped using my native English -t.)
If I were to use the verbal costume jewelry for the period I have set a novel, and make my characters spake thusly, then many, many readers are going to be jolted out of the story spell because they’re just not familiar enough with the medieval (or whatever) language conventions and don’t know what the words mean, or else they get the giggles because the archaic language just sounds stoopid. (Let’s face it. A lot of it does.) Either reaction is fatal to the story spell.
I want my readers sucked in and sighing over the fate of my hero and heroine. Not giggling. Not annoyed.
If you were born in the medieval period and grew up in that period, and learned the language of your peers, then the language you spoke would be invisible. It would sound to you like the language you speak today (which is invisible to you today). You’d be using different words and a different accent, but it would be seamless and effortless. The meaning would be the same, the medium would be slightly different.
The only time you become aware of the language you speak is when foreigners try to use it, or are using their own language.
This is the logic I use when I write historical novels.
The characters in those novels are using their own language, that they were born to. You are listening them speaking in plain English with very few idioms or slang — that makes the language invisible to them and to you, as it would be in their time. If a foreigner comes among those characters in the novel (and a foreigner could be someone who lives as little as forty miles away in medieval times!), then suddenly language becomes a barrier, as it really would have in those days. A Norman French-speaking lord would not have been able to deal with a Saxon-speaking serf easily unless one spoke the other’s language.
Class, rank and other social concerns also impact language and you’ll find that I tackle each of them in my novels. I don’t ignore language. But I don’t add verbal costume jewelry for the sake of “sounding” authentic, either. That would start turning my novels into wallpaper historicals…and I’ll give up writing before I do that.
Footnote: Since bringing out the first two stories in the Scandalous Scions series in the last couple of months, I’ve had a spate of reviewers and readers comment that I’ve “moved into a new genre!” — which has made me smile, because I was writing historical romance novels since the beginning of my professional career. The second novel I published, ever, was historical. So was the third.
I also find that time travels let me dabble in history, too.
Do you like verbal costume jewelry? Do you like lots of it? Or hate it? Tell me in comments!
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