Victorian ladies and gentlemen.

On Words that “Sound Modern” in Historical Fiction

One of the trickier things about historical fiction is trying to make the language, particularly the dialogue, sound like it belongs to its period while still being easy enough to read for a modern reader. For fairly recent times, this is not much of a problem. The biggest difficulty in writing a story set in the 20th century is probably dealing with words that were perfectly ordinary then and are considered slurs or otherwise offensive now. But go further back and the problem becomes more complex. Go back to the Anglo-Saxons, as I do, and it becomes quite a head scratcher.

To be clear, my Peaceweaver novels take place in Anglo-Saxon England and the languages my characters speak are Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. Anglo-Saxon is an ancestor language of modern English and if you read a passage of Anglo Saxon you might spot the roots of familiar words here and there, but you would not be able to read it (unless you happen to be an Anglo Saxon scholar). There are exactly two words of Anglo-Saxon in the entire first book, and they are more or less the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of greeting someone with “how are you?” The rest of it is written in modern English.

And yet, different readers will pick out certain words and complain that they sound “too modern” or that they “were only introduced later.” And they are right that these words are modern and were introduced later, but it is also true of almost every word in the book. Yet it is only a few words — and not always the same words — that people trip over. This is not about which words are actually modern, but which modern words somehow feel too modern when the rest of the words don’t.

To be clear, none of this has anything to do with anachronism. It is not about referring to objects or concepts that did not exist. The problem is not “wrist watch” or “supply side economics.” It is, believe it or not, words like “daddy”.

The Rules of Trade (The Peaceweaver, Book One) is the story of a young woman about to be married. In those days that meant 15 or 16, not 25 or 30. She also has a parade of progressively younger sisters. In my early drafts, she, and all of her sisters, called their father “daddy”. Now, “daddy” is not an Anglo-Saxon word, as far as we know. What we know of Anglo-Saxon comes from histories and sermons written by monks, from religious and secular poetry, from law codes and limericks and medical works, none of which are likely to contain the term of affection by which, say, and eight-year old Anglo-Saxon girl addressed her father.

There was a significant high culture among the Anglo-Saxons of this period. They were not a bunch of rubes. But they were still, by our standards, a rough and tumble lot. It was a warrior culture and the ordinary people would not have been wealthy or sophisticated. My main character is the daughter of a thegn — a soldier. I do not believe for a minute that she would have addressed her father as “Fæder” all the time as if she were a well brought up middle class Victorian young lady.


Nonetheless, I could not get a single reader to accept “daddy”. Too modern, they said. The dreaded “It takes me out of the story.” So “Father” is what my characters say, like good little Victorians.

But is not just “daddy” that gets me into trouble. I got the first round of edits back from my editor at Chrism press yesterday. She complained of several words and a couple of phrases that she felt sounded too contemporary. Here they are:


In context, this is spoken by an twelve year old girl to her mother to indicate that she has heard what her mother said but has no interest in it. My editor said, “I’m enjoying the contemporary tone, but “okay” is too contemporary.” Fair enough, but I don’t think there is any other word that would maintain the contemporary tone that she is enjoying while expressing the same meaning so succinctly. The alternatives I can think of, without entirely recasting the passage, would all make my character sound like a little Victorian.


My editor’s comment: “Yuck sounds too contemporary. (Though I’m chuckling at her teenager-y reaction.)” Again, fair enough (I am not complaining about my editor here, but about the nature of the problem). But the thing is, Anglo Saxon is, compared to modern English, a rather gluttural language with lots of short simple words for things (more on this later). Yuck may not be an actual Anglo-Saxon word (I am not a scholar of Anglo Saxon), but it is an Anglo-Saxon-like word. What could my character say instead? “I find it distasteful.” That would sound much more Victorian — and much less Anglo-Saxon.


My editors comment: “Ew came into usage in the 1970s, as I just learned. (Thank you, Google.) This also reads too contemporary for me.” And basically the problem here is the same as with yuck. Whatever noise teenage Anglo-Saxon girls would have made at something that disgusts them is lost to history. But what equivalent would sound not contemporary, without also sounding Victorian?

“Okay, be like that”

My editor flagged this as “Too contemporary.” But she did not comment on “You don’t really get how this works, do you Leif?” four lines earlier, which is just as contemporary. Why does one expression trigger the “too contemporary” flag and the other not? And can we expect any kind of consistency between readers in what strikes them as too contemporary and what does not?

“She’s better eyes than mine.”

Contractions are an old point of contention in historical fiction. I use lots of them. Leaving them out makes the dialog sound — Victorian. This was the only one that my editor commented on, with the comment “[T]hink about contraction usage—which ones we want, which ones we don’t. Contrary to certain editorial opinions, contractions are entirely historical. However, they also give the prose a contemporary feel.” And here again we have the trigger problem. Is there any basis on which this particular contraction triggered my editors “too contemporary” switch, and can we expect any consistency in that reaction from other readers?

“But please don’t rat me out.”

My editor flagged this as contemporary jargon. And it is, of course. But it is Anglo-Saxon sounding contemporary jargon. Rats would have been a fact of life for them, as they are for anyone who has to store grain, which, in those days, was everyone. I don’t know if we have an expression of equivalent meaning anywhere in our store of Anglo-Saxon texts, but chances are that if we did, the idiom it used would be incomprehensible to the modern reader. And the problem here is the same as with some of the words discussed above. How do we determine if a particular phrase is a universal trigger or a particular one, and what do we replace it with that fits with the overall tone of the dialogue and doesn’t make it sound Victorian?


See “yuck” and “ewwww”.

“Sailor boy”

My editor also flagged this as too contemporary, which is odd, because it really isn’t. I’m not sure any woman has called a man “sailor boy” since the end of World War II. It is more an 18th and 19th century term than a contemporary one. What I suppose “too contemporary” means here is somehow “not historical”. And that points to the larger problem (not, let me emphasize again, a problem with my editors comments, but the underlying problem of our sense of what sounds historical and what does not).

The fundamental problem here is that what “sounds contemporary” or “sounds historical” to the modern reader has pretty much nothing to do with what was actually contemporary at the time in which the story is set. The reader, after all, was not alive at that time and has not heard the speech of that era. And the further back you go, the less and less the modern reader would be able to comprehend the speech of the time. Go back to the 8th century, as in my books, and it is both a wholly different language (albeit an ancestor language) and an entirely different idiom — meaning that a literal translation to modern English would still leave you scratching your head much of the time as well.

So, if you are going to understand the story at all, it has to be written in modern English and use modern English idioms, while avoiding obvious anachronisms. But at the same time, we want it to feel historical somehow — to feel not contemporary. So, where can we find a language and idiom that is far enough from our own to seem not contemporary but close enough to ours be easily comprehensible?

The Victorians.

Victorian ladies and gentlemen.

And this is why the characters in so many historical novels, no matter their actual era, sound like Victorians. And not scruffy Victorian street urchins — the only characters in literature that sound like scruffy Victorian street urchins are scruffy Victorian street urchins — but properly brought up middle class Victorian ladies and gentlemen.

And the problem with that is that properly brought up Victorian ladies and gentlemen are, historically, a rather anomalous class. They were basically aping the gentry and trying to speak like Jane Austen characters. (Broad sweeping generalization alert here!) It is a fair bet that almost no one in any other historical period spoke like the Victorians. And yet, in historical fiction, almost everyone does.

Note that for most periods, we don’t have any records of the everyday speech of people of any class, so we really don’t know how they spoke. It is only with the rise of the novel and the use of prose dialogue in naturalistic storytelling that we get anything resembling a recording of ordinary speech — and it is well established that novelistic dialogue is not a direct record of speech. What was written before that was the work of poets, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and scholars. It is their language that has come down to us, not the language of ordinary conversation in any class.

Would it be such a problem, though, if my Anglo-Saxon characters sounded a little Victorian? Yes it would, actually, at least in one sense, and it is a sense that matters to me. As far as it is reasonable to guess, the Anglo-Saxons would have spoken more like 21st century people than like the Victorian middle class.

A little wildly oversimplified history of English: Modern English is essentially the product of smushing together two early medieval languages, Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. (It was actually the product of smushing together many more languages over a much longer period. Google it if you care about the details.) Smushing is a technical term in philology (no it isn’t). It means that the vocabularies of the two languages were not merged into one with the redundant terms being eliminated, but both were kept and were used by different classes of people. This is why contemporary English has two (or more) words for almost everything.

Notable examples come from the farm. When an animal is on the hoof, being cared for by Anglo-Saxon peasants, it has an Anglo-Saxon name like cow or pig. When it is being scarfed down by Norman nobles at the table it has French-derived names like beef and pork. Notice how English has a polite word and a rude word for everything? Most of the time the rude word is Anglo Saxon and the the polite word is French. Excrement, fornicate … well, you get the idea. So when you are teaching your children not to say rude words, you are basically teaching them to be snobs and talk like the nobility rather than the peasants.

But here’s the problem. For the Anglo-Saxons, the Anglo-Saxon words for things were just the words for things. They were not the rude words. In fact, had they had any equivalent prejudices, it would have been that the Celtic words for things were the rude words. (Celtic languages were another source of smushed in English vocabulary.) The Victorians, being painfully polite, would have used the polite French-derived words for everything, and washed their children’s mouths out with soap for using the rude Anglo-Saxon words. So making my Anglo-Saxons sound like Victorians would be just wrong.

On the other hand, since the Victorian age, there has been a revival of the Anglo-Saxon side of the language. Working class writers in the 20th century had something to do with this, and the general ridiculing of the upper classes, which was the chief literary preoccupation of the mid 20th century, sped it along. George Orwell was a great advocate of choosing the Anglo-Saxon term over the French in English prose. Even Lenny Bruce did something for the cause.

In short, today our language is much less formalized and aristocratic. We speak more like the Anglo-Saxons than the Victorians did. We use more Anglo-Saxon words and perhaps consider fewer of them rude. Actual contemporary language — minus obvious anachronisms — actually is the closest we can come to representing their speech (as far as we can reasonably guess at it) while still being comprehensible to a modern reader.

Alas, none of this changes what triggers the average contemporary reader as “too contemporary” in an historical novel. Therein lies the dilemma. Of course, these are not really matters of the first importance. My novel will not stand or fall by whether my characters say “Yuck” or “Please don’t rat me out” (though apparently “daddy” might have done it in). These are things that writers do agonize over, nonetheless, and that rankle when we are made to change them. If you have a brilliant solution to suggest, that is what the comments are for. 🙂


4 thoughts on “On Words that “Sound Modern” in Historical Fiction”

  1. I would say that most of your “contemporary” words are very close to being acceptable. For example, these substitutions work for me:
    “daddy” = “dadda” or “papa”
    “yuck” = “ick”
    “please don’t rat me out” = “please don’t rat on me” or “please don’t tattle on me”

    Perhaps those do swerve in the direction of 1800s’ London and I haven’t helped at all. But to me, the changes work for a different reason: the new words feel less precise. Saying “dadda” instead of “daddy” is the sort of thing I would believe of an infant, or an unlearned Anglo-Saxon, in this case.

    On the other hand, “sailor boy” and “hey” both sound too cool. They have a self-confident feeling to them which I don’t associate with people living off the land. I’m not sure what the solution is.

    I’m not surprised to find that what’s accurate isn’t what feels right to a human. These sorts of questions come up all the time in software design. For example, shuffling your music on Spotify is not a truly random shuffle, because people complained that it was biased and kept playing too many similar songs in a row. Spotify now separates songs by mood and rotates between the categories, which somehow makes it feel more random to us.

    1. Dale Margery Rutherford

      Replying to Joseph. Well thanks for that Spotify update. I did notice that my “random shuffle” is different than it used to be and a I wondered why. I also wonder why I never get all the way through my playlist without hearing some of the same songs twice or even three times. Perhaps now I know why.

      Replying to Mark…..

      As an aspiring HF writer, myself and someone who has agonized over this subject often, I wonder if the acceptance of Victorian era vocabulary is common because it’s in our relatively recent history. I can understand the words of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens but I had a horrible time trying to decipher Shakespeare in school. Further back than his day and I would be lost for sure. Thus, I’m in agreement with the idea that we have to make the language something our modern day reader will understand and couldn’t possibly write in the true language of the day (if writing about a time before say, the Victorian era) however, I’m in agreement with your editor on several of the flags she’s raised. Daddy, while it probably wasn’t in use at that time, is to me not something a child of 15 or 16 would call her father. Even if you switched to Dada – which for me is worse because in my head that’s something a baby would be saying as they learn to spew out syllables, you’d be raising those red flags even higher. You might invent a pet name for the father in your story thereby avoiding the issue altogether.

      With respect to “rat me out” and Yuck and other terms, I think it depends on the context it’s used, who is saying it and who they’re saying it to. If this is your 15 year old protagonist, speaking to her sister, for instance she might say something more “slangy” just as any young person today might.
      “Yuck, Hey, Okay,” I agree with your editor. They just sound too ….. out of place.

      Yuck – could be “what’s this slop?” (or see below for EW)

      Hey – is this a greeting or a “hey stop that” kind of thing. A replacement would depend on the context it’s used in, again.

      Okay – yeah not buying that one at all. Here’s a little bit I found on it from the Smithsonian Magazine. Other articles argue that it was 175 years ago, but what’s 25 years when you’re talking languages? (OK I forgot about the ever changing Urban Dictionary or modern times – insert smile here)

      OK” is one of the most common words in the English language, but linguistically it’s a relative newbie. It’s just 150 years old, and traces its roots back to 19th century Boston. Rather than anyone purposefully inventing “OK,” it’s actually editorial joke that inadvertently went viral.

      Again, I think the context is important when looking for a suitable substitute, but sub it, I would.

      Ew – doesn’t trigger me as being too contemporary, but what do I know…. I’m sure UGH might work or ARG or some sort of groan.

      Somehow my attempt to insert ’30s phrases into my current WIP seems a breeze by comparison. Have fun!

      1. Thanks for the comment, Dale.

        One the question of whether a 16 year old would call her father “daddy”, I submit Clueless. And also, every Archie comic ever.

        For the rest, sure, none of the words fit the period. But no one would understand the words that did fit the period. Using modern language — making my heroine tall like a modern teenager — is a style and the reader knows its a style. So the puzzle is, why, knowing this and having accepted it, do certain words — not apparently different from other words around them — create a problem. It isn’t a question of why they don’t fit the period, since none of the words do. Its a question of why they don’t fit the style. That’s where the puzzle lies.

        It is true, of course, that this is not a simple style. There are may variants on it. I am not using modern language the way A Knights Tale uses it, where it is tongue in cheek and part of the fun. I am using it to represent a way of talking and thinking that can’t be reproduced in its original form at all. But when, exactly, in the process of doing that does the coffee cup on the set, the wristwatch on the extra’s wrist creep into the scene and spoil the illusion?

        The 1930’s is a different kettle of fish, of course. It is close enough that readers can understand the actual vocabulary and many of the idioms from the era, so you more or less have to stick to the genuine article. Which creates a different set of problems, in that some of the vocabulary from that era is now considered offensive, and that some of the idioms have changed enough to be seriously confusing, as the Baby It’s Cold Outsize kafuffle illustrated.

    2. Thanks for the comment, Joseph.

      I’m fascinated by the notion that people living of the land would lack self confidence. It wouldn’t be true then, because everyone lived off the land, and my character has a father who actually owns a fair bit of land, so they would be upper middle class — in terms of equivalent social status — to say the least. But that’s not the point. We are somehow used to associating confidence with urbanism these days. At least, the majority of us who live in cities are. There are doubtless some pretty confident farmers out there too. (And if they are reading this they are probably pretty ticked off right now.) But its the reader’s tacit assumptions that shape their immediate reactions to things in novel.

      The Spotify thing is interesting. We are pattern seeking animals, and apparent patterns occur in random things all the time if you are wired to look for them. (Who spent childhood summers finding animals in the clouds?) It follows that if you wanted to make things appear genuinely random you would actually have to fake it.

      But that pattern seeking is a key part of how fiction works. It’s what lets a novelist create a whole scene with a few words. Just suggest the pattern — mention a horse, a gun, and a ten-gallon hat, for example — and the brain sees the pattern and supplies a cowboy, and probably a sidekick, some cattle, sage brush, and a pretty schoolmarm to boot.

      But that pattern seeking works against us too. Mention a horse, a sword, and a helmet such as Anglo Saxon warriors in my novel might wear, and the reader’s brain automatically supplies, a suit of plate armor, a castle, and a drawbridge — none of which would exist for centuries.

      And it bedevils the language question too, because one word or phrase can, apparently, evoke a pattern that evokes an entire century.


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