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”.
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?
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. 🙂