Monday, March 29, 2010

Beowulf or Baywatch...What is in a word?

"Cha 'soc eer quoi, agh eer myr tad'yr leeidit ;' Fer er fer elley geiyrt, myr guoiee trooid doarlish. As cre'n cooilleen t'ayns soiagh vooar nyn Iheid ? Dy veaghey er nyn ennal, goo yn sleih ! Marvanee Iheaystagh, myr y gheay neuhiggyr ! Quoi echey ta resoon veagh blakey lurgh oc ? Lioroo dy ve Iheamysit te moylley."*

Can you translate the above? Neither can I, which is why I didn't write either of my Children of the Moon historical, Moon Awakening or Moon Craving, in ancient Gaelic, the language spoken throughout most of these books.

How about the following?

In þat lond ben trees þat beren wolle, as þogh it were of scheep; whereof men maken clothes, and all þing þat may ben made of wolle. In þat contree ben many ipotaynes, þat dwellen som tyme in the water, and somtyme on the lond: and þei ben half man and half hors, as I haue seyd before; and þei eten men, whan þei may take hem.**

This is English, even! And it's from the era during which my stories are set. I'm just guessing, but I'm pretty confident that my editor and any readers offered a book written in the language of the time period would put it down in frustration after the first paragraph or two.

The word you came into use before the 12th century, but was spelled ēow and far more common in use would have been thee, thou and ye. Me did not come into use until the 16th century (a few hundred years after my books were set) and the word clan did not show up until the 15th century.

Which begs the question: what does it mean to use appropriate language for a historical? Certainly, were we to limit our word choice to those available at the time, there's a good chance for a lot of us - particularly we who write anything set prior to 1600 - readers would not be able to understand or relate to our stories at all. Heck, I wouldn't understand my story if I tried to write it in Old English.

In an effort to set the time and place of my books, I try to use more formal language for the historicals. I also look for phrases and words associated with the time (even if they weren't actually used then ::g::). I do my best not to use glaringly obvious modern words (though I'm the first to admit one or two can slip by me - and the copyeditors - and my definition of glaringly obvious isn't necessarily that of every reader who picks up one of my historical novels). But ultimately, the idea that a historical author is only going to use the language available at the time is a prettier piece of fiction than the stories she might create.

There are words I stay away from, like technical, which is in my mind "glaringly modern". And there are words that are fairly new, but don't shout "modern English" to me that I use, like orgasm. Then there are words that have had a resurgence of popularity but aren't as new as we think they are, like hot.

Can the use of a single word jar me out of a historical? Not me personally, no - I'm too aware of how "modern" most of the language we writers of historical fiction use is. But I can understand that other readers react differently. What astonishes me, is the assumptions some readers seem to make about how "accurate" historical language is and should be.
Ultimately, it's about perception. A word "sounds" old, so we assume it is old, when in fact it might not be. A word sounds new because we are using it in our modern society more frequently (for whatever reason), we assume it is new. There are school children today that do not know the word gay means happy as well as referring to a sexual orientation. Language changes, evolves...and I absolutely love that fact, and to try to limit my writing to what once was? Not going to happen. :)

The lesson for me as an author in all this? Edit more carefully for words that might "feel new" to my readers. :) Am I going to get it perfect all the time? Probably not. I do a ton of research for every book (that's another blog for another time) and read my work for "errors" both in language and cultural norms of the time, but words can still slip by. However, I will try :) because I want my stories to work for my readers. Full stop. Period. :)

It's your turn; help me out please: What's your take on the use of "old" words? What word or words throw you out of the story when reading a historical (please don't name books or authors)? What words do you associate most closely with a certain time period?

*For the literal translation of the above ancient Gaelic, go here - you can read the book online, or see the full text version with the translation.

**Similarly, if you are interested in a short etymology of Old English and would like the translation of the above medieval English text, go here.


flchen1 said...

Hi, Lucy! While I love the "feel" that using older language/spellings lends to a book, I do find it hard to read/decipher sometimes! I think I like mostly modern spellings, usage, balanced with some older ones where it isn't impossible to figure out the meanings. And I prefer readability, so I don't want it chock full of the cool stuff, but enough to give me the flavor and feel... :)

Lucy Monroe said...

Thanks, Flchen1 :) Readability is key, especially in mass market paperback when you've got tens of thousands of readers - not all of whom are as fashed about "language" as I am. LOL

Danny said...

Oh I would love to read your books in Old English. I can read it, because I specialzed on Old and Middle English when I got my Master in English Literature.

Maggie said...

Hi Lucy!

I get pretty wrapped up in historicals--I LOVE them! But yes, occasionally, as I'm reading along something jars me out of my happy reading haze. I'm trying to remember the book, but it's not coming to mind--years ago I was reading merrily along when the heroine said, "Okay. Whatever." Mind you, this was set probably in the same time frame as your Moon series. I'm probably being too particular, but it was really odd!

Lucy Monroe said...

LOL Danny - how incredibly cool!

Maggie - apparently my use of the word "okay" (without the whatever) in Moon Craving sent a reviewer on a real rant all over the net, making sure as many people as possible knew I'd made the mistake. It's definitely a hot button for some readers. ;-) And I agree that it can be jarring - as much a part of our vernacular as the word might be, it just doesn't ring true in a historical setting (prior to 1900 anyway). :) It's definitely on my "watch word list" now. LOL

Maggie said...


Wow. Rant, huh? I don't have one of those.

See, my issue was with "Okay. Whatever." The way it was phrased and the attitude behind it was SO modern that it really struck me. I had to go back and read through to find an "okay" from you--and it wasn't as JARRING as other examples I could use.

Lucy Monroe said...

Oh, bless you, Maggie! Smooches! :) We've all got our hot buttons, but it's lovely to know my mistake wasn't as frustrating for you as a reader. I think attitude is the key word here and you nailed it - the character in the other book you read displayed an attitude that we identify with our modern times and that gave you a mental jerk.

So, it's not just about language, but about how the language is perceived by the reader.

I'm finding this discussion so interesting! :)

Stephanie said...

As a reader of several historicals I have never been "jarred" during one of your books. There were some where they would talk about things that had not been invented yet and it threw me off, but the word okay didn't even phase me.

I think some people should prob. take into consideration that an author is writing to the masses, not individuals.

A modren word here and there just really doesn't make that much of a difference if the book has a great story! (Which by the way all of yours do!)

Lucy Monroe said...

Thanks, Stephanie! :) I do think that if the author engages you, you don't tend to "sweat the small stuff" - but if not, it's all magnified.

One thing I've learned with my research is that things we commonly believe to be true about a historical time aren't always. And the assumption that because something isn't widely used doesn't mean it did not exist, or was not done during certain time periods. I give an author some leeway on that, realizing that my research of a particular period in history is not exhaustive - no matter how hard I try to make it be.

As an author, I also give myself permission to refer to things that may not have been proven to be in a certain area at a certain time if they existed in an area that might influence that one. Does that make sense? :)

But since you bring it up and because I am so enjoying discussing this stuff with other readers of historical fiction, what technologies make you stop and think when you read about them in a certain time period?

I know I was startled to discover that golf began in a rudimentary form back in the 11-12th century. I was even more shocked by the amount of technology the Roman empire left behind in the countries they conquered (or attempted to conquer) long before those technologies were recognized as part of "western daily life".

PJ said...

Hi Lucy! I love medievals and tend to get lost in the story which is why it can be a bit jarring for me when I stumble across a word or phrase that I perceive to be "modern." Most of the time it's just a minor blip on my reader radar (it could be historically accurate and just my own personal hang-up) and I sink right back into the story. (After all, nobody is perfect and not every mistake will be caught in the editing of a book, a blog or a review.) It's rare that I run across a book where I'm pulled out of my "happy reading haze", as Maggie put it, often enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book.

As I mentioned in my review of MOON CRAVING, there were a few words and one phrase that pulled me out of the story but your writing and wonderful characters lured me right back in. For me, that's what it all comes down to: good writing. If the book is well-written, with a storyline that engages me and characters I can care about then words or phrases that might be a bit jarring to me as a reader may keep me from giving the book 5 stars but they won't stop me from enjoying the heck out of it.

Lucy Monroe said...

Thanks so much for stopping by PJ! I loved your review and thought your rating and comments fair and extremely well put together. :) It makes a big difference how a thought is "served up" - both in the fictional setting of my books and the nonfictional setting of the blog world in general, doesn't it? :)

You confirmed what others have said and I personally experience when reading, if the author strikes a chord in me, I'm not as apt to get frustrated by what I perceive as "issues" with a book. ;-)

As authors we won't strike that chord with every reader, but the fact I strike it with some is such a huge blessing to me!