Saturday 24 August 2013

Language to Suit: Some thoughts by Elizabeth Chadwick

This post was suggested to me by History Girl blog moderator Mary Hoffman after she visited my Facebook page where I post the opening and closing lines of my day's quota of rough draft on a daily basis.

 I'd happened to use the word 'blanket' in my sentence, and Mary wondered if it was appropriate as she suspected it was Shakespearian and I was writing a work set in the twelfth century.  As it happens, blanket has a good old Anglo Norman pedigree and I was on safe ground, but in discussion afterwards with Mary, it led me to wonder about the word choices I make when writing historical fiction and why - which is why I suspect Mary began the discussion!

It's obvious that even while 'blanket' was in the correct ball park for my period,  I am still constantly going to be using words of a later etymology in the course of my writing, or using them in a different way to their first intention.  Shakespeare's  reference to King Lear's daughter Regan as a 'naughty lady' would have a mildly amusing meaning today and would reference  someone who has committed a childish misdemeanour,  Four hundred years ago it meant evil and wicked.  So, the scenery has changed, and today with mass communication and world-wide cultural exchange, it alters faster than ever.  Words enter, words leave, words change their meaning and sentiment.

If I had the time and the energy, I could go through every single word choice and make sure that it was available in the period for which I'm writing, but while that might prove interesting, it's not an option given my career deadlines and I suspect it would go largely unnoticed by the readership.  There is obviously no way I am going to write in 12th century English, or Anglo Norman, so I tend to opt for good, plain English these days without frilly bits and cod medievalisms.  Heaven forbid that you'll find a 'forsooth' in any of my novels!  The odd bit of terminology perhaps and the occasional word to give a flavour, but always explained in context.  I do openly confess that when I first began writing I was terribly self indulgent and liked to put in the medieval words and terminology that I'd learned, and not always with a good context to explain what the item was, but then I was an enthusiastic newbie (see what I mean about the arrival of new words), no author is ever perfect and it's a constant learning curve.  Since those early days I've toned it down. Readers will now be able to suss from the context what a gambeson is, (padded undergarment worn under a mail shirt) or a palfrey. (all purpose riding horse of good quality).

When I first began writing fiction set in the Middle Ages, before I was published, one of the doyens of the industry was Ellis Peters, famous for her medieval mystery Cadfael novels, but also well known and respected as straight  historical novelist Edith Pargeter.  Her take on the matter of how to address the problem of writing about people from the long ago without catapulting the reader out of the story by either forsoothery or too many modern terms was to write in good, plain standard English.  That doesn't mean boring though. The poetry in the motion of the tools of the trade is down to the author's particular skill in using those words.  W.H. Auden said  "The test of good prose is that the reader does not notice it any more than a man looking through a window at a landscape notices the glass."  In one way I agree with him.  I don't want to be distracted by the language when I'm reading, but at the same time, I do admit that some glass in some windows can be very beautiful, even while it's lucid.  The work of the late Dorothy Dunnett comes to mind. Her way with words was stunning.

One of my favourite historical novels is one called Hanta yo, by Ruth Beebe Hill. The title in the language of the Lakotah Indians means 'Clear the Way' with the meaning 'In a spiritual way I come.'  The author took 30 years to write the book (which I am not advocating as a career move!) and it is clearly a labour of love. It tells the story of a group of Lakotah Indians on the eve of the coming of the White Man and details both their culture and the cataclysmic changes set in motion by the arrival of the Whites.

The author, in collaboration with a Dakotah Indian linguist, wrote the novel in English, translated it into the Lakotah language to obtain the correct rhythms and idioms, and then translated it back into English.  I think it would be a fascinating project to do the same with historical fiction set in the distant past.  I would love to turn one of mine into Anglo Norman and then back again -  given a couple of extra lifetimes.  I would be fascina a project I know I'd love.

While there are authors such as Ruth Beebe Hill who go to great lengths to preserve the rhythms of the original language, others prefer to use modern everyday phrases and slang in their historical fiction. The idea is to engage with readers who might find  archaic terms difficult to understand, or boring,  and to give freshness and immediacy to the writing.  Done well, it can work, but like 'forsoothery' it has its pitfalls. Some readers will love the technique, others will 'wall-bang', muttering that its not proper history, and no amount of the author saying that it's just the past translated into the language of today will placate the offended party.  It's a universal truth that writers cannot legislate for every reader who picks up one of their books.   The problem too with being overly modern in one's word use is that it dates very quickly and may not stand the test of time, whereas the plain English version will have a longer lifespan. There is also the argument that using modern idioms and slang distances the reader from the mindset of the period about which they are writing. 
Nevertheless, the deliberate modern word useage can work brilliantly in the medium of the historical novel; it just has to be done right.  As an example, I would send everyone to read Brian Wainwright's wonderful 'The Adventure of Alianore Audely', a near perfect display of how to use modern slang in a historical novel and make it a masterpiece.

There is also the thorny problem of cross-ocean exchange. I often hear comments from UK readers about 'Americanisms' in historical fiction from the USA, and I'm sure it works the other way too.  Woe betide any writer from the USA who dares to use 'gotten' in their historical fiction.  A USA friend of mine who writes Medieval fiction has several UK reviews on her latest novel bemoaning the use of this word - which hasn't caused a problem among American readers. We may not use it any more in Britain,  but as many responders pointed out in the discussion, it's only UK English that has fallen into disuse. We may no longer use it, but 'gotten' sailed to America, with the Pilgrim Fathers and flourished.  You could argue it has earned an honorary place.  Again, the writer can't legislate for what the readers are going to bring to their experience of reading the novel.
A writer of historical fiction creates a bridge for the reader between then and now, a bridge fashioned of words that build the experience.  If there is a lot of traffic over that bridge, as every writer hopes, then there are bound to be a mixture of responses.  Some readers will be delighted and use that bridge as their favourite.  Others may decide that it's not for them. It's all in the use of those basic building materials, and what appeals to the individual. I suspect that the good plain English bridges get used more than the 'forsoothery' bridges, but in the end, reader or writer, it's a matter of personal preference as to how and where one makes that crossing.

Elizabeth Chadwick
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Sue Bursztynski said...

It is indeed a problem. I think as long as you avoid modern colloquial terms, plain modern English will do in most cases. In some cases you do need the "forsoothery", though I've never used it myself. Ellis Peters was right. And her Brother Cadfael books took me right back to the twelfth century without ever using those "forsoothery" terms, simply by sticking to the culture of the time. Frankly, I don't see any problem with using the word "blanket" in a historical novel. There WERE blankets, whatever they were called and better to make it clear for your readers. Sometimes you do have to be careful; I recently edited a story set on the Ballarat goldfields of the mid-19th century and found a character saying, "bullshit". Both "bull" and "shit" have long pedigrees, but "bullshit" goes back no longer than 1915 and it was a US word anyway. The word jarred, even before I looked it up to make sure. The author agreed and rewrote.

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Imogen said...

All very true. It's about finding the right balance. On pleasing readers... an editor told me she'd once been sent a page ripped out from one of her author's books with the (historically accurate) swearing underlined and a note written across the top 'They did not use LANGUAGE in the past'. Hey ho.

Penny Dolan said...

Love that, Imogen!

Interestingly (to me, anyway) I sometimes have to try and explain the word "woe" - as used above in your "woe betide" - as part of the telling a favourite story, where a dark, doomed creature cries "Woe is me!"

"Gotten" can come as a very minor shock when, being a British reader, I've heard the book so far told in my head in an English English voice, although I agree about gotten's good linguistic history.

Susan Price said...

I jibbed at 'gotten' until my Scottish partner asked why. 'Gotten' is still, and was always, used in Scotland, he said. A LOT of Scots emigrated to the US and Canada too. It is fun to talk about these things, but impossible to ever get right and keep everyone happy!

Susan Price said...

PS - another book where modern slang - really modern OMG! LOL! - type slang is used to great effect is 'Lydia Bennet's Blog - The Real Story of Pride and Prejudice' by Valerie Laws. I'm just reading it for the second time, LMTO and admiring it all over again.

Helen Hollick said...

Some modern words have to be used because alternatives would be plain silly: "moustache" is a good example. The word was not known in England in 1066, but I use it for my characters in Harold The King (UK title - I Am The Chosen King US title) It would be clumsy writing to say "Harold stroked the facial hair trailing beneath his nose and above his lip to either side if his mouth" when "Harold stroked his moustache" is clearly understood by the reader - even if it isn't strictly "correct". On the other hand "OK" instead of "that's fine" is plain nonsense in a historical fiction book, but at the end of the day historical fiction IS fiction and is meant, primarily, as entertainment not a history lesson. And anyway, Forsooth and Gadzooks I enjoy your story-telling too much Elizabeth to notice whether 'blanket' is a correct word or not!

Unknown said...

I recently read a novel set in 19th century France where the main character regretted not having bonded with her grandchildren. I can barely recall the title of the book or the name of the author, but that "bonded" still niggles.

Off now to order Alianore Audley from my local library.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I didn't know that about 'moustache' Helen - how interesting!