Monday 11 August 2014

The Gadzooks Question, by Laurie Graham

Any writer of historical fiction has a decision to make before they commit a single word to paper: how will their characters speak? The more distant the era of their story, the tougher the task before them. We want our characters to be credible and we're aware that language is constantly changing  -  listen to this recording of how a medieval prince might have sounded  - but we don't want to over-tax our readers with archaisms.

Personally I've never dared venture further back than the 18th century. I take my hat off to those who recreate much earlier times, particularly if their novels are set in the heyday of minced oaths. It must be a finely judged thing, whether to drop in the occasional 'gadzooks'.

It is hard for us in these secular times to comprehend the depth of religious faith and practice in earlier centuries. Its thread ran through every aspect of daily life and blasphemy was taken very seriously indeed. 'Sblood was a fairly blatant contraction of 'by God's blood' and Shakespeare used it a lot.
'sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?'  -  Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2, to give you but one example.

'Zounds' was another early oath, presumably first pronounced to rhyme with God's wounds and then metamorphosed to rhyme with 'hounds', perhaps during sterner Puritan times. The 1606 Parliamentary Act to Restrain Abuses of Players made theatre companies more careful about the oaths they spoke on stage. A 'bloody' might cost you a fine you could ill afford.

The use of 'egad' (Oh God!) didn't become common until the 17th century, and 'ods bodikins'   -  another highly minced reference to the nails of the cross, like 'gadzooks'  - appeared later still, in spite of its antique flavour. And of course language, as constantly changing as a river, still comes up with oaths suitable for tender ears or religious sensibilities. 'Dog barnit' is one of my 20th century favourites, a gentle expletive I think you'll agree, when all the world is effing and jeffing like there's no tomorrow. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for sharing that recording. Middle English, eh?Sounds like Chaucer, but it's about a century later, so goodness knows what that might have sounded like! I sometimes think if you got into a time machine and travelled back to the Middle Ages you wouldn't understand anything, it would sound like a foreign language. (In fact, Connie Willis made just this point in her novel Doomsday Book, in which a historian who thinks she knows Middle English well travels back to fourteenth century England and the people she meets can't understand her.)

You just have to use common sense. I prefer simple modern but not colloquial Englsh in historical fiction set that far back. Rosemary Sutcliff more or less invented the speech styles she used, and yet it fitted so well that I believed in it.

Leslie Wilson said...

Interesting! And a topic that is vital to all writers of historical fiction. I have been through all kinds of stages with this. When I wrote about a 17th-century witch persecution, I found myself using a lot of Northern Irishisms, since that is quite archaic English, actually. Then I enjoyed using 19th-century style English in The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, but when I turned to write about Nazi Germany I used contemporary colloquial, reasoning that a) it was a translation anyway (I thought of much of the dialogue first in German) and b) the language people used seventy-odd years ago didn't sound old-fashioned to them, as it does to us now, so modern colloquial English was a better approximation - a principle I think Hilary Mantel goes on in her Cromwell novels.However, now I am writing a supposed confessional manuscript from the early 19th century, and find myself using enough of the way of speech of the time to make this seem credible, but adjusting it so that one will not need a degree in English literature to read it easily. I don't use oaths a lot, but our friend Michelle Lovric's marvellous Scoundrel's Dictionary is a good source of colloquialisms (as well as something I shall lay beside my hubby the next time he reads Georgette Heyer.) However, I don't use these slang expressions as often as GH does, and I take care to make sure they are explained, which requires some skill, which I hope I have effectively deployed. But who could resist 'the blanket-hornpipe' for what activity, I guess, you can all guess..

Leslie Wilson said...

I have to say - this is the one-time writing tutor taking over - that when you do use more archaic modes of speech, you have to be careful, for you can get so into it that it sounds normal, and the way everyone speaks. So then, to be sure, it's important to do careful self-editing. The issue people always get excited about is contractions. Even though Jane Austen uses 'it's' or 'he's' in dialogue, sometimes, I have still had people tell me solemnly that people didn't do so in the past. So everyone in the past spoke very formally, and nobody was called by diminutives, and children always got up when their elders came into the room and were respectful to them, and..

Sue Purkiss said...

It's difficult, isn't it? If you go back even a few hundred years, people would have spoken very differently - words were stressed differently and spoken with a different accent etc: you can tell that if you look at poetry - say, They Fle From Me That Sometime Did Me Seke. If you read the original version of that out loud, you find you have to pronounce some of the words differently to make the scansion work.

So it sort of seems to me that whatever we attempt at dialogue is not going to be authentic - it's an illusion that we're trying to make work. So in a way maybe it's better just to use modern language, but without colloquialisms etc. But I guess really you just have to find a way to do it that works.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Has anyone been reading Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake? Now, that one really IS bizarre! I bought the ebook out of curiosity because it's historical fiction, but it's done entirely in the author's version of Old English. Interesting, but hard reading - and I did a little OE at uni.

Leslie Wilson said...

I feel if I'm doing modern English, colloquialisms are OK as long as they're not obviously related to technology that wasn't around at the time you are writing about.(No LOL in a novel set in the eighteenth century, for example.)
I was interested to find that 'circumstantial' meant complicated and cumbersome to do, in the eighteenth century, which is still the meaning of the German 'umstaendlich' which means, literally, circumstantial. Also, the conjugation of verbs, like 'he was gone to London' which was correct then, and that also corresponds to German and French usage, where the perfect tense of most if not all (she said covering her backside) verbs of motion and travel uses the verb 'to be' rather than 'to have'. Like of course nowadays we say 'he had gone to London.' Etymology is so fascinating! But also that is a lesson to old grumps (like me) who object to modern changes of usage. Like 'substitute for' suddenly reverses the order of what is substituted for what. I do find that confusing, because we are in the middle of the change, so you are never sure about the objects of the substitution!