Monday, 1 December 2008

Reeth and language

Last picture of Reeth.

I don't know if this is of interest to anyone but me, but I've been "thinking aloud" recently about language in historical novels, and quoting one or two authors views as well as giving my own. Lindsey Davis is eloquent on the topic. As she says, we can be pretty sure that people in 1st-century Rome didn't speak like one of Cicero's speeches when they were talking to their friends/arguing with their landlords/chatting up a girl, and ditto people in Anglo-Saxon England didn't talk as if they were declaiming Beowulf, or Norsemen as if they were reciting a saga.

Slang and colloquialisms tend not to be used in the formal records posterity has handed down to us, just as they are not used in formal written records today - but that doesn't mean they didn't exist, and some authors think colloquial modern English gives a much better 'feel' for the people and their world than the stilted dialogue you sometimes see in historical fiction.
I've just been reading a couple of paranormal romances that would have us believe half the clans of Scotland turn into a wolf or a hunting cat at the full moon and while I was prepared to go along with that for a while (They are sold as paranormal romances, after all) what really put me off is the linguistic style - "doesnae, cannae, willnae" in almost every sentence of dialogue. I do wonder how the authors see/hear these words being pronounced in their heads - and I wonder if they pronounce them differently to me!

Anyone got any thoughts, views, opinions on this? I'd love to hear!


Linda Banche said...

One of the things they tell newbies like me is NOT to use dialect, because, as you've found out, it becomes very annoying. How did those authors you read get away with it?

For times not too far before the present, maybe 200-300 years, I think you can can use modern English with some of the slang of the period.

But earlier? Shakespeare is hard enough to understand sometimes, and his works are considered modern English. Middle English is barely understandable, and Anglo-Saxon is a foreign language. And of course, French and Latin have their own archaic versions, and they're already foreign languages.

I'd say use modern English, with perhaps some of the more understandable period words. I think Ellis Peters, in her Brother Cadfael mysteries did it well. In general, she used modern English, with a few words from the 1100's. I still remember it took me forever to figure out that the girl Alys was named Alice in modern English. **grins**

Jen Black said...

Yes, they do tell you that - I've heard it as well! I've just had a book refused on the grounds that the language wasn't suitable for American readers. Did I use dialect? No. I used modern English but phrased everything much more politely to suit my Regency characters - think Jane Austen (no, not exactly like her, but loosely similar)

Joanna Waugh said...

One of the most difficult things to write in historicals is colloquial dialog. We authors have a tendency to over do it, especially Scots accents. My rule of thumb these days is to sprinkle the initial dialog of a character with easy to read and pronounce phrases, then back off and occasionally drop in a catch word or phrase to keep the "flavor" alive. I don't want the reader to get hung up trying to decipher my dialog. Anything that takes him/her out of the story is not good.

Linda Banche said...

I've just had a book refused on the grounds that the language wasn't suitable for American readers.

What? I read historical romances by British authors and I love them. Their books are written in modern standard English, just more polite than what we speak. I'm American, and I have no trouble understanding them. What are those editors thinking?

I just read a debut American author who wrote a Regency. I didn't like her book because the language was wrong. It was too casual, and she had too many modern American idioms. I won't read another of her books. I hope what she wrote isn't what those editors want.

Jen Black said...

Seems that editors are a law unto themselves and they're all differnt! All we can do is adapt to the one we want to have publish our books. Once we find them, that is!