When “They” Spoke “Olde English”

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I loved Cas Blomberg’s post: “What do you like in a story?” She lists the sorts of things – her personal “likes” and “dislikes” – that should make any author think. As her take would apply to any reader, it is worth reading her post in full.

This “dislike” naturally grabbed my attention:

Difficult language — Victorian, Venusian, the Tyk’gkt’der language, etc.

“Victorian?” Uh, oh. Well, I’m not using “Victorian,” but I’m definitely employing what might be termed “Georgian” and “early American independence” – the later 1700s mostly – in Conventions.

Full title:  Defence against foreign invasion. In order to prevent any mis-apprehension of the measure taken for the defence of the kingdom against a French invasion, all true friends to their country are desired to remark, that by the act lately passed, a force of sixty thousand men will be ready in case of necessity, [etc.] Published:  estimated 1796, probably London. Formats:  Pamphlet. Held by:  British Library.  [Public Domain.]
Full title: Defence against foreign invasion. In order to prevent any mis-apprehension of the measure taken for the defence of the kingdom against a French invasion, all true friends to their country are desired to remark, that by the act lately passed, a force of sixty thousand men will be ready in case of necessity, [etc.]
Published: estimated 1796 , probably London. Formats: Pamphlet. Held by: British Library.
[Public Domain.]

The Atlantic Lives novels are of course set in the 1990s when English was spoken much as now. Writing “modern” is not just easier on the author, but naturally a reader is familiar with it as well. If one understands what’s said on, say, the Friends TV show, the dialogue used by most of the native English speakers in those novels is a breeze.

Language becomes a much bigger issue in a work set in an earlier era in which English is not spoken as we commonly do today. It adds a creative dilemma and even a major challenge. I’ve been struggling with just how much “antique” prose to include in Conventions.

As that English pamphlet above shows, English in 1796 is not quite the same as in “1996.” Employing our contemporary conversational constructions in an 18th century novel reads as, frankly, silly. Certainly it destroys a sense of time and authenticity.

Two quick examples jump to my mind. 1) “Hey, guys,” was, err, naturally not a common greeting when someone walked into a room in “1794.” 2) And “Okay, dudes,” was not employed in conversation either.

“OK” or “Okay” was not a common expression until the mid-19th century. Its original source is much-debated, but newspaper evidence points to it coming to U.S. national prominence based on an 1840 presidential campaign slogan (I kid you not) “Vote For OK,” which was short for “Old Kinderhook,” the nickname for President Martin Van Buren. In all likelihood George Washington, who died in 1799, never said “OK” in his entire life.

So, for example, you won’t see a single use of “OK or “Okay” in Conventions. I’ve decided that “conversation” should reasonably reflect that era. But in a compromise narrative and “internal thoughts” may be “modern.”

History and biography tend to be written along similar lines. I hope readers will find that approach realistic, sensible and, above all, still eminently readable. Personally I think it’s an unsatisfying reading experience when a “period” novel fails to transport a reader generally back to that “period.”

2 comments

  1. Good post and love the pamphlet! I think the issue with language is a tricky one. I guess I’ve read too many bad steam punk novels. When the language becomes a chore and drowns out the story I find myself avoiding that book. Sounds like you’re going about it the right way, though, in your book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I sure hope I’m doing it right. Don’t want to frighten off any readers! (Interestingly, “frighten” / “frightening” as a word has been debased since the 18th century. At that time, it’s use implied TRUE TERROR!)

      And, yes, cool pamphlet, isn’t it? (They didn’t say “cool” back then either, of course!)

      Like

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