Nov 29 2015
When a friend of mine asked me recently why I don’t use “historically accurate” language in my books, my response ought to have been, “Thou kiddest me, surely?” I didn’t say it, though, because if I had, he would almost certainly have thought I had made a mistake and had really meant to say “Thou kiddeth me.”
And that, in a nutshell as they say, is why I don’t use archaic language: because no one today understands how it works. Most people think that if you simply add “eth” to the end of every verb in a sentence, you’ll be speaking the way reg’lar folks used to talk back in the Middle Ages. But it doesn’t work that way at all.
That has always been one of the major obstacles, if not the greatest single difficulty, facing inexperienced writers who want to convey immediacy, intimacy and authenticity in their descriptions of times, places and people in ancient times. They try too hard, not knowing that genuine authenticity is the kiss of death to writers, because language changes too quickly.
The unsuspected pitfall in trying to use era-authentic language is the fatal misstep of confusing your readers, because once you’ve done that, pushed them beyond their comfort zone and made them feel silly or inadequate or even ignorant, you’ve lost them, irretrievably. There’s too many other, better books to read out there that won’t make them feel dumb.
The truth is that the seemingly generic, “universal” English we speak in North America today is really very new, and it has been scattered and fostered — literally broadcast in the past hundred years — by the spread of radio and audiovisual media. Before we were all able to hear how other people spoke in other countries, we only knew how people spoke in our own local areas. That’s how regional accents developed—because for untold generations local folk spoke only to other local folk and they very seldom heard different, competing ways of saying things. Even today, according to census statistics, the vast majority of people, everywhere, grow up and die with 25 to 50 miles of their birthplace and when they speak, they hold their mouths and pronounce their words the way their neighbours do.
And yet words change all the time, and usage of certain words sometimes flashes across entire societies. When I was young, for example, “stereophonic” was the biggest thing in music. When did you last hear that word used?
The accepted vehicle for written communications in English is called “standard English” and it is simply a set of rules and regulations governing English grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling and usage. But until as recently as the time of Queen Victoria, those rules had not been assembled into any conventional, generally recognized format, and there were no hard and fast rules for things like spelling. That’s why you often see the letter “s” written as an “f” in old manuscripts. The Victorian standardization of English changed all that, and cleared the path for uniformity throughout the English-speaking world.
But even in those 19th Century times, people from Highland Scotland couldn’t understand what people from northern England were saying when they spoke; Londoners couldn’t understand people from Devon or Cornwall or Yorkshire; and they all thought the Irish, Welsh and Scots were gibbering savages . . . and all because the sounds they made and the words they used to describe some things were vastly different.
The good news for writers, though, is that no matter what language like-minded people were conversing in two thousand years ago, or even two hundred years ago, they all understood one another perfectly and without difficulty at the time, within the conventions and the capabilities of that language. Latin speakers from Italy could converse with Latin speakers from North Africa, once they had grown used to hearing the local pronunciation of words and vowels from each others’ home region.
And wherever people of different cultures, languages and traditions assembled at the world’s crossroads to trade, throughout history, they have very quickly invented new languages, melding common ideas and needs into comprehensible sound bytes (and there’s another new one!) to help their trading. In Victorian Africa that language was Swahili, and in Asia it was Pidgin. In my books, set in more ancient times, I refer to that language as the Coastal Tongue, because it was always found in marginal, trading regions, most of which involved coastal areas.
Really, though, thinking back on it now, I suppose that the most practical demonstration I could have given my friend to pinpoint the essential futility of his question, would have been to quote Robbie Burns to him. He’s a Scot, and proud of it, but like more than 95% of the Scots alive today, he barely understands more than a few verses of the Bard’s most popular and famous poems, because the language in which Burns wrote and spoke, the old Scots Doric, isn’t spoken today, 200 years later, except in some small, isolated Scots communities where it has always been the common tongue. Outside of there, though, it’s gone, like thee and thou and est and eth.