Historical Language

Posted: 12th February 2015 by Christian in Blog
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Whenever you write historical fiction, one of the things to keep in mind is how people actually spoke. The more historical records there are is usually, but not always, a good guide.

In medieval times, we have only a handful of novels and not many of those have dialogue and most of them are religious and so, formal and didactic and allegorical and none of them are interested in recording how people spoke. I know Chaucer used modern vernacular but I’ve no idea how that translates into actual interest in recording naturalist, memetic dialogue.

We have loads of Latin and Greek histories but they tend to record Great Men Saying Great Things. Leonidas may very well have said ‘Good, we will fight in the shade,’ but no one said ‘Bloodieth Hell, mine mate. You are on your owneth,’ back. Mind you, Vlad the Impaler gets some good lines.

Later, we have plays but, of course, plays aren’t mean to be naturalistic. If we could all exunt omnes with a rhyme, the world would be happier. And I doubt many people even spoke like they do in a 50s sitcom, let alone some Revenger Tragedy written by a weirdo working out his issues 500 years ago. And the history of theater in English, let alone sociolinguistics is the stuff of degrees, not a casual research topic.

And in our modern times, we have movies, especially American movies, which have so little grasp on how anyone talks. It’s why no one in the past says ‘fuck’, perhaps the oldest word there is in English, and John Wayne says ‘Circle the yurts!’ (Seriously, watch The Conqueror, he plays Genghis Khan. So funny.)

To make language grandiose, reverse the clause, you must. Which sounds history-ish. But it isn’t. And we know from secondary sources, like graffiti, for example, Latin was really slangy, so whenever people talk like that, you know you’re listening to a big slab of Now.

By the time we move into, say, 1700, we have a proper publishing industry and novels are recognisably novels so it gets easier. But Charles Dickens is supposed to be the final word on how people spoke but no one ever spits or swears or wees in his books, so I’m prepared to let the most boring person in the English Department have him and remain of the opinion we still don’t have a great idea of what a casual conversation is like.

Soon I have a comic set in Roman times with some Celtic characters. All of this weighed on me until I realised that, well, nothing can ever be accurate, so I just wrote them like I’d write anyone.

The only trick? You’d be surprised how many metaphors we use have historical roots. And trying to leave out words and phrases Shakespeare either invented or coined is pointless.