Ancient or modern? Language in historical fiction

This post was first published on the History Girls back in December 2018. It is actually a combination of posts that I first wrote back in 2016, when I was starting out on my journey both as a blogger and as a published author. The topic I discuss here, the use of language in historical fiction, remains one of considerable interest, to me and to many other historical novelists. When I posted it on the History Girls, it generated some thought-provoking comments. I hope that you might find it interesting too!

A couple of years ago, I joined a panel of published writers (a mix of historical novelists and crime/thriller writers) at an event held at the University of Portsmouth, before an audience of fellow writers and readers. One of the questions asked of me was how I dealt with language, given that my (then newly-published) novel, Fortune’s Wheel, is set in the 14th century, a time when people didn’t speak English as we know it, but spoke either Middle English, a form of French, or Latin, depending on their social status and education.

It was a question that had exercised me – and many other writers of historical fiction – a good deal, particularly in the early days of my career as an historical novelist, though I do still think about it now, a few books down the line.

When I began writing historical fiction, I asked myself whether I should attempt to give my 14th century characters “authentic”-sounding voices, or put modern language in their mouths. I made my choice, and have been happy with that choice for my subsequent novels.

However, in my PhD, which I completed at the same time that my first historical novel was published, and addressed “authenticity” in historical fiction, I had given specific thought to this matter of language, weighing up the alternatives and assessing the pros and cons of each in terms of how I perceived they affected “authenticity”.

What follows includes some of my thinking…

tavern-gamesWhen historical novelists (of any period) choose to have their characters speak in modern (20th/21st century) English, might that give the impression that the characters also have modern mindsets? Conversely, if characters are given dialogue that purports – or even contrives – to sound like, say, 14th century English, does that somehow give the impression that the characters also have authentic 14th century mindsets? I don’t believe that either case is necessarily true. From all my reading of historical novels, I have realised that by far the majority are in fact written in straightforward modern English, though whether the mindsets that the words convey are “authentic” often depends on other factors.

henry-jamesThe 19th century novelist Henry James famously disparaged historical fiction. It was not the practicalities of the past that James thought difficult to describe, but imagining with any degree of realism, or perhaps “naturalism”, the inner livesof those who lived in earlier times. It was “mindset” he was talking about – people’s ideas, values and beliefs. Of course there’s no such thing as “a” mindset for a period: people in past times didn’t hold a single set of values and beliefs, any more than they do now, but there is undoubtedly a generalised difference between the inner lives of 14th century people and ours. It’s this difference that James considered impossible to bridge, but from my reading of historical fiction I’ve deduced that most writers do in fact give the impression of bridging the gap pretty well. For imagining the inner lives of characters (historical or fictional) for readers to experience is surely exactly what historical novelists attempt to do.

Some years ago, in Clio’s Children, a blog for historical novelists, the writer raised this matter of language in historical fiction thus: ‘…to what degree can we legitimately – or even intelligibly – use language or literary forms authentic to a given period?’. (‘Can the language of historical fiction ever be “authentic”?’,John Yeoman, Clio’s Children<>)

The writer, John Yeoman, said that readers expect writers to have done their historical homework, and if they believe the language used is wrong, their illusion will be shattered, regardless of whether their belief has any foundation. Perhaps the shattering of illusion applies particularly when the language is deemed too “modern”? Yet, said Yeoman, ‘how else can an historical writer communicate with a modern reader, except in a modern idiom?’, although this view is not universally held. (I think the blog is well worth a read, by the way.)

Of course, Yeoman is only one of many to have addressed this problem.

Hilary Mantel once said that ‘[historical novelists] don’t want to misrepresent our ancestors, but we don’t want to make the reader impatient.’ Too much period flavour, she said, slows the story and may even make readers laugh. When we have little idea how people actually spoke in the distant past – because we have no audio or even written records – we must simply imagine it. Mantel recommended ‘a plain style that you can adapt…not just to [your characters’] ages and personalities and intelligence level, but to their place in life.’ (Quoted in Writing Historical Fiction, Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott,p.135. Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s article ‘The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak’, Wall Street Journal, 27thApril 2012.)

The late Barry Unsworth said much the same: ‘You can’t make your characters speak in the language and idiom of their own time if the language of the period would seem archaic. It would put too much strain on the understanding and would seem false in any case.’(Arlo Haskell, ‘Intensity of Illusion: a conversation with Barry Unsworth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Littoral (28th June 2008)

Unsworth, too, recommended using straightforward English, though he advised also ‘a certain kind of tactful formality’ and an avoidance of contracted forms (isn’t, don’t etc) (Arlo Haskell, ‘Barry Unsworth: The Economy of Truth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Audio Archives (7th October 2009)

None of these writers has advised the use of “authentic-sounding” period language, perhaps because it is difficult to make such language sound right, and also to keep readers engaged with what might be a difficult read. As I have already said, my reading has shown me that most writers do not attempt to present voices in anything other than more-or-less modern English, although there are certainly (surprisingly few) exceptions.

But I have concluded that, in most of the historical novels I’ve read that were set in the “Middle Ages”, the characters’ thought-worlds did seem acceptably mediaeval, what they spoke about reflected the social context of the time, and that held true regardless of the modernity or otherwise of the language used.

However, certain aspects of language can, at the very least, detract from the seeming authenticity of the characters’ words, and these include archaic or “difficult” language, and anachronistic language or ideas, both of which, in their different ways, can throw the reader out of the illusion the novelist is trying to convey.

world-without-end-coverFor example, Ken Follett is one novelist who has been accused of using overly modern language in his mediaeval historical novels (Pillars of the Earth and World Without End). For some of his readers, their impression of undue modernity in the novel’s language doesmatter:

Obviously, a novel set around the 12th [sic – should be 14th] century could never be written in contemporary prose… But some concession needed to be made in order to emphasise antiquity, or it might as well be set in the present. …I found myself jerked out of the spell by the kind of prose and dialogue that I can hear on the street every day. And because it was written in modern English, it inevitably portrayed 20th century thinking.’ (An Amazon review from March 2011)

This reader does not quote examples but makes an interesting point: is it “inevitable” that modern language portrays modern thinking? Not, presumably, according to the majority of historical novelists who use it. And it’s also true that the vast majority of Follett’s readers are evidently so engrossed in the story that the modernity or otherwise of the language is of little importance:

From the first page Follett conjures up the earthiness and superstition of those times. I can’t comment on how accurate it is as I wouldn’t know, but it certainly rings true and even if it wasn’t all completely correct, I don’t think it would really matter.’ (An Amazon review from November 2007)

This reviewer doesn’t mention language, but for them the authenticity comes in the small details of daily life. It “rings true” and, for them, that is what matters. For most of his readers, Follett’s language does not seem to detract from their enjoyment of his books, but if the language a writer uses does make readers stop and question the authenticity of the mindset that “thought” the words they have read, this will surely destroy the illusion the writer was trying to create.

As I have already said, I decided early on that I wouldn’t attempt to mimic the speech patterns of the 14th century, because I felt that “pseudo-mediaeval” dialogue might actually inhibit modern readers’ enjoyment, rather than give the narrative any greater credibility. I followed the advice of other writers, such as Hilary Mantel and Barry Unsworth, referred to earlier. The language I put into my characters’ mouths is broadly modern English, with some slightly “old-fashioned” phrasing just to give a senseof the past. However, I do not follow closely Unsworth’s advice referred to earlier about formality and avoiding contractions. Rather, my choice is to use more formal, non-contracted, forms for higher status or educated characters, but to reflect the voices of the peasantry by using contractions (it’s, isn’t, shouldn’t). I accept that this is a relatively crude distinction and that, to some, the contractions may give the voices too modern a tone, but I’m satisfied that it works – for me, at least.

If you accept, as I have, that putting broadly modern language into the mouths of “historical” characters works fine, the question then might be how far it matters to the average reader if the language, and especially the dialogue, is littered (or even lightly sprinkled) with anachronistic words. (This is central to John Yeoman’s blog post on “authentic” language, referred to earlier.)

It’s obviously important to ensure that anachronisms of fact are kept at bay, but linguistic anachronisms, where words had not yet come into use or, more importantly, where they imply ideas that had not yet entered anybody’s mind, are equally likely to throw a reader out of the illusion. In the same article referred to earlier, Hilary Mantel said ‘[characters] mustn’t express ideas they could not have had, and feelings they would not have had. They did not draw metaphors from a scientific worldview, but from a religious one. They weren’t democrats. They weren’t feminists… The reader should be braced by the shock of the old; or why write about the past at all?’

ill-made-knight-coverIn his book The Ill-Made Knight, Christian Cameron sometimes uses words and expressions that are neither 21st nor 14th century. Both ‘…cooling my heels…’ (p.184) and ‘…swashbuckle…’ (p.32) are 16th century.

mistress-of-the-art-of-death-coverIn Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, set in the 12th century, occasional anachronistic expressions or metaphors creep in. For example, in ‘…it seems his guts – which are considerable – are giving him gyp.’ (p.11), “giving gyp” was possibly not used first until the 19th century.

And a different, and perhaps more overt, type of anachronism is used in: ‘The deer ran, scattering among the trees, their white scuts like dominoes tumbling into the darkness.’ (p.16)

This is a nice image but dominoes had not arrived in Europe by the 12th century, so the narrator (a 12th century person) would surely not think of using such a metaphor.

So these two novels, which by the way, have mostly modern, and therefore very accessible, language, do include some anachronistic words and expressions that mightdestroy a reader’s illusion of the mediaeval world. One might say that an expression like “cooling one’s heels” is not exactly anachronistic, but more a “translation” of what the character was thinking about being kept waiting. Similarly, “giving gyp” is an accessible rendition of the narrator’s thought about a character’s pain. However, looking at it another way, both “cooling my heels” and “giving gyp”, while not being mediaeval, are also not really current expressions either, and therefore somehow draw attention to themselves. I think this can often be a problem with anachronisms – one might slip through unnoticed, but if something soundswrong, the critical reader will spot it and feel obliged to check up on it.

the-lepers-companioins-coverAnachronisms may be subtler. In Julia Blackburn’s The Leper’s Companions, set in 1410, references to “kitchen”, “bedroom” and a fire burning in the “grate” do not, I feel, ring true for the period, when such room designations had not yet reached peasant homes, and fires were generally still hearths in the middle of the floor. But this is perhaps to be too exacting?

One might ask, then, how far a degree of anachronism in a novel’s language, especially in the use of individual words, really matters? How far does it detract from a novel’s “authenticity”? I have noticed these anachronisms, but many readers would not recognise them, or not care much if they did. However, of those readers who do notice such things, some may not trust anything else the writer says about the period, while, for others, at the very least their pleasure in the book might be diminished.

So one could say that, whereas anachronism does matter, perhaps the degree to which it matters is largely a matter of taste?

In my own writing, I do try to avoid anachronism in language as well as in fact. I make an effort not to use words and phrases that first came into use much later than the 14th century. However, I’m not overly exacting with myself: I often allow myself to sense when a word is not right, and, if necessary, replace it with something more suitable, but I do not examine every word. And I know that I use the occasional word that isanachronistic. Indeed, one I can think of is “hubbub”, a 16th century word of Irish origin and therefore in principle quite unsuitable for a novel about 14th century England! But I kept it in because it seemed to have a mediaeval “feel” to it and I suppose I hoped that few readers would notice my gaffe. So, having allowed myself this latitude, perhaps I should not criticise others too harshly!


Do you love historical fiction, especially when it’s medieval? Why not join my team?

Find out more about it here and sign up if you’d like to.

I’ll be delighted to add you to my list of followers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s