Language, what a great, juicy topic, something writers could go on about indefinitely. I loved RevMelinda’s question about language accuracy, and Jo’s post, and the great discussion that got started (am I not allowed to say ‘got’? *g*).
So I’ll roll up my sleeves on this Friday Eve of Halloween week, and jump in as well (actually I tried to comment last night, but Typepad wouldn’t accept my comment, hmmph. So I’ll come in the front door of the Wenchie parlor, as it were, and post a more elaborate version).
In the case of historical fiction written in the here and now (as opposed to fiction written contemporary to the actual time period), readers know the writer is contemporary, and depend on that author to create, or conjure, a particular time and place, and people it with interesting characters running around in an interesting and believable story (hey, a clumsy defnition but it’s early and you know what I mean!). Believable: the reader willingly sets aside that disbelief thang and buys into the author’s construction. Story, setting, time and place, environment, costume, and characters who behave appropriately to their time period (or at least approximately…) are all part of this.
And language, whether it’s dialogue or narrative text, is a big part of the success of the whole conjuring effect. Language is one of the factors that can make or break it, can tear that fabric of the story, or keep it intact, for the reader.
I write mostly Scotland; I’ve written several medievals, and some stories set in the Jacobite/Georgian, Regency, Victorian eras. Language is a particular concern of mine, because many times, my characters do not even speak English – they speak Gaelic, French, Latin, Norse, Saxon, or early forms of English and Scots (which technically is not considered a dialect of English, but rather a language form in and of itself).
When my characters speak Gaelic…I’m not likely to have the hero say,
"Thainig sinn o Dhun-Eideann," nor will I let him go on like that in Gaelic, with a glossary at the back. But that would be the more accurate thing, since he speaks Gaelic, not English.
But accurate is not always what is needed. What serves better, often, is authentic language in a historical, rather than historically precise. OK, so the character speaks Gaelic, but we want to understand him. We want to be there with him, sharing that moment. A little sprinkling of accurate language, salted and seasoned here and there, gives the reader a feel for the story, character, time, and moment. A touch of too-modern language jars the reader. We are dependent on the author’s ear, and sensibility, for language as well as time period. The author can build a bridge between the reader and the time period, so the reader can go visit. It need not be an exact replica, since then it might not be accessible.
Back to our Highland hero (who, btw, might not be in a kilt, but a wrapped plaid) saying "Thainig sinn o Dhun-Eideann."
A simple translation works here. If the story is medieval, it doesn’t sound right for him to say, “Hey, I’m going to Edinburgh.”
Better: “I am for Edinburgh” or “I am headed to Edinburgh.” If it’s an early-set medieval, pre-1100, he really should say “I am headed for Dun Edin.” The name ‘Edinburgh’ didn’t exist until Malcolm III decided to adapt the Saxon system of boroughs.
If it’s a Regency setting (and there were still Gaelic speakers in the Highlands), he might say something a little more formal, such as, “I’m traveling to Edinburgh.” The same phrase can be translated differently for each historical context, nuanced to suit the time and setting.
Another way that I’ve handled the presence of Gaelic speakers in my books is to give a sense of that specific language in English. For example, Yes and No don’t exist as simple forms in Gaelic as they do in English. Yes and No depend on the context and tense of the question or statement.
So I don’t use plain Yes and No in dialogue for certain characters (this can make copyeditors nuts, but it’s worthwhile). To the question, “Are you headed to Edinburgh?” the heroine does not answer “Yes” or “No.” She would say, “I am” or “I am not.”
To the question, “Will you head to Edinburgh?” she says, “I will,” or “I will not.”
It’s not Gaelic, it’s not medieval, but it manages to convey the sense of both. Convey and conjure–I think those are two important words for the writer of historical fiction.
One thing that personally makes me a bit nuts in some historicals is the use of broad Scots for just about any Scottish character. If they speak Gaelic, they’re not speaking Scots in the translated form of the dialogue. If they are from any part of Scotland in the early medieval era, they’re not speaking Scots, it did not exist in that form then. If they’re actually speaking English as native Gaels, then their English is more likely to be a soft, lilting, more correct British English, without much trace of Scots (depending on time period). These things mean a lot to me, and I’m careful about them in my stories, because to me that can make or break the historical world I’m building for the reader, and can be a stumbling block along that bridge.
Whether it’s romantic fiction or mainstream, as a writer I want to understand the context of the time frame in which I’m placing my characters. I don’t feel that I need to be completely accurate, if accuracy is as much a context-breaker as modern language. For example, my medieval heroes don’t sleep in hats, and they do bathe. And I try not to let the dialogue and narrative text become unreadable for the modern reader. Have you ever tried to read Scots literature, accurately represented (try Lewis Grassic Gibbon, or some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories)? It’s crazy difficult, slows down the story, and the reading experience can become a thick wade. It’s an aspect that becomes more an artistic touch, the story as artwork, than the story as entertainment for the reader.
Other thoughts… if the hero is a Viking, and the heroine is Irish…how are they communicating?! This bugs me when it’s blatantly ignored (it also bugs me if every paragraph of the narrative is salted with ’twas and ’twere, but that’s another post *g*). If the heroine is Saxon and the hero Norman, or the heroine Gaelic and the hero an Englishman, and so on through many time periods and combinations –- I feel as an author that I have a responsibility to explain to the reader just how those two are talking and comprehending each other.
Sometimes this can become a fun story element: sign language, body language, learning curves, teaching one another. Sometimes it can be a great way to show a character’s educational level or social position. Maybe they both speak Latin or French, for example, depending on time and place. The dialogue is in English, but seasoned with a few foreign phrases to set the tone, it works. It lends immediacy and yet story integrity is still intact.
As a fiction writer, I’m not necessarily RECONSTRUCTING history, the way that a historian might put together known facts and educated guesses in order to put together an understanding of some historical event. I’m trying to RECREATE aspects of history. Using the same facts and information, I’m trying to conjure not exactly what happened back then –c’mon, I made most of it up!– but what it was like to have lived back then. I think there’s an important distinction there, and that’s where the various elements, like language, can form a bridge for the modern reader. Authentic trumps accurate, in those situations.
There are always exceptions. Anachronisms can be fun where they are deliberate. The soundtrack of the new Marie Antoinette movie, for example, or the soundtrack and some fun bits in the movie A Knight’s Tale. But if the aim, as in most historical romance, is to create a sense of a time and place, then nuancing the language, massaging those foreign phrases or that sometimes very stilted Regency language is a good thing –- it requires a thorough understanding of the time period, and a good ear too.