Watch Your Language

I don’t read or listen to a lot of fantasy or historical fiction, but two things I consumed recently caught my interest. I just finished listening to The Ballad of Iron Percy and I’ve been watching Sleepy Hollow religiously. Both had instances where I wondered, “Would a character from that time period, or a similar time period, speak in that way?”

In the case of Iron Percy, the character of Elise Aranoun had what struck me as a very modern way of speaking. I don’t remember any idioms right off the top of my head, but more than once I thought about her manner of speech. Granted, the world it takes place in is completely fictional. That should give the author some freedom. More on that freedom in a bit.

Sleepy Hollow is more of a bit of historical fiction. Ichabod Crane awakens from a two century long nap and has no problem understanding or being understood. That’s not a big issue. He does need to be told about modern idioms, which is good, but while I know our language hasn’t changed a gret deal in the main points over the last two hundred years, I would think it would be a little more challenging. In a recent episode I was pleased that they had someone who spoke Middle English.

So, in a purely fantasy setting, where the world resembles in some fashion our own medieval times, how important is it for the author to use a more archaic form of English for speech, or at least to avoid modern phrases? I could see using the argument that what we’re getting is perhaps a “translation” of the happenings in the native language. The same would be true of historical fiction from a non-modern or non-English period. What do you think?

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3 comments

  1. Well, it may be a bit individual to the reader, but for me, it’s very important. Anachronisms jar on me nearly as badly as poor grammar and mis-used words. Likewise, if writing in a fantasy world that doesn’t use our religions, beware of expressions like “For Pete’s sake!” and other that have roots in specific religious elements.

  2. This is so true. But there is another side to this. Writers who try to write in “old English.” That can be just as distracting as having modern language in the story. I think the trick here is to keep it normal. Don’t go with really old English, don’t try to be overly formal with your language while at the same time don’t expect them to use modern words and turns of phrase, like “calling it in,” or something like that.

    I think more what pulls me out of fantasy stories is setting and the improbability of things. If you are on a long march, day after day, no one ever gets foot sores. You have meat for every meal, and you can carry enough food fire wood with you that you can climb a mountain and camp for several nights without running out. Carrying you armor and all your weapons and all your provisions and everything on your back for days even weeks at a time, and still there is bacon in the morning. Hey, where did you get that coffee from? Have you ever tried to light a pipe with flint and steel? What about lighting a fire with it? With Wet wood? This is one of the reasons I really liked Michael J. Sullivan’s books they tended to keep some of that reality to life in the “middle ages” it was brutally hard and usually short. motes were full of what ever got dumped out of the castle, and not everyone owned a horse.

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