Can Language in Any Historical Novel Truly Be Authentic?

My historical fantasy novels are riddled with anachronistic speech.

There I’ve said it. But you know what? So are everyone else’s. Writing a medieval novel using only the language from the middle ages (even limited to dialog), would be asinine. (I had no idea asinine only had one S. Go figure). No one would understand a book written that way. I understand adding medieval flavor to a book. I get that. I do a lot of that myself. And I understand making an effort to avoid expressions that are too modern, another goal of mine. But let’s face it, we aren’t going to write a book in Old English or even Middle English. And most writers don’t know enough about the language of that time period to make a convincing stab at it. My argument is that historical language should yield to clarity.

Look at it this way. I read a period book recently that had all the characters speaking with thines and thous, saying huzza and lavishing accolades upon one another.

There are some authors who really try for that medieval flavor. And I applaud that. I try to add a taste of the middle ages to my writing as well.

 

But if an author tries to be historically accurate by using words like huzza and accolades, then they have failed. More to the point, very few people are really well-versed in the language of the middle ages. So by all means, try to sprinkle medieval seasoning on your mutton, but don’t ruin the meal with it.

Writing a medieval novel using only the language from that time period, would be asinine. No one would understand it.

Take the word huzza. It’s an old favorite at medieval festivals and gaming conventions, but it has nothing to do with the middle ages. Huzza came into use in the late 16th century, by sailors. The word thou is tossed around a lot in medieval novels and, though it was certainly used in the middle ages, it became a sort of insult when using it to address anyone except your close family or your lover. A tiny historical distinction that could put a glaring hole in the accuracy of your book.

Yes, I know. Just two examples. I have more. But I want to state my case here. The people who argue that medieval novels should have dialog reflective of the medieval period usually do so out of a misplaced sense of historical accuracy. When a 14th century knight asks his squire to “Bring me mine warhorse!” he is inaccurate twice: Mine (as in my) was no longer used after the 13th century. And the word warhorse wasn’t used until the 17th century. Warlord wasn’t used until 1856.

If a writer has her 12th century minstrel nod to the princess, she has made two historical errors. Minstrel wasn’t used until the 13th century, and princess wasn’t around until the late 14th. Knights couldn’t charge into the fray until the 16th century (fray:14th, charge:16th). Any historical writer who has a character nod, should make sure the character is in (at least) the 15th century, when the word was first used. Want your farmer to pet his cow? Better make sure he’s in the 19th century (Famer:16th, Pet: 19th).

When a 14th century knight asks his squire to “Bring me mine warhorse!” he is inaccurate twice: Mine (as in my) was no longer used after the 13th century. And the word warhorse wasn’t used until the 17th century.

But surely there are some blue-chip medieval terms that all historical writers can use, no? I mean, what’s a medieval action story without guards, right? Well, just as long as it’s a 15th century story, because that’s when the word came into use in English. And a knight should be allowed to brandish his sword, shouldn’t he? Only if the knight lived in the mid-14th century or later. The list goes on:

Stop: Mid-15th
Field (as in field of war): 16th
Melee: 1640s (it meant to mingle before that)
Road: 1590s
Groggy: 1770 (and it meant drunk at first)
Cemetery: Late 14th
Hello: 1883
Walk: Late 14th
Shout (as in give a shout): Late 14th
Haggle: 1600s
Rest (as in, rest on something): Mid-14th

Okay, so writers may use some words that are not accurate to the period. But surely we should stay away from words we know aren’t accurate. Modern sounding words obviously don’t belong in a period piece. I mean, you wouldn’t want your knight calling out, “Hey!” right? Or using words like baboon, or calendar or susurration?  In truth, hey and calendar were around in the 13th century. And susurration was around in the 14th. And there are many others

You see, when writing a historical novel, period speech is the last thing you should worry about. The reader knows that you are translating. You are providing a version of the text that is understandable to your reader. It’s the same way with movies. Directors may have the actors speak in a different language, but there are subtitles right there for you to read. Often, they simply have the characters speak a little of their language, then break into English and it’s understood that they are still speaking their language. It’s the same with writers. We are the subtitles.

I can hear grumbling out there, and I know I risk being misunderstood. I am not saying that your historical novel should read like a James Patterson book. The reassuring cadence and diction of medieval speech is part of why we read these types of novels. And I think writers should strive for that. I work hard to avoid using words that I know were not around in the time period I am writing in. I do not use expressions/figures of speech that were not around in their day. But how can contorted would my story be if I couldn’t use the word road? Or stop? Or shout?

Directors may have the actors speak in a different language, but there are subtitles right there for you to read. It’s the same with writers. We are the subtitles.

I try to give my characters the flavor of medieval speech, while making sure that readers won’t stumble. Some people have said that my characters sound too modern when they speak; I wish they knew how religiously I check my word usage, and how hard I work to balance accuracy with readability. Do my characters say things in a way that wouldn’t have been said in their time period? Hell yeah. I know that my book would be completely incomprehensible to a person from the 14th century.

But then again, so would any other historical novel.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Can Language in Any Historical Novel Truly Be Authentic?

  1. Great, thought provoking article that provides good guidelines for writers trying to figure out how to handle this tricky challenge with historical novels.

    • Hi Eliza. Thanks very much. I’ll point out that these are *my* feelings on the matter, and I’m sure others have different views. Glad you enjoyed it =)