Saturday, May 30, 2009

Anachronistic language in fantasy




Some time ago, I read a heroic fantasy story submitted for critiques where the characters said “okay” and “hi”. That shattered the suspension of disbelief. It’s difficult to imagine Conan the Barbarian greeting Red Sonja with “Hi!” or even “Hello!”

Different fantasies, different thresholds

Heroic and traditional fantasies require the most care in this regard. Some writers of historicals are careful to reproduce past styles of speech, address and narrative, which contributes to the realism of the stories, but in Matthew Woodring Stover’s Jericho Moon, the protagonists tangle with Joshua ben Nun and the Habiru tribes while telling each other to “Cheer up” and “be a sport”. The book is still an enjoyable read, but the writer’s style tends to be breezy and amusing, and the casual modern language fits in with that.

Types of anachronisms

Some anachronistic language slips under the readers’ radar. The moles in William Horwood’s Duncton Chronicles say “Hello” to each other, but “Hello” is such a common word now (one of its earliest uses was in the New York Tribune in 1843) that the context has to be really alien for it to stand out.

The characters’ educational level also makes a difference. I once read a fantasy where mercenaries used terms like “administrative” and “ratio”, and that stood out jarringly. Writers could still pull this off, though. If characters are educated to the point where they normally use such words – such as those in Kara Dalkey’s Goa, who pepper their conversation with words like “profligacy”, “efficacious” and “labyrinthine” – this will seem more normal.

Some readers, however, do look up words to check how historically accurate they are, or are aware in advance of when a word is used inappropriately. A review of a historical romance pointed out that the heroine could not sit “ramrod straight” when ramrods were developed for use with early firearms, and those hadn’t been invented yet.

Alternatives to anachronisms

In a discussion on whether or not to use such terms, another writer pointed out that it might sometimes be less intrusive to use a simple “hello” than to invent some term that would stand out, especially if such a term doesn’t fit in with the rest of the story. If characters use modern-day speech except for greeting each other with, “Fair morning and fine noon”, that’s going to call attention to itself, and probably not in a good way.

A good example of a term being adapted to fit with the timeline of a story occurs in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, where the children greet each other with “Ho” rather than “Hi”. The term struck me as a bit odd the first time I read it, but it was so small a change that it was easy to get used to, and after a while it seemed normal in the context of the story.

Languages do change and evolve, and that was more subtle than Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. After making my way through “surprizes”, “sophas” and “connexions”, I think I got a “headach”. A little of that kind of authenticity goes a long way, and for me, a story also needs to balance faithfulness to its time period with ease of readability.

13 comments:

Kami said...

This is a great topic. I'm one of those readers that helped make the Jon/Norrell book famous, since I loved that narrative style. The spellings and conventions didn't give me a headache. But I'm aware that I'm a rare reader that way, and it's very wise to be sensitive to the audience's tolerance for thick, truly period (or fake truly period) prose.

One thing that I think is terribly overused is the elimination of contractions to make something sound period. OMG. That sort of stilted language has to be used pretty sparingly, or after a while I start reading the thing in bad B movie acting voices.

grace said...

I'm actually working on this problem (more the Ender's Game angle) b/c I'm writing a novel set waaaay in the future, and I figure the language would have changed by then so I don't want to write it in 21st-c American English. So it's interesting to think about what the language could be doing then, but also difficult to figure out how far I can take it without the reader throwing the book across the room.

/grace (longtime reader, infrequent commenter)

A. Shelton said...

Anthony Burgess changes language a great deal to great effect in his book "A Clockwork Orange." The reader is simply dropped into the dialect the narrator uses. It's easy to pick up what's being discussed by context, but Burgess does slip in the definitions of some words and phrases in the course of the novel, but not in such a way to really throw the reader out of the book. One thing I particularly like is his use of the compound word "horrorshow" as we use "great," "fantastic," and "bad," in other words something exciting or especially good.

gypsyscarlett said...

"One thing that I think is terribly overused is the elimination of contractions to make something sound period."

Agreed. Not to mention, that the average person didn't go around speaking like they were in a BBC production back then. For my WIP which takes place in the 19th century New England, I did tons of research, including diaries, and they used contractions. And they swore. They weren't all uppity, uppity.

writtenwyrdd said...

Anachronistic language isn't the problem; it's anachronistic language that stands out! If it's seamless and the reader isn't snagged on words like ratio or okay, I think it is generally fine to use some more modern words in fantasy.

However, as you note, it has more to do with the style of the writing and whether or not the words fit that style.

I just read something that was written in legitimate Middle English (fairly well, too, based on my limited and long ago study of Middle English) and it was incredibly off-putting to read. So, being totally accurate isn't a go either. You need to sound old fashioned or period original without actually being so original the readers cannot follow you.

Now there's a trick.

As always, an excellent post.

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

Lack of contractions without anything else to distinguish the speech always makes me think of androids (thanks to Star Trek).

Though it would be believable if there were other ways to distinguish the character's speech - for instance, polysyllabic words and a grandiose style. Then the lack of contractions would seem more like something unique to the character (and, by extension, to that time period).

Marian said...

Hi Kami,

As well as a lack of contractions, I'm turned off by fake Shakespearan-esque speech - that always comes off as flowery and overdone. Especially if there's a lot of "thee" and "thou".

Marian said...

Hi Grace, thanks for commenting!

Languages aren't my forte, but I love seeing what other writers make of them. Especially projecting how languages will change in the future or far future. That's a great way to subtly (or not-so-subtly) indicate that we're not in 2009 any more.

Marian said...

Hi, A. Shelton,

I wish I'd been able to find an example of a book similar to A Clockwork Orange that I had actually read. Maybe I should just give that book a try. I've heard that it's not too hard to guess or figure out what the various terms mean.

One more thing to add to the "what I'm going to do after I quit work but before I start school again" list. :)

Marian said...

Hi writtenwyrdd,

You're right - it works if it works. If the writer's good enough to pull it off, anachronistic language in fantasy can be used. And sometimes has to be used - my main characters tend to be scientists, so they use scientific terms. Even if they're a few hundred years ahead of reality, that stands out less than fabricated terms.

Glad you liked the post!

GunnerJ said...

I wish I'd been able to find an example of a book similar to A Clockwork Orange that I had actually read. Maybe I should just give that book a try. I've heard that it's not too hard to guess or figure out what the various terms mean.

I was surprised how quickly it started to make sense just from context. But it never stops having an alienating effect, distancing you from the actual brutality of the action, which I think was one the the intended effects of the lingo.


One more thing to add to the "what I'm going to do after I quit work but before I start school again" list. :)

Personal update: I think I might be getting aboard that train in the next few months, toot toot! (I should use my own blog for this...)

Marian said...

I don't mind you mentioning it here. :) So what are you going to study? And is it going to be full-time or will you work as well?

GunnerJ said...

Even though you don't mind, I have sent you an email to avoid clutter. :)