Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 1) Language
Language, or, more specifically, its usage, changes so rapidly nowadays that the writer who wishes to sound up to the minute is on a hiding to nothing.
Even if I were to successfully write a blog post using the latest idioms of the street, I suspect it would be out of date by the time it had been up on my site for twenty four hours.
What sounds edgy and street one day is laughed at the next.
Of course, older readers will laugh at it anyway, so whatever I do I end up getting jeered at.
Let’s go back a little. The language of the Victorian Poor or the upper classes in 1920’s England, say, is easy enough to research and imitate, and also easy enough to understand when read today, which makes it much easier to work with. The only real pitfall might be to use a word at a period of history before said word was in use. A writer could not refer to his seventeenth century English gentleman ‘shampooing his hair’, for example, since the word did not enter the English language until 1762 and even then meant ‘massage’, as was its original meaning in Hindi, and only acquired the meaning of ‘to wash the hair’ in 1860.
The language of medieval England is also fairly easy to research, but the novelist uses it accurately at his or her peril, for precisely the same reason that no one would use Latin to write a novel set in ancient Rome – they would immediately be losing 99.9% of their potential readers.
The first three lines of ‘Beowulf’, in the original Old English:
‘hwæt, we gar-dena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!’
Anyone understand that? Nope, me neither. Seamus Heaney translates it thus:
So, the Spear-Danes in days gone by,
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
An alternative translation I came across:
Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings,
Of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
We have heard, and what honour the athelings won.
Now, I like the Seamus Heaney translation, but I prefer the second one, since I feel that it gives me more of a flavour of the time. So, the original is fun to read for a scholar of Old English, but if it’s just the story that you want, it needs to be written in a language that the reader understands, perhaps with the voice of the time (or flavour). What do I mean by voice? Let me give an example in an imaginary sixteenth century setting:
‘By my troth!’ he exclaimed. Or…
‘By my troth!’ he exclaimeth.
In the first case, ‘By my troth!’, true to the time, conveys the voice of the time satisfactorily. In the second, the change from ‘exclaimed’ to ‘exclaimeth’ sounds awkward and cumbersome to modern ears, even if it be yet more true to the time.
Perhaps, then, the author does not need to write authentic language, but just to sound a bit authentic; to use extracts. Give a taste.
So, back to the streets. If I was to persist in my ambition to write a post in the genuine voice of an urban teenager, I am almost certain to fail.
Even if I were to pick up the words accurately, I would probably use them incorrectly, and the majority of my readers would not understand them in any case.
And so my answer would be to attempt merely a flavour of the speech.
What of a story set in a different culture to that of the writer? The novel that I am working on at the moment is set in India, and so I use several words and terms that will be familiar to Indian readers, but perhaps not to western ones.
Do I need to explain them? Or put in a glossary?
My feeling is not. An Indian writer would not feel the need to explain them, and they obviously help to give a more authentic voice or flavour to the narrative. Their use does not affect the flow of the story, either, since the reader can choose to look up the word if they wish, or simply infer the meaning and carry on. We all occasionally meet words we don’t recognise, in any case.
Does anyone think otherwise? How do you feel when you encounter dialect or unknown words in books?