Pitfalls for writers – 1) language

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Even if I were to successfully write a blog post using the latest idioms of the street, I suspect it would be out of date by the time it had been up on my site for twenty four hours.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.

Ouch!

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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?

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46 thoughts on “Pitfalls for writers – 1) language

  1. That’s excellent advice, Mick. I once made the mistake of writing an historical novel in the authentic language of the 16th century. (Well, it wasn’t really a mistake. It brought me a PhD but only my examiners – professors of Early Modern English – could understand it.) Oh, the pains I took to differentiate my thees from my thous, my groats from my dandiprats! Even Ben Jonson might have approved. (No, he wouldn’t have. He’d have called me a poetaster, a pseud. And he’d have been right.) I forgot the cardinal rule: write what readers can understand! And my readers did not, lamentably, live in Elizabethan England 😦

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      1. The novel is still languishing on my hard drive, Mick. It needs a lot of work. But it did inspire my subsequent historical novels, which are written in a more accessible style. I just have to remember: don’t write dialogue the way folk would have spoken at the time. Write in a neutral idiom that is not authentic but is not ludicrously wrong . Leonard Tourney did that with his Tudor mysteries. As a professor of Shakespearean studies he knew well enough how to replicate 16thc language. But, very wisely, he refrained.

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  2. I think most readers are comfortable with some unfamiliar words; they can guess their meaning from their context. And some readers just love them.
    But if there’s too many, they could get discouraged. So I’m with you on this, Mick.

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    1. Ah, I wondered whether I might see you here, Denise. ‘The Earl of Southampton’s Cat’ works especially well, I think, in the style that you have used. Your readers get an excellent flavour of the time, yet can still follow the tale easily enough. It is indeed a goodly example.

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      1. Thanks! Though I don’t know where I’d be without the O.E.D, which I can access through my local library. Some time back I wrote a novel set in NZ c.1912. So no problems with language, apart from the occasional use of contemporary slang and catchphrases, but the publisher had a mild concern that the language was too modern!

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        1. If you’re checking whether a word was used in a given period, you might enjoy Google’s new tool: Ngram Viewer. It shows the incidence of word usages from 1800 to 2000, as detected by Google when it recently scanned some 30 million books. For example, the ‘f’ word vanished in literature after 1820 (as we’d expect) but had climbed to a peak by 2000. (Ditto.) Conversely, the obsolete term ‘quondam’ was heavily used in the early 19thc but had almost disappeared by 2000.

          Ngram lets you input any word or phrase of your choice, including several terms at once so you can compare references to eg. Frankenstein versus references to Sherlock Holmes. (Not many of those before 1890.)

          Alas, the tool does not go back further than 1800. But for anyone writing historical fiction from that period onward it’s a boon. (For instance, you can’t have a character in 19thc New York refer to a ‘realtor’. The term didn’t emerge until 1918.): https://books.google.com/ngrams

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  3. By my troth, thou speaketh true. Forsooth, it behooves (behooveth?) that thou writeth for whom thou thinketh shalt read thy words. Alas and alack, there not be Shakespeare to readst thy works.

    As for an Indian novel, a glossary might be a good idea, but taht depends on how many Indian-isms you use. My one cent, for it’s your novel! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Himanshu. When I give my book its final edit I’ll make a decision on a glossary. I will have had feedback from a couple of readers by then, and I’ll see what they say. It will be useful to have opinions from someone who is perhaps less familiar with the words and terms than I am.

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  4. I can’t help thinking that dialect, slang, jargon and whatever in a novel works best as a kind of spice or garnish. A moderate amount adds interest and authenticity, but too much can make things a little hard to digest. Others may have different feelings about the question, though.

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  5. A great topic, Mick. Some writers like to write close to their immediate experience. Some like to write as far from their own experience as they possibly can. (Write what you know/write what you don’t know.) Readers are the same. Some like to read what they know, others like to read what they don’t know. So maybe, for all of the “don’t knows”, that includes a smattering of out-of-the-ordinary language?

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  6. it is a challenge; I’m editing a book just now where have the characters are Polish I decided, when the conversations are Pole to Pole I’d start with Polish and move to English even if only Hello.I think that helps and as you say readers pick up meaning from context well enough. Nice post, Mick

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  7. I think if you stop to explain words, you pull the reader out of the story. Using local expressions adds flavour to dialogue and helps the reader place themselves in the story – if there’s an unfamiliar word, they can always look it up. 🙂

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    1. Indeed, you interupt the flow. As you say, they can always look it up, which is why I might contemplate a glossary, so that rather than leaving the book to do so, they can flick to the back. But never footnotes, because they tend to catch the eye and take them away from the narrative.

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        1. Ah, this takes us into a whole new territory! ‘The Third Policeman’ by Flann O’Brien was a novel that consisted of over one third footnotes, nearly all of them referring to a fictitious character that he references continually in the tale, this also being integral to the whole story. It is a remarkable book; very dark humour. But even there the footnotes eventually wear the reader down.

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  8. I write historical, too (even though it’s fantasy), and I have to agree–it’s a knotty problem. How much and where, which touches to use. It’s very much a Goldilocks sort of quandary to get it just right. 🙂

    And I like the second translation of Beowulf better, too. 🙂

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    1. Does writing fantasy give you a little more leeway to explain things, Cathleen? After all, you can’t expect your readers to know what a new land is like or who a brand new character is, whereas with ‘pure’ historical fiction the author might hesitate over whether they needed to explain who (for example) John of Gaunt was, and how he was related to other characters. I wonder whether the explanation would then flow comfortably as part of the narrative. Just wond’rin’.

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    1. Definitely. Although, just to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, what if you read that someone nibbled a (word unknown) suspiciously, and then immediately spat it out? Would you then want to stop and find out what it was?

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      1. I’d wonder but I could keep on reading without losing the overall sense of the story. And it would be possible to work in a detail or two without if feeling like an information dump: it looked like charcoal; it was the color of mud; it was hard enough to chip a tooth.

        When I read something set in a culture I don’t know, I expect to be at sea a bit, so when I don’t get all the details I don’t worry over it much.

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        1. No, that’s good. I was hoping that would be the answer! With my own novel in process I don’t intend to include footnotes because I think that’s distracting, but may put a glossary at the back. Thanks for your comments.

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          1. I’m not sure how relevant it is,but it keeps running through my mind so I’ll say (or type) it in case it’s of some use: I read a comment by a black American writer some years ago that in a largely white publishing culture only white writers could assume that they’d be understood without needing to think about how to clue readers in to the language they were using or the reality of the world they were writing about. Everyone else ends up, to some extent, translating for themselves. (That last comment is my addition.)

            In spite of being white, I’ve always been an outsider to the mainstream culture, so the issue resonates with me.

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            1. An interesting point, Ellen. I think that’s a little more complex than it appears on the surface, though. We generally write for ourselves, at least as we begin the process; in other words using ourselves as our reader. As we develop the work, if it’s set in a time or place that isn’t our own, we begin to wonder what we need to explain to our readers, as we assume that they wouldn’t be familiar with it, either. I don’t think that it really occurs to us that our own time and place may be unfamiliar to others, A black American writer might well be more conscious of this than a white writer, aware that the makeup of our western culture, and hence the majority of western readers, reflects a white dominance.

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  9. As a writer, I’m sometimes able to write simply for myself, but most of the time what I write is shaped, as I write it, by my awareness of what a reader might not know. Often far too much so–I explain and overexplain and have to go back and cut back so the story can break free.

    After I posted my comment, I remembered that the piece of writing I referred to was about minimalism and why black writers tended to be maximalists. The writer was arguing that a minimalist had to assume that a few sparse cultural references would be enough whereas a black writer couldn’t assume that.

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    1. That seems to make sense. That’s why I’ve spent quite a bit of time pondering how much to explain in my novel. Set in India, there is going to be a certain amount that is unfamiliar to the majority of potential readers in UK (for example).
      And as for cutting back to free the story, I think that cutting back is always good. And I love that expression.

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