Forsooth, Sir, Canst Thou Not Speak More Plainly?

Egads, mistress, art thou addressing me?

The style of language to adopt when writing historical fiction is a topic that keeps authors continuously arguing. Readers, too, have their own strong opinions as to whether a novel’s language is suited to the period in question. The main issue, of course, is whether or not the words sound too modern for the time. We hear comments like, ‘People in sixteenth century England would not have used those words.’ And in some cases, they are correct. We only need to check the derivation of the word to find out.

It’s very easy with everyday items. We all know, for example, that cars, trains and planes should not make an appearance in the sixteenth century. Nor washing machines, duvets or a million other things that we take for granted today. Not to mention electricity pylons across the countryside!

An sight unknown on the ancient landscape

But when it comes to general word use in a story, things are not as simple as that.  Language is constantly evolving. New words are added as technological advances are made. Other words become obsolete. And, of course, populations evolve. Immigration and emigration are nothing new. The English language is basically composed of a mixture of Celtic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Norman. But during the last seventy years in particular the massive scale of immigration into Britain, for example, has added many other words to the language – as indeed it has cultures. I know the United States can claim the same.

When all’s said and done, novelists are out to tell stories – and those stories must be accessible and interesting to readers. A novel set in Tudor times littered with thees, thous, wilts, hasts and forsooths and so on, would soon become . . . well, in my opinion, absolutely comical. We have many TV comedy sketches to back that up.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that the writer should resort to phrases such as, ‘What yer playin’ at buster?’ or, ‘Henry looked a right charlie in that hat.’ Gross exaggerations, of course, just to make a point, but such phrases would look no more out of place in a novel about Henry VIII than a string of egads and forsooths. 

Old language must be translated to be understood

What I believe most writers of historical fiction aim for is something close to a happy medium. A sprinkling of skilfully placed authentic historical terms will not appear ridiculous, whereas too many would do. Perhaps it’s all a question of style. A writer must set the correct tone for the period yet still move the story along in an engaging manner that modern readers can relate to.

Some years ago I read a short article by Michael Jecks, who’s written many historical fiction novels, many of them murder mysteries. Most are set in the Middle Ages. In the article, Jecks discussed criticism he’d had from reader(s) who considered the language used in his books to be inaccurate for the time. His answer was excellent. He simply pointed out that in the Middle Ages, the language used was totally different to that of modern times (basically Anlglo Saxon with a sprinkling of Celtic, Latin, Norse etc: in other words, Middle English) which today, only scholars of the period would understand.

More recently I found a YouTube presentation by Michael Jecks on the same theme. Here’s the link for anyone interested.

I’m sure that most historical fiction authors already do work along the lines Jecks outlines here. I know that I have tried to do so in my own two novels, Shadow of the Raven and the soon to be completed, Pit of Vipers.

One of the funniest things I’ve read on this subject was in a ‘Writing’ magazine back in the nineties. The author of the article was an editor, who told of the worst example of historical inaccuracy he’d ever come across in a work submitted to him in hope of publication. The novel was about Mary Queen of Scots. Although my wording may not be absolutely accurate (I read it a long time ago) it is certainly very close. In this scene, Mary supposedly says to her husband, Darnley:

‘Darnley, honey, let me fix you a chicken sandwich.’

Any comments on this fascinating subject would be very welcome.


5 thoughts on “Forsooth, Sir, Canst Thou Not Speak More Plainly?

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