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Historical Fiction Discussions > Using Vernacular Language in Historical Fiction; Do you love it or hate it?

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message 1: by Jean (new)

Jean Roberts | 27 comments As an author of historical fiction I have struggled with using the language of the day to make my books seem more realistic. My first book was set in the 1650s and the second in the 1750s. I used only a smattering of words common to those times. One reader dinged me on some thees and thous, she thought it didn't ring true.
I recently read the excellent Acres Bastard by William Turmel, set in the 1100s, he refrained from old-fashioned words and wrote in modern English. I loved it. I have also recently read a book set in the 900s and the 1750s. In both instances the author made heavy use of vernacular and language that they felt was appropriate to the era. I did not care for either. And felt it bogged down the story. In one case I had to find a dictionary of old English words to decipher their meaning.
As readers, what are your thoughts on the use of language to set the scene. Do you like it or would you prefer plain modern English?

message 2: by Kymm (new)

Kymm | 1745 comments I don't mind some of the time period language, but too much and I find it hard to read and follow along with the story. I find it hard to follow along when I've got to look up every other word to find out the meaning. I say some is okay, too much not so good.

message 3: by Abigail (new)

Abigail Bok (regency_reader) | 598 comments For me, it depends a lot on the era. I write stories set in the year 1800. Part of the pleasure from my perspective is the way people expressed themselves then--the vocabulary and sentence structure--so reproducing the language (of authors like Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Samuel Johnson) is integral to the process of world building. Some readers love it, others not so much.

But surely that wouldn't work for stories set deeper in the past! The further removed a story is from a present day or from modern cultural contexts, the harder it is to use period language to convey the spirit of the age. It's harder for us to know what the language was really like, for one thing; and our sense of what it was may be more influenced by secondary sources (for instance, my sense of Elizabethan language is as much influenced by British children's books of the Golden Age as it is by Shakespeare, and using either would no doubt limit readership!).

This seems like an area where discretion is the greater part of valor.

message 4: by Rick (new)

Rick DeStefanis | 21 comments Vernacular or dialect needs to be used as a spice, carefully and in the right portions. Too much and you slow the story, possibly ruin it. Too little and the prose may come off flat. I struggled with this while writing my mountain man characters dialog in my Rawlins books. It's a balancing act along with a consistency element, which is why creative writing is more art than science.

message 5: by Don (new)

Don Jacobson | 4 comments While I tend to write more in the Regency world--oh, let's be specific, Pride and Prejudice Variations--I find that I will structure the narrative to allow readers to get a small taste of a character sounding as they would imagine a working-class person would sound. In other words, I deal with the trope (as established, say, by My Fair Lady) as the reality which my readers believe to be true.

I find that the effort to be "authentic" may well bury the narrative, plot, or traits necessary to move the story along.

But, I then transition the "cant" speaker into accessible English. In my forward, I note for my readers that most of us tend to "normalize" language upon continual exposure, in essence using that Universal translator resting between our ears to turn "Oi" into "Hey."

At times this practice reminds me of a PhD dissertation that "shows" just how profound the piece is by the inaccessibility of the language used to express the thoughts. "If you cannot blind them with brilliance, baffle them with BS."

That stated...I do try to keep the vocabulary consistent with the time frame of the story. Thus, for 1809...No contractions for the upper classes (at least until 1860s) unless I am seeking to illustrate ruder origins of a character...No "teenagers" until 1880s. And, no "OK" or "okay" until an American speaker would utter it after 1836 (look up "Old Kinderhook).

I have used "closure" (a word which appeared after 1925 in Jungian psychology) back in 1811, but only for a character who has lived in that future and has transitioned back.

Love your OED!

message 6: by Sanne (new)

Sanne (sanneennas) | 27 comments I really don't like the use of "ye olde english" and I generally avoid books which use this style element. It's so very rarely used in an effective way. Considering that a lot of hf succesfully captures the historical atmosphere without using period-specific language, there have to be other good reasons to include it in the text (and the vast majority of books don't need it as it adds nothing to what that particular text is trying to do).

The way I've seen older language and dialect used, is mostly in dialogue, and it often makes the text more rigid and harder to get through. I always find that side effect of the style element curious as the texts written in the historical periods in which the hfs are set, are far more readable than these renderings.
I suspect some kind of hypercorrection is at play here, with writers thinking that tone is "historically correct". Perhaps based on other examples in hf, even though there is no historical evidence to support that? Or perhaps a reliance on more formal written language as the source without realizing that people would have spoken very differently in day-to-day conversation?

The few instances where I've seen this style element used with great succes is where the author has really thought about what it would add to the story. For instance, Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić uses older language in the parts in which you read passages from a town chronicle. Naturally, that would be written in older language, with different spelling, and he clearly studied historical examples to get the tone just right.

I sometimes wonder whether hf authors would benefit from looking at the use of this style element from the perspective of a translator. After all, you're doing a bit of translation in rendering an older version of the language in a modern text. There are different schools of thought on translation, and what makes a good translation. Are you going for a feel of the text being written in the reader's (modern) language, or do you want the reader to feel the historical language? And regardless of the approach, how do you go about making it a readable text, in which you (translator of the story set in older times) disappear and don't use any jarring language that makes the reader question the text.

message 7: by Klara (new)

Klara Wilde | 237 comments I have agonised over this issue at length as a writer of historical fiction. Like many of you. I think the language of that particular period should not be 100% ignored. It is more about striking a good balance btw readability and giving some flavour of historical and geographical authenticity. For my novel set in 16th c. southern France I finally settled for a few words here and there and sometimes an entire phrase when the characters talk to each other in Renaissance French. And also the much rarer Occitan word as well. That I then translate into early 19th c. English, which my novel is written in.

message 8: by Anna (new)

Anna Faversham (annafaversham) | 99 comments I was just about to type my thoughts when I read Abigail's post and all I need to say is that I agree with her.

Plus - as a writer (early 1800s) I won't use any words that weren't in existence then. I think that is important.

As a reader, it is easier to follow a plot in modern day English style but it does spoil the whole experience of immersing myself in a different time, a different place.

message 9: by Bryn (new)

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 298 comments I like both: the vernacular of the day and our vernacular, used together. I think because neither is sufficient on its own to convey both the specifics of a past and the humanness of its people.

As a reader, the only strategy that concerns me is when people are made to talk in a stiff or stilted way, simply because they are historical. I want language as living as the language I hear around me -- and it has to be true that their spoken language was as flexible and rich, although that won't be reflected in the primary sources. I think to write a more formal language in historical fiction risks making them less humanly complex and alive.

message 10: by Murielle (new)

Murielle Cyr | 9 comments If you don't want to lose your readers, I think you have to offer them some language that reflects the period you're writing about without going overboard. I just finished getting through 'I, Claudius' and I have to admit I had to skip a few passages. Too much vernacular is equivalent to reading in a foreign language.

message 11: by Robin (new)

Robin (ukamerican) | 548 comments As long as it's used in a context that makes it obvious what it means, I don't mind some of it, but it can get too much if you're constantly using it, like too many "thees" and thous" - I mean, it's not Shakespeare and no one expects it to be.

On the flip side, I hate when language which is too modern is used, like modern slang or phrases.

It's definitely a balance. You want it to read seamlessly with nothing too modern/out of place or too unfamiliar/historical to jar the reader out of the story.

message 12: by Barry (new)

Barry Marks | 55 comments To diverge a bit I read a few years ago that by about 100 years before Shakespeare's time "thee" and "thou" had changed to "you" but written language lags behind spoken language so "thee" was pronounced "you".

I read this in an overview of linguistics and this was given as an example of what can happen when spoken language changes and written language changing more slowly.

This doesn't affect this topic but I thought it might be seen as an interesting aside.


message 13: by Fiona (last edited Apr 23, 2019 02:54AM) (new)

Fiona Hurley (fiona_hurley) | 229 comments Ironically, the closer the book is to our own time, the more it needs to adhere to the speech of the time.

If your book is set in the 1960s, some of your readers may have lived through that period, so any anachronistic speech will be glaring to them.

If your book is set in Victorian England, many of your readers will be familiar with writers of that era and so will have expectations about what the characters will sound like. But trying too hard to sound like Dickens will backfire (if your reader wanted to read Dickensian speech, she'd be reading Dickens).

If your book is set in the 16th century, nobody is going to expect your characters to sound like Shakespeare, A flavoring of period speak (the occasional "God's wounds!") would add to the atmosphere, but overdo it and your reader will feel he is back at school.

If your book is set in 12th century England, your characters would be speaking Middle English (think Chaucer) or Norman French, so you are "translating" what they say anyway.

message 14: by Kathy (new)

Kathy | 2647 comments I have to agree with Fiona in that it all depends on what era you have set the story in.

message 15: by Mary (new)

Mary Elizabeth Hughes | 82 comments I also agree with Fiona. I wanted my book, set in the 1890s, to sound authentic and old fashioned. I worked hard at avoiding anachronistic language, checking numerous words in various sources to discover when they were first used. As the book is epistolary, I could be more casual ( occasional contractions) in letters to friends, but more formal in letters to family. Avoiding all contractions is really difficult.

message 16: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Walker (jkwalkerauthor) Period accuracy is only one part of the bigger question of language in HF. I write WWI/1920s HF, so it's a bit less of an awkward issue for me. However, I was confronted with other similar language "authenticity" issues. Three examples. 1) What do you do with dialects of English? In my first book with three main characters, two are from Newfoundland and one is from Dublin. In the first draft, I scrupulously stuck to phonetically correct Newfounese dialect... and it was unreadable. The final version has retained only a little seasoning of Newfounese. 2) What do you do with characters who are supposedly speaking in a foreign language? I'll just leave that one hanging, but it was a tough issue for me in both my second and third books. 3) What do you do with period-authentic profanity, racial/ethnic slurs, etc? Writing in WWI--where the soldiers in the trenches invented the F-Bomb--I ended up revising out 90% of the completely period accurate F-Bombs between first and last draft. Racial and ethnic slurs in the 1920s were widely used and thought nothing of by the white population (I refer you to Hemingway as Exhibit A). In my second book, with a central theme of racial discrimination in WWI and the 1920s, I ended up editing out all but two of the many uses of the N-Word between first and last draft.

In my experience, how to approach this is part of both the craft and the art of HF writing. Although I chose to capture a sense and feel of period language and dialect in my books, I did not slavishly replicate it. I'm a friend of Wayne (note the first name) Turmel and have reviewed both of his excellent Crusades-era Lucca le Pou novels. You're right, Wayne chooses to eschew chasing period language. I found it a little jarring at first, but quickly adapted myself to it. I would say, however, that it does seem to lend a kind of YA feel to the writing, for whatever that's worth. (And Wayne and I have a running debate over whether he should just embrace the "YA-ness" of these books as a marketing strategy.)

message 17: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Walker (jkwalkerauthor) Klara wrote: "I have agonised over this issue at length as a writer of historical fiction. Like many of you. I think the language of that particular period should not be 100% ignored. It is more about striking a..."

Very well said. Strongly agree.

message 18: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Walker (jkwalkerauthor) Bryn wrote: "I like both: the vernacular of the day and our vernacular, used together. I think because neither is sufficient on its own to convey both the specifics of a past and the humanness of its people.


"...the only strategy that concerns me is when people are made to talk in a stiff or stilted way, simply because they are historical."

You are absolutely correct, Bryn. As an American, this brings to my mind this odd (to we Yanks) phenomenon in historical movies--why do all the Romans have an English accent?

message 19: by Wayne (new)

Wayne Turmel (wayneturmel) | 32 comments Jean wrote: "As an author of historical fiction I have struggled with using the language of the day to make my books seem more realistic. My first book was set in the 1650s and the second in the 1750s. I used o..."

Jean, thank you for the call out to Acre's Bastard (although my name is Wayne, I'll tolerate anything since you recommend the book to people.) The issue of vernacular is a tough one. In the Crusades, people spoke a mix of High French, Latin, Pidgin French, Arabic and lord knows what all. It would have been hard to find a common vernacular to set the tone. I think the closer we get to the modern time, the more important it is to reflect the language of the times. In Count of the Sahara, set in the Twenties, I was very sure to use appropriate jargon, slang and the like, since we KNOW what those people sounded like. And why do all Romans sound like they have English Accents?

message 20: by Fiona (new)

Fiona Hurley (fiona_hurley) | 229 comments Jeffrey wrote: "As an American, this brings to my mind this odd (to we Yanks) phenomenon in historical movies--why do all the Romans have an English accent?"

I've heard this phenomenon called "The Queen's Latin". I think it's because an English accent sounds "Old World" and an American accent sounds "New World". Most fiction set in the future seems to have characters with American accents (except for Jean-Luc Picard, a Frenchman who talks like an Englishman).

message 21: by Abigail (new)

Abigail Bok (regency_reader) | 598 comments Clever name for it! I think you're right--English accents to the American ear suggest either past times or high cultivation.

Of course, in older movies (especially from the thirties and forties) American actors were trained to speak in a pseudo-British accent (actually, it was more like Main Line or Locust Valley Lockjaw, local upper-crust American dialects that have largely died out in my lifetime). I guess the idea was that it made them seem classy. A Philadelphia Story is an interesting example: the wealthy characters speak Main Line and the working-class characters speak several versions of what we would consider ordinary American English. In those days, you could know a lot about a person's status and background by the way they spoke.

Teresa “Teri” (teresaelizabethann) | 8 comments I’m American (by birth). However, I’m such an Anglophile, I prefer books I listen to on Audible to be narrated by someone British with a “proper” English Accent when needed and good accents from all the different areas of the UK 🇬🇧

When reading, I do not want to look up every single word. However, if a good period piece were written in my country’s everyday language it would be all wrong!
It’s like those cheap “bodice rippers” where the wild, strong and gorgeous Highland warrior talks to the captured, yet always willing maiden with the ripped bodice as though he was the head of a gang US thugs.
Not, that I read these 😂... but I have before...in my teens. 😊

message 23: by Abigail (new)

Abigail Bok (regency_reader) | 598 comments Nice to meet a fellow Anglophile, Teri! I was brought up on English children's books and has English teachers to the point that it was hard for me to tell what was English and what was American.

message 24: by Kymm (new)

Kymm | 1745 comments I don't mind when the author uses the periods vernacular, to a point. My problem is I start talking that way to my family and friends when I'm reading a book written in that time periods vernacular. They have no idea what I'm talking about half the time.

message 25: by Carole (new)

Carole LaRue (carolelarue) | 3 comments I hear you Kymm...I just finished Wunderland and my partner has noticed me using German words. A very difficult book to digest by the way!

message 26: by Fiona (new)

Fiona Hurley (fiona_hurley) | 229 comments I was interested to hear English accents on the new HBO series "Chernobyl". Even though the characters are Ukrainian or Russian, and it takes place only 33 years ago, it seems that the "in the past they spoke with English accents" rule still applies.

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