What’s in a word? Authentic language in historical fiction

One of the challenges facing a writer of historical fiction is that our language keeps changing. In 2015, our vocabulary, our speech patterns, and our tolerance for formal grammar conventions are all very different to what they were 200 years ago, or even 100. We need:

  • to use words that were in use at the time, but that modern readers will understand
  • write dialogue that sounds authentic, but that is also easy to read for modern readers.

Ian Reid, in his blog Reid on Writing, talks about:

…the challenge of creating a language that achieves verisimilitude – the semblance of reality. It’s no easy matter to persuade your readers that your narrative medium is rendering accurately how people spoke and wrote in your chosen period and place. The writing must seem to embody their characteristic turns of phrase, their conversational habits, the structure of their sentences – not only to avoid anachronism but also to gain an insight into the way they thought and felt, which would sometimes have been different from what we’re used to today. So meticulous attention to language isn’t pedantic in novels of this kind – it’s vital for credibility. But it needs to be done in a manner that avoids weighing down the story and slowing down the reader.

And John Yeoman points out that such language must not sound too modern to modern ears.

If the reader detects a linguistic howler in our work (although the reader may be wrong), the illusion is shattered. When I had a character in my last Elizabethan novel abandon his ‘go cart’ to ‘jet’ about Europe, arrive in England by ‘bus’, take his ‘train’ to Slough, then leave his ‘car’ at Ivinghoe, some critics chided me for my anachronisms.
Nonsense! I was simply being faithful to the everyday language of the 1590s. Those terms, surprisingly, were associated with transport in the period. The truly erudite reader, I felt, would have understood (and chortled). But s/he didn’t. In the reader’s view, I had committed five howlers.
When I was researching for this post, the word I kept coming across was ‘authenticity’. We simply cannot accurately reproduce the language of the past.  What we can do is give the readers a flavour of the past; a sense of authenticity. This becomes more and more acute (as Lynn Shepherd points out in a blog post on authenticity) as we go further back in time:

People in the past didn’t just dress differently from us, they talked differently too, and that difference gets wider the further back you go. And at some point – probably around the year 1500 – authenticity of language becomes literally impossible: if you’re writing about the Trojan war you simply can’t do your dialogue in Ancient Greek, any more than a character like Cadfael can speak in Middle English (or, indeed, medieval Welsh).  So some sort of compromise has to be found.

Do you opt for a style that conveys some notion of the period, or take the view that your characters would have spoken the ‘ordinary English’ of their time, so allow them to use ‘ordinary English’ as spoken now? I’ve seen both approaches – and many variants in between – and each has both pros and pitfalls. The danger with the former is what I call Forsooth Syndrome, in which you end up with characters spouting a queasy mixture of contemporary English liberally sprinkled with cod words and phrases designed to give a period feel. It can sound very phoney – a bit like a newly-built pub decked out with reproduction horse brasses. But going for the full-on modern-English-and-be-damned approach does make the task of creating that elusive ‘atmosphere’ all the harder.

I’ve tried to keep my vocabulary authentic. I’ve used contractions in my general descriptions, but not in the conversation of my upper-class ladies (except in moments of great stress). Otherwise, I think my writing is modern in style. I hope I’ve done enough to give an authentic early 19th century flavour to my writing.

To keep the vocabulary authentic has meant researching all sorts of unusual topics, such as what words were used for intimacy in my time period. And where I’ve failed, I’ve been ably supported by my excellent proofreader, who has highlighted and questioned words that felt modern to her.

Yesterday, she sent me a link to a resource Mary Robinette Kowal created when writing her Regency Magic series. It is a list of all the words Jane Austen used: 14,793 of them. She has generously posted it on her website, as a text file and as a plugin for Open Office. If you’re writing in the late Georgian or Regency era, go take a look. (And if you haven’t read Kowal’s Glamourist histories, do yourself a favour and check them out.)


5 thoughts on “What’s in a word? Authentic language in historical fiction

  1. I got caught out with Candle’s Christmas Chair, because I have Min wearing overalls in the first scene. A reviewer says haughtily that a girl would not have been wearing overalls during the regency.

    In the 18th and early 19th century, overalls were what we today would call over trousers – they probably didn’t have a bib. But they were certainly in existence. For Min to wear them – even in the privacy of her workshop – was certainly shocking, but it wasn’t anachronistic. (And, given the work she was doing, it was very sensible. She didn’t expect someone to be directed to her workshop, after all!)

  2. Hello Jude – Thanks for the reference to my blog. I’m glad to see that we agree about this important matter of appropriate language in historical fiction. Yes, the key is managing to convince readers that the language used SEEMS authentic, even though we know we’ve had to make some compromises for the sake of readability. Interesting to see from your website that you’re contemplating a novel set in “Victorian New Zealand in the 2nd half of the 19th century.” That’s the period for the action of my first novel, The End of Longing, which begins in NZ and returns to it but is also set in several other countries. Best wishes – Ian Reid

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