Period Language in Historical Novels?

I now have my second medieval novel underway, but I’m still not sure if I have perfected medieval-speak.  I do however, have my own particular take on it. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Balance is everything. Do not over-do the period jargon and do not under-do it. Speech has to be natural and just modern enough that the reader is comfortable with it. Words or constructions that “throw the reader out” must not be used.
  2. Whatever historical period you choose, some form of parody has been set there or the seeds of stereotypes have been planted–

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

“What do you have there?”

“A sackful of ears.” (Wayne and Shuster)

For the Middle Ages, I’m recalling Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. So unless you’re spoofing the genre, avoid all the “forsooths,” “zounds,” “fair maidens,” and “gadzooks.”

  1. Avoid anachronisms. Make sure what you are talking about actually existed at that time. I had lovely descriptions of my female protagonist’s golden tresses and words of appreciation on the lips of her suitors, until I discovered that only young girls and prostitutes wore their hair exposed. So proper research is necessary, but does that relate to language? Sure it does. How can you call someone a sadist if the Marquis deSade never lived until the nineteenth century? How can a character “turn a blind eye” when Admiral Nelson had yet to raise a telescope to his eye patch and ignore the semaphored orders not to pursue the Danish fleet?
  2. You are watching Game of Thrones and someone is called a “fuckin’ bastard” and it seems to fit. But Game of Thrones is historical fantasy (and bloody good in my opinion); the language works because we think the characters would speak that way. Good writing. I have characters that are eleventh century Danes and Saxons; the “f-word” was not yet in vogue, and though “bastard” meant illegitimate offspring, it did not have the negative connotations the word enjoyed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So what would you call a scoundrel in the eleventh? Well, you could compare him to an animal–pig, goat, dog–or you might use a word like “dastard,” meaning a stupid person. Am I being too meticulous? Maybe, but an ounce of fun has just been added to the writing.
  3. I resurrect lovely archaic words that are sadly out of use. The moon waxes and wanes. Misgivings are quelled. Wagons once again become wains. Vikings sail in drakkars. Old occupations are dusted off and brought out into the light: cordwainers, fletchers, fullers, spooners, proctors, and horners.
  4. I find old place names: England was Engla-lond when the Danes came; Southampton was South Hamtun (or Hamwic earlier).
  5. I pull words apart to reveal their original meanings–before they got taken for granted. Farewell becomes the instruction “fare well”; welcome returns to the statement “well come”; tomorrow reappears as “to the morrow;” awe-full might re-emerge as a positive descriptor. Nurse goes back to its base: nurturer, nourisher–and is called that.
  6. And then I take a lesson from Shakespeare–or Edward deVere if you remove the mask–who added 10,000 or more words to the English language, and I play with the language and make up words. So, the man who takes the nobles’ horses to the stable is the “stabler.” The players who don disguises for their roles are “guisers.” And now I’m really having fun.

Let me find a passage from my finished novel as a sample. Gwyn is a sometimes (oft times) humorous sidekick to my protagonist, Harald, son of King Cnute. Here he tells a tale while lying back, gazing at the night sky after a night of drinking. Gwyn is Welsh.

“I had this girl once. Agga was her name. By the saints she were a beauty. Oh, I loved that lass and I think she loved me. The two of us, we could make the hay fly, true enough. I’d be with her still, but she couldn’t take a jape. What a temper had the woman. What finally ended it for me was this day she were gathering eggs. Agga goes into the henhouse with her basket, didn’t she? And there were this clutch of eggs in the nest. She were reaching for an egg and it crushes flat in her hand, dry as an autumn leaf. She picks up a second one, didn’t she? Same thing. Crushed, nothing inside at all. And they were all the same. I’d gone and pinpricked ’em and blown the guts out into a bowl. Angry? You should ‘ave seen that girl. Chased me around the yard with a hayfork, didn’t she? Mind you I were laughing so hard, I could hardly snatch a breath. I think that were the lark that finished it ‘tween Agga and me. She married some dolt of a ploughman and was birthin’ a bearn a year the last I heard tell. Lord, I miss that girl, don’t I?”

So, looking past the attempt at colourful dialect in this piece, you should only find words that had ancestors in Danish-influenced Anglo/Saxon English, for example “lark” and “jape” are used instead of prank and joke. I use the archaic form “birthing” and often reverse sentence structure into Yoda-speak, such as “…a temper had the woman.” “Dolt” only came into use in the sixteenth century, but it sounded too good so I kept it.

There you have it, my in-process formula for medieval-speak. Works for me. Or does it? Comments?

Garth out.

3 thoughts on “Period Language in Historical Novels?”

  1. What about ” fare thee well” ? I love the Yoda speak as well and all that historical language is awesome. Better you than me doing all that research. write on Garth

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Jane. I could use “fare thee well,” but then I’d have to use more thees and thous in order to be consistent, and I don’t think modern readers want to see that many of them. But it’s great that I got you thinking about medieval-speak. I just sent away for a book called “Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases.” I hope it’s filled with loads of little gems. Thanks for reading the blog.

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