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Period Language in Historical Fiction – Revisited

Period Language in Historical Fiction – Revisited

I wrote a blog on using period language a few years ago and it is time I revisited the topic. I have now written three novels in The Atheling Chronicles series––the third will be released early in 2020––which are set in Danish ruled Anglo-Saxon England. So we have Anglo-Saxon speakers and Anglo-Danish speakers; the languages are merging to a degree, depending on the region.

I have been criticized for overdoing the archaic language in book #1. As a developing writer, I take that to heart and recognize where that criticism is valid. I do provide a glossary for Old English and Old Norse words I use, but not everyone likes flipping pages to look up words, though some appreciate having it.

I do use earlier forms of words to give a flavour of the period. I use wyf for wife, dæg for day, ealdemoder and ealdefæder for grandmother and grandfather, scilling for shilling, pening for penny, stenc for stink or stench, and déofol for devil, to give a few examples. I think most readers can decipher those forms without difficulty. If I introduce new (old) words, I try to use them in context, for example, if someone calls another a nithing or a badling or a grig, the reader may not know the word, but it is obvious they would not want to be one. Some may wish to use the glossary, others keep reading as we usually do when we encounter an unfamiliar word. (I looked up diffident the other day. I have been skipping over that word all my life).

Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and Old Norse are both Germanic languages, so with much hand waving and pantomime the English and Danes could communicate. I have used some Old Norse words–– jarl later becomes earl, rammy (lovely word) means disgusting, nattmara was a she-werewolf who haunted one’s dreams (hence nightmare)––and probably should have used more.

I found some great Old English sexual words (the f word not having come into use in the eleventh century). Sex was not dirty at that period of communal living, so none of the swear words involve body parts or the sex act. Swive or sard are verbs for copulation. The terms tarse, yard, and pintel refer to the penis. The c-word was used for the vagina, but was not used as an insult. I substituted the Latin cunnus. To swear, one had only to make oaths involving God, e.g. by God’s bones, by God’s blood, etc.

I believe the challenge in using old words is balance. My editor tells me to cut down on the Old English words and I do to some degree. I know not every reader has my passion for etymology (study of the origin of words) and I appreciate that I need reining in. If I deluge the reader with Old English, I throw them out of the story, which a writer must not do, so I must sprinkle those words in lightly as if they were English rosemary and thyme, just enough to give flavour.

Here is an unedited piece from my new novel, The Cold Hearth:

Vagn and the housecarls entered the hall, respectfully lowering their voices. They made their way to where Lambin had left a platter of food by the central fire. “I would ask your help in finding hirelings––builders and yrthlings,” I told Leofric. “We located a section of the weald from where we can cut timbers. We will need a few thralls, and I believe it is time for us to employ housecarls.” I saw the shadow that swept the joy from Selia’s face for an instant. She knew I wished to protect her, and my wanting housecarls told her I no longer felt I could do so alone.

I chose this piece because it contains more unfamiliar words than usual. So what cannot be understood? Housecarls? Look at the context. The speaker, Harald, wants to employ housecarls to protect Selia, therefore armed men, bodyguards. Hirelings? Those you hire. Yrthlings? Those who work the earth. Weald? Where else would you cut timber but in the woodland. Thralls? Okay, you might have to look that one up––slaves.

I also attempt to add more flavour with original forms of place names and historical characters. London is Lundenburh, the Thames is the River Tamesas, Winchester is Wintanceaster, and so on. With historical characters, I have tried to use the Old English forms except if the name is not recognizable. I changed Godgifu back to Godiva so readers would recognize the famous rider. I could have called Cnute––Knut or Knutr or the more common Canute––but my mother’s family name was Nute and as a child I figured I was a descendent of the great king. The Cnute spelling is a touch of the hat to that side of my heritage. (I understand Nute comes from the Cornish Trenewth––new village).

I think I am starting to ramble so I will bring this to a close. Let me just say, because of my feelings about balancing period language with modern English, that when I read a best-selling piece of historical fiction, I am put off by the language and the rhythm. Why would one write a story set in the fourth century with the same language and rhythm as one would write a modern thriller? I just do not get it.

This is a topic I would love to have feedback on. Do you, the reader, just want a story, or do you want to be drawn into a different world, a different time? And does all the research I do on language help to draw the reader into the world I am trying to create? Or am I just spinning the planked wheels of my wægn?

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