Research: mediaeval only. The things I have to read ...

Ach, it’s a tough one, but I got three comments about anachronisms in my language this week, so got to make a comment, I guess.

This is a hard one to comment on, because no matter what I say, I will be wrong in the eyes of some.

Some years ago, I was contacted by a delightful Canadian lady, who wrote to tell me that the language used on a specific page really upset her. In fact it threw her, and she could not read any further.

The word?  “Posse”. She felt it was far too twentieth century for a book set in the thirteen hundreds.

Posse in these terms comes from “posse comitatus”, which meant all those men of a certain age who could be called upon by a sheriff. Usually it meant a force of men to maintain the law – usually to suppress riots or disorders. Sometimes they were the force used to help the King lay siege to recalcitrant cities, such as Bristol after their tallage riots in 1316. The term was defined from the Statues of Winchester, 1285. Modern language, it isn’t.

But this opens up language to a hideous degree. What sort of language should an author use? After all, should I worry about the precise language to the extent of only using words that were in common usage at the time? If so, my vocabulary will be restricted. A lot of words have been invented since 1327.

Further, should I only ever use words with their correct, contemporary meanings? If so, words like “nice” will be used rather more sparingly, because in medieval times, “nice” meant “accurate, precise”. Not quite the same as now.

Should I be cautious about seemingly erroneous words. The fact that trebuchets and mangonels were referred to as “artillery” may seem peculiar, as does the fact that a sling fired a “bullet” might appear entirely anachronistic, but they’re still valid. And when I write about “trash” and “garbage”, many English readers think me American. But these words are correct. Trash meant anything cut or lopped off something else in order to make something: so cuttings to make a fence; garbage was the offal from a carcass that was edible. See? Easy. Thank God for an Oxford English Dictionary.

But then there are the Americanisms that really rankle. Words such as “gotten”. Yup, that is medieval English, too. No, the trouble is, English as we speak it in the UK has changed much more than English as spoken in America. Because of the Empire, we have absorbed many more words from around the word (especially India, naturally), while for some reason American English has remained rather insular. Odd, but what the heck.

The worst problem I tend to have is the editor (no longer mine) who got confused with my spelling of ’til, instead of “until”. Well, it’s the same as my spelling of cooperate as “coöperate”, or my spelling of so many older words which I have read in medieval form, renaissance form, nineteenth century and more recently twentieth century. There ain’t no right spelling. The spellings change all the time (mind you, at least in Britain we still maintain the rigorous use of the “u” in “colour”) and I cannot keep up. There was a night not so long ago when I had a panic attack over “the”. Looked at from whichever angle I tried, it looked wrong.

In any case, for those who want to correct my spellings or use of terminology, there is only one answer. I consider my job to be that of writing fiction for the masses. To do that, I cannot write in the vernacular of the time. Readers wouldn’t be able to read it, any more than I could write it. The language in the early thirteen hundreds was a horrible mix of Latin, Middle English, Celtic, Saxon, Norman French, and even a fair sprinkling of Arabic. To write accurately would be . . . problematic.

And if I was to be accurate in the matter of language, why stop there? Surely I ought to write the language in the contemporary manner, with a reed or quill, and ink. And not on decent paper, but cheap paper as used then, or maybe expensive parchment? And of course each book would be available in one copy only.

No, I don’t think so either. So, if you’re worried about my language, either assume that yes, I have thought about it and chosen the words I think that work the best, or, failing that, just remember that my job is to translate for your delectation the words as used in 1327, and have put them into modern English. Just as a translator helps your understanding of Dostoievsky.

Or, again, remind yourself I’m a fiction writer!

8 Responses to “Language”
  1. RichieP says:

    The posse comitatus concept and also the tithings/frankpledge system would have been of great benefit to communities in the late disturbances in our cities. At least some communities realised that such approaches to self-defence were the only real security they had, given the deliberately supine nature of policing policy. I know that’s not about the language issues – but it’s a great shame that the legal basis for the posse was ended here in the UK (not so in the States though I believe). Speaking as a re-enactor (or reenactor), many of my fellow hobbyists were sure we could have made better use of our shieldwalls and blunt weapons than the cops did.

    This typifies our current passivity:
    “Late on Monday night, news went round Twitter that Turkish shopkeepers on Stoke Newington Road in Dalston were fighting off the marauders with baseball bats, and someone tweeted: “Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities.” And it struck me that it hadn’t occurred to me to walk on to my high street and see what was going on, let alone defend anything.”
    Shame we’ve lost the posse.


  2. prussblue says:

    Micheal, I agree with you 100+% regarding language usage. Languages (the plural is intended) change over time. In the case of UK / US English it has accelerated since WWII, change that is, with the blessing of government and business. The “dumb down” of language is very noticeable if one compares works of say 100 years, 75 years, etc. to the present. This is especially seen is works that have been reprinted periodically. You will literally see the change of language for the same story over time to the present and often the most recent is very much “dumbed down.” People also do not take the time to use a dictionary, etc. for the etymology of words. Even simple words in any English form, i.e. 3 or 4 letter words may have up to say 12 – 15 different meanings based upon context to include “historical context.” One can miss so much or misunderstand meaning by failing to verify context. A friend wrote an academic work. The publisher inserted / replaced one word in a paragraph and changed the entire meaning of the paragraph content not to mention that it also conflicted with other commentary in the tomb. People use acronyms (a government and business idea gifted to us) all too freely as well in communication but the same acronym might mean many different things depending on the persons profession, experience, etc. I recall someone sending me “TIA” a long time ago and wondering why they were saying “Transient Ischemic Attack.” It is good to save old but good dictionaries as more modern dictionaries may not show “archaic usage” as well as eliminate some usage. Further, the publishers of dictionaries are not quick to make corrections. I had evidence of a gross error in a number of dictionaries (some companies copy from each other) but having contacted a number of them only two (2) have managed to do anything about it. So if someone looks up a certain word without then checking with a primary source , they will have been misinformed.

    I know I am getting a bit tangential but a relative of mine is a linguist, i,e, he knows German at least back to the 16th century. He can tell you within a relatively close time frame of when something was written and that includes words no longer used or that have changed meaning or now have multiple meanings. German is a more “precise” language whereas English tends to be more imprecise. That is one reason that vocabulary training is beneficial to anyone as well as taking the time to use a “good” dictionary.

    I had to get that off my chest especially when I see other authors getting away with poor language usage not to mention poor research and validation unlike yourself who does much better than a fair job in writing.


  3. knotrune says:

    Of course ‘the’ looks wrong – it should be spelt with a thorn! :) See, þere, þat’s better! :)

    Speaking as one of the few who would be able to read your books in Middle English, I still prefer þe modern version, even if I do retain a slightly unreasonable fondness for þe letter þorn


    • Hah! Still trying to read through (no, I can’t find Thorn on my keyboard) Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer. I love the sounds of our mediaeval counterparts. Long live Old English!


      • knotrune says:

        Sadly, thorn is not on English keyboards :( I had to go to Word, insert symbol and copy/paste. The campaign is in its early days and to be honest, I am an ideas person, not a campaign organiser so it’s unlikely to gain any momentum unless one of the others does something more proactive!


  4. cornwer says:

    While Arnaldur Indriðason continues to win prizes, we continue to need the thorn þ (and in this case eth ð ) in this century.


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