Tuesday, 4 June 2019

"Word Hoard" and the Difficulties of Making Dialogue Authentic

"I hold your oaths fulfilled." These words are spoken by Aragorn in the film version of Tolkein’s The Return of the King

I found myself thinking about whether all of the dialogue was derived from Old English (OE). The short answer is no, but it did remind me of a time when I decided to see if it was possible to construct dialogue for my novels – set in Anglo-Saxon England – using only words derived from either OE, or old Norse (ON).

Here’s some dialogue from a very early draft of one of my novels: 
"No no, all is well; you sit. It is cooler here in the yard. I was thinking, though, that the roads from the south may be hard enough to ride on now, which means that Lord Helmstan might be home soon. Can we bake a few more loaves? Would it help to knead the rest outside?"
 "It would, my lady, thank you. There is enough flat bread to see us through, but if I can find how my idle daughters do with the grinding, I can bake with yeast and the finest ground meal to make bread for the lord. With your leave, I will go now and get that husband of mine to lift me down another bag of meal."
Hmm. It doesn't flow brilliantly well, does it? And the words aren’t even all derived from OE, or even pre-Conquest words. Lift, for example, is 12th-century ON, while bag is 13th-century ON.

So, if we want to pepper the dialogue with OE-derived words, what can we use, and what can't we use? It's surprising:

Alliterative couplets are okay - hale and hearty, forgive and forget.

But whilst we can reckon, we can't count.

We can't want, but we can crave, or wish.

We can eat our food at the board, but not the table, and we'll sit on a stool, not a chair.  Sounds a little uncomfortable; a bit basic. It gets worse:

You can't smile; you can only smirk or grin. (But since that means 'to bear your teeth' it doesn't sound as benign as a smile, somehow.)

You can't have a smell or an aroma; you can only have a stench. And this leads to another problem: so many OE words now have these negative connotations, and we have the Normans to thank for a lot of that.

And as for those Four-Letter-Words, well, the really nasty ones are not Anglo-Saxon and oddly, although I've just said that they hold such negative connotations, the Anglo-Saxon four letter words are now considered relatively inoffensive and, after all, they simply described body parts/functions - shit, arse, etc.

Of course, it can also boil down to a matter of how the words and phrases sound. If you were to discuss an 'Ursine preference for forest-based defecation' it would somehow sound more archaic than saying 'Bears like to shit in the woods,' and yet one would be more authentic than the other (even though like is 12th-century ON).

It seems that we really need those ON words. When, in Alvar the Kingmaker, I needed Alvar to respond to a threat, I found I couldn’t do it without the word ‘try’, which is thirteenth-century ON. But "You can try. Mercia has never yet bent to the rule of a Dane, be he Viking or Churchman," was preferable to: "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough." All OE-derived words, yes, but a little too modern-sounding!

Some other words just don't translate at all - for flower you'd have to use blossom but that's not really a singular noun, in so far as one couldn't pick a blossom. You can't have ceremony, or feast, or celebration. The OE word for such occasions is symbel, but it hasn’t survived in modern English.

We also need to consider that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t think in the same terms as we do. Interestingly, while eyes, chin, nose, brows and cheeks could all be used, I could find no OE word which equates to face (a word which traces its origins only to the thirteenth century) and to describe beauty in OE terms you’d have to talk of winsomeness.

Bearing in mind these differences in concepts, I tend to have my characters say naught because nothing meant something entirely different, akin to being an outcast, literally no thing. Dream is another word which conveyed a different concept, being more like a waking vision, or daydream, rather than something which visits only the sleeping mind.

It doesn’t do to be too strict with the language when discussing familial relationships, either. We can't have uncle, aunt or cousin, although we can have brother, sister, mother and father. Grandmother should really be greatmother, but it's clunky. In other family matters though, we can choose the OE forms, and have burials instead of funerals and weddings instead of marriages, which helps to build up the Anglo-Saxon 'voice'.

So, wherever there is a viable alternative to a modern/French-derived word, I’ll use it. Where it becomes nigh on impossible, though, is with the little, useful words. The following dialogue, from To Be A Queen, would have been difficult to write without using the conjunction because:

"So be it. But it is only because she is my sister that I bow to you."
   The sharp scything noise set his teeth on edge. Every Mercian in the room had his hand on his sword hilt, the blade hitched up to protrude from the scabbard. Alhelm stepped forward and fixed the piercing blue gaze on Edward once more. "No, my lord, it is only because she is your sister that we bow to you."

Could I have used an alternative? Sometimes, therefore will do instead, but not in all cases. I asked Jim Sinclair, OE specialist, for a suggestion, and he told me, “One possibility is for or that, as in 'But it is only for that she is my sister (Ac hit is ānlīce for þæm þe hēo is mīn sweostor.)’” While this might have been more authentic, I think it would have weakened the sound of the exchange between the characters.

Because is not the only ‘little’ word which is necessary to aid flow. Others are seem, appear, doubt, and grateful (which is very modern, originating in the sixteenth century).

In another line from Alvar, the titular character gets rather cross with Bishop Oswald and Alvar’s brother asks him if he is behaving himself. Alvar replies: 
 “I should have felled him where he stood. Rotting crow-body…” Alvar sat down and shoved his legs out straight in front of him. “I reminded him that he is not one of us, but I only spoke the truth.”

For authenticity, I’d have needed to find another word for reminded. But it’s not so easy. Perhaps, ‘I bade him hark back'? Hmm, I don’t think it works as well.  Try it yourself - and no, you can't have reconsider, or pointed out!

In the following passage from To Be A Queen, the words in bold are Edward’s thoughts. They are not OE, but they are short, conveying urgency:
Five or six more steps through a river suddenly flowing treacle brought him to the bubbles of wet cloth. Batting aside a floating shoe, he grabbed the centre of the sodden, sinking lumps. Waist deep only, merciful Jesus, but so many weeds. Come here girl. He flipped her over and lifted her clear of the dragging wetness. Legs planted, he centred his weight and brushed the hair from her face. She coughed and he allowed himself to breathe again.
Girl is 13th century, merciful is 12th century. Could I have used OE? Again, I asked Jim Sinclair who said, "Tricky. Girl would be maid or maiden which are somewhat archaic and so narrower in meaning, though would work quite nicely in OE. Merciful is virtually impossible; there are some wonderful words for mercy/merciful in OE which haven't [survived] and the closest I can get is mild-hearted, which I don't think really does it."

Later in the chapter:
"I am here to look after you while my father cannot. As one day I will look after Wessex as my father has not. You are my sister. What else is there to know about why I saved you from drowning?" 
I asked Jim how I could say this without using save or rescue. He told me, "There's no obvious candidate here that I can think of. Possibly something simpler like kept from (Why I kept you from drowning) but, again, it's not really the same." Furthermore, drowning is 13th c. Drenching is the closest we can get using OE, but it doesn't convey the same meaning.

In the following two short sentences, is there a pithy alternative to the bold words?

1. "Kings are only as strong as the men who surround them."  Jim’s response was, "In OE you would use the word ymb meaning about, so maybe "Kings are only as strong as the men about them," or "...as the men they keep about them."
2. "Sometimes it is but one man who makes the difference."  Jim told me, "There are few OE options that have survived, but maybe an alternative idiomatic expression might be 'to turn the tide' - "Sometimes it is but one man who can turn the tide?"

So, whilst we seem to have established that it's necessary to use later words to make the dialogue flow, there are some which can nevertheless be used to give a 'flavour' of the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking and talking. 

For example: 
"Hit one, and the other will bleed. Ceolwulf only wears the king-helm because Guthrum's Vikings hold it on his head."

Here, I feel that king-helm is better than crown, and king-seat would be a better alternative to throne. (Even today, modern German is full of compound nouns.) Weapon-man is better than warrior; fyrdsman better than soldier. To continue giving a sense of time and place, in describing a royal vill and its layout, I used fowler's hut instead of mews.

Still, as authors we can't be sticklers; I'm not sure we would want novels set in Chaucer's time, for example, to have dialogue in impenetrable Middle English. 

I find that I can now hear my characters speaking in a way which is nothing like Old English, but is also not too modern sounding and I hope I’ve found a happy medium. Ultimately, then, it has to be a tale (not a story!) of authenticity (14th via Old French) versus truth (OE).

And if you don't agree, then have a read of this book and see if you still want to use only OE words:

You can find all my books in hardback, paperback* and Kindle format HERE

* Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is not yet available in paperback.

[a version of this article appeared on EHFA]


  1. In essence, I believe, the 'feel' of contemporary speech patterns will satisfy the vast majority of readers rather than the actual words. I would never have questioned most of the words you had used. But can there be a difference between dialogue and narrative? If the author is as strict as possible in speech, can they be a little more lenient in descriptions (unless the story is written in the first person)? Excellent article, by the way, which shows that research can be so much deeper than apparent to the reader!

    1. Thanks Richard! You're right, it has to be about the 'feel' - and that holds true for historical fiction of any period, I think. I long ago decided that it doesn't do to be too rigid, but to make sure it 'sounds' right. Where I do take extreme care, however, is to make sure my characters don't talk about things they'd have no knowledge of, or have them use phrases that come from more modern things - they'd have no concept of 'ego' for example, and I had to check very carefully before I could have them thinking about almond-shaped eyes :-)

    2. Part of what I was trying to say is that would it be OK to describe someone as having almond-shaped eyes, as opposed to the no-no of having a character say "Ah, but she has the most beautiful eyes - the very shape of almonds"? I could tell you stories of examples of those inappropriate words/phrases! 'Barkeep' for a Viking tavern owner, 'the colour of butternut' in BC Germany!!

    3. Barkeep? Really?! Yes, I know exactly what you mean - fine to talk of things that the characters can't say or indeed think :-)

  2. I'm filing this post as you have made such insightful points about our use of language. I have played with 'kennings' to add a poetic style to a few shorts, but I realise finding the balance is hard in a historical tale. I'm working on an 10th century short set in Iceland - not easy, but this helped.

    1. Thanks so much Roland! Kennings are wonderful and adding them to stories would definitely give a feel for the period :-)

  3. This is such a fascinating article.I write fantasy fiction and at the beginning I toyed with the idea of using mainly Anglo-Saxon-derived words, not only in dialogue, but narration too. There's a simplicity and a solidity to them that I like. Of course, I quickly learned it wouldn't work, but there are traces left and they please me to a ridiculous degree. I've been wanting to read To be a Queen for a while and you've just convinced me it needs to be soon.So I'm off to buy it.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments Lyn - I'm really glad you enjoyed the article. I know exactly what you mean about the simplicity of the language and Churchill used to use it to great effect in his speeches, even sometimes mimicking the speech patterns, too. And thank you so much for buying the book - I really hope you like it!!

  4. I'm so glad that I write about the fourteenth century. My characters are fairly modern in their speech, but I try to avoid anachronistic phrases.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments April. When I read your book, it seemed to me that the characters spoke with a style that suited the time period, but which flowed really well. This article was really some thoughts about whether or not it could be done i.e. using only words derived from Old English but it's clear that it can't, not if the dialogue is to flow naturally. You hit the nail on the head with anachronism - it's so important not to have characters speak about things which they wouldn't have understood or known about at the time.