Friday, August 28, 2015

"Word Hoard" and the Pitfalls of Dialogue Authenticity

by Annie Whitehead

"I hold your oaths fulfilled." Thus spake Aragorn in the film of Tolkien's Return of the King. Listening, I wondered if all the dialogue was derived from Old English (OE). The short answer is no, but it reminded me of the time I decided to see if it was possible to construct dialogue for my books (set in Anglo-Saxon England) using only words derived from OE and Old Norse (ON).

Here's some dialogue from a very early draft of one of my novels (unpublished):

"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 it's not even all OE - lift, for example, is 12th century ON, bag is 13th century ON.

 Codex Sangallensis 878 (9th century).

So, if we want to use only 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.

The problem is that so many OE words now have negative connotations (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.

'Ursine preference for forest-based defecation' somehow sounds more archaic than 'Bears like to shit in the woods,' and yet one would be more authentic than the other (even though like is 12th century ON)

And when, in the same (unpublished) novel, I needed my main character to respond to a threat thus:
"You can try. Mercia has never yet bent to the rule of a Dane, be he Viking or Churchman,"
I found that using the 13th century try 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!

Keep calm and fight on - image

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 - symbel is not a word that has survived.

Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons had different concepts, because while you could use eyes, chin, nose, brows and cheeks, there is no OE word which equates to the modern face (13th century) and to describe beauty you would have to talk of winsomeness.

image -

Some modern words carried different meanings: 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.

Familial relationships become difficult to describe if we are too strict, because 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'.

Where it becomes nigh on impossible is with the little, useful words. The conjunction because , for example - it's hard to see what could replace it in the following passage from To Be a Queen:
     "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."
Sometimes, therefore will do instead, but not in all cases. I asked Jim Sinclair, OE specialist, for a suggestion: "One possibility is for or that, as in 'But it is only for that she is my sister', ... connected to how it would have been expressed in OE (Ac hit is ānlīce for þæm þe hēo is mīn sweostor...”)
Some more 'little' words which aid flow are seem, appear, doubt, and grateful (which is 'very' modern - 16th century).

"I should have felled him where he stood. Rotting crow-body ... " Helmstan sat down and shoved his legs straight out in front of him. "I reminded him that he is not one of us, but I only spoke the truth."

How to replace reminded? I bade him hark back? 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 not OE, but 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? Jim says, "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. "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 but doesn't convey the same meaning.
In the following two short sentences, is there a pithy alternative to the bold words?
"Kings are only as strong as the men who surround them."  Jim: "In OE you would use the word ymb meaning about, so maybe "Kings are only as strong as the men about them," or " the men they keep about them."
"Sometimes it is but one man who makes the difference."  Jim says, "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 give a 'flavour' of the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking and talking.
"Hit one, and the other will bleed. Ceolwulf only wears the king-helm because Guthrum's vikings hold it on his head."
King-helm is better than crown, and king-seat would be a better alternative to throne - even today, 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, we use fowler's hut instead of mews.
We can't be sticklers; I'm not sure we would want novels set in Tudor England, or even Chaucer's time, to have dialogue in impenetrable Middle English.
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:


Annie Whitehead is the author of To Be a Queen 

- the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. (Long-listed for HNS Indie Book of the year 2016)

Find her at her Blog

Jim Sinclair is one of the guiding lights of the Facebook page Uton Englisces Brucan (Let's enjoy/use Old English). Having studied Czech for "a couple of years" he found an old copy of Sweet's Anglo-Saxon primer and began studying OE. In his words, he still loves looking at the "beautiful, woody, gnarled and knotty words" in his Clark-Hall's OE dictionary.


  1. A fascinating and well written piece, Annie, with a lot for historical fiction writers to think about. I think there's always a tension between accuracy and telling the tale. In some ways it's a cop-out, but I usually fall back on what David Lodge describes as ‘the reality effect’ rather than being ‘true to life’.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your comment David - glad you enjoyed the piece. Yes, in the end it all comes down to what 'feels' right, especially when the readers live in the 21st century - it must always remain accessible.

  2. I loved this, because it's something I really care about as an historical novelist and a reader of historical novels. It sets my teeth on edge when I find a writer putting modern slang into the mouth of someone from the past. Yet it has to be a compromise. If one sticks rigidly to contemporary words and syntax of the period, the story would be unreadable. I try to use appropriate words and certain turns of phrase common in the period, to give the "flavour". I think that is the best one can do. Have you read Wake? I'm trying, but it's a struggle!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ann - glad you enjoyed it. Yes, it is difficult and in the end compromises have to be made in order to keep the dialogue accessible to the modern reader, but it must retain the right 'feel' and not annoy anyone who knows a lot about the period. Haven't read Wake - should I?? ...

  3. Interesting information, and very well presented; thank you!

  4. An excellent offering for EHFA, Annie. I too have had to compromise using OE words in by books Sons of the Wolf and The Wolf Banner. There have been many times when I have been looking for a word that would be appropriate and sometimes it just does not work. It looks to me that you have out a lot of thought into the language you have used. I can't wait to get your book.

    1. Thanks Paula - really glad you enjoyed the piece.

  5. Interesting article. It is certainly a struggle to get the balance right between "authentic" sounding dialogue and something that is hard for modern readers. I think a compromise is needed.

    1. Thanks Richard - glad you enjoyed the piece. Yes, I agree - ultimately it's about compromise; you have to weigh up readability versus authenticity.

  6. I downloaded Wake when it was on the Man Booker shortlist because it sounded interesting. I salute the author for trying to tell his story in Old English but couldn't finish it. I just couldn't. You should borrow it from the library, Annie, and see if you can read at least a chapter. It really does show what happens when you try to do it absolutely accurately(and even he had to sneak in some other words when he couldn't do it any other way). At least the snippets you quoted were readable. But even they sounded like a nineteenth century historical novel. All you can do is your best to have the flavour without overdoing it, and try to keep out modern slang. They would have had their own, of course, but still, no reason for imposing ours.
    However did you manage to get hold of those thorns and aeshes for this piece?
    A fascinating post, many thanks! I've emailed the link to some of my workmates I think will enjoy it.

    1. Thanks for your insights, Sue. I will have a look at Wake. I hope that in To Be a Queen I managed to strike the right tone - trying to give a flavour of how the Anglo-Saxons spoke without being too inflexible. The thorns and aeshes were courtesy of Jim Sinclair and I don't know how he does it - he must have his keyboard set up differently; I simply copied and pasted the comments he sent me!

  7. Very well written post about an issue that is a pet peeve of mine It's called historical fiction isn't it? Fiction. So I don't get the big deal about using a right sounding mix.

    If it's too old or too modern and breaks the flow,'s gotta go

    However that's not a green light for unalloyed modern speech , which seems much more often the case than old or completely correct words being used. I think there is more danger of finding historical characters sounding like today in books than finding words too old to readily understand .. . but both are distractions

    It's vital one knows as much as they can about their era's speech and then slip in the changes. Having strong context clues helps with understanding older words . Their meaning is more obvious Using fewer words in the dialog helps too when using older words and dealing with the nano seconds speed the reader understands at.

    Lucky for me I'm writing in the Victorian era! lol Closer to our own time! But I still get alot of fun changing out the newer words for the older ones .

    I believe readers are up to the " vexed" vs " irritated" challenge or " deemed " replacing " thought" Though one should not switch out every time...then it becomes mannered

    Thanks for your post!

    1. Thanks for your comments Anne - glad you enjoyed it. You're absolutely right - there comes a point where being too purist destroys the flow, but equally you can't have characters speaking dialogue that sounds so modern that it jars. It was a very useful exercise!

  8. I love this post. I think David Lodge is right with 'the reality effect' . I am going to read Wake because it is an interesting take. It is part AS and part it's own language but it intentionally builds the atmosphere of an older world, a fairer world maybe. Conquest is never fair , of course. It is easy to idealise the past. Yet, I love CJ Sansome and Susannah Dunn who create the feel of their worlds in other ways whilst the language they use is modern.

    1. Thanks Carole - glad you enjoyed the post. It's a debate which will continue, I'm sure. You're right - the job of the author is to take the reader into a certain world and make them believe that they are in that world for the duration of the novel - and of course, we can't ever know exactly what the world of previous periods was like so yes, we are making it all up, essentially! As long as the reader feels immersed, then it's 'job done'.

  9. Great post and something that is very close to my heart. I went through the same kind of process in coming up with the language to use in The Serpent Sword. I tried to ground it as closely as possible to words that can be traced directly to Old English or Old Norse, but make exceptions when necessary. I also used a few Latin derived words, figuring that it was at least feasible that they could have been in use. In the end, I decided, much as you seem to have, that authenticity and feel is more important that accuracy.

    The Wake is a wonderful book for those interested in the Anglo-Saxon period and Old English. I found it very easy to read, and I believe you would too, Annie.

    Another writer who has done a great job in capturing the feel, poetry and cadence of Old English is Justin Hill. His "Shieldwall" is set in early 11th century and the language is sublime. Incidentally, both Justin and I appear in the first edition of The Wake as backers, as we both helped crowd-fund the book on Unbound. :-)

    1. Thanks for your comments Matthew - great to know that other people have had similar struggles. I've read excerpts of The Wake, and didn't find it impenetrable. Not come across Justin Hill - definitely one to add to the list; thanks!

  10. When I was in college and took a course in 20th-century American poetry, I read that Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a play, "The King's Henchman", set in Anglo-Saxon England. In it she used only words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Her aim was to make the whole play sound authentic. Quite a feat!

    Did it work? I dunno. I've never read it. But until I read this article, that was the only time I've ever heard about a writer trying to be this much of a linguistic purist.

    1. I've not heard of this play, Mary Anne, but I'll look it up. Opinion seems to be divided about The Wake, but actually Kingsnorth seems to have written a new language in that, rather than going for true OE. It was an interesting exercise but ultimately I found it didn't work - I wanted my dialogue to 'flow' and I gradually found a way of having my characters speak in a way that was plausible, rather than genuine, if that makes sense!

  11. Annie, this is the bane of many historical fiction writers! I blogged about this a while ago, mostly in connection with keeping dialogue true to period. It is indeed a veritable nightmare and striking the right balance is a fine art. From the brief passages you have shared, you have done a marvellous job and I'll be adding your novel to my TBR pile.

    I find myself constantly reaching for the dictionary when writing, checking the origins of words and whether they are Germanic or Norse derivatives. However, you are right that sometimes you cannot achieve that wonderful 'flow' without the occasional Latin word (damn those Normans!). I'm quite certain the phrase 'Anglo-Saxon' in reference to swearing, was originally Norman propaganda, but after all this time perhaps I need to chill out a bit!

    1. Thanks Elaine - I, too, sit with dictionary constantly by my side. I'm getting pretty good at guessing the derivation of words now, too! In my second novel (the afore-mentioned unpublished tome) I took great delight in having a churchman shout out the Latin "Fornicators" as an insult, and I felt it had more impact precisely because I hadn't peppered the dialogue with too many Latin-derived words. As for those Normans, definitely "A bad thing" (a la 1066 and All That!)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.