View Full Version : Linguistic anachronisms.

Home - Discussion Forums - News - Reviews - Interviews

New reviews, interviews and news

New in the Discussion Forum

Pages : [1] 2 3 4

September 23rd, 2004, 02:40 PM
Here is something I wonder about when writing:

Anachronisms are bothersome, but they are easy to spot. A writer won’t take pains to set up a medieval type fantasy novel and inadvertently slip a car into a scene.

But there is something similar that can slip in, related to language use. A character in such a world saying “ipso facto” or “etcetera” or “deja vu” are examples of what I mean. There simply isn’t the historical background (in the fictional world I am imagining) for a character to be using such language.

I am not some sort of English language purist but those things can grate on me when I encounter them in a novel, in the same way that seeing a repeating rifle in a movie supposedly set in the 1700's would.

The problem, obviously, is that languages are not static, and our language is constructed from bits and pieces of others. So I wonder how to draw the line. “Melange”, “scenario”, and “gestalt” would be out for me even though they are used in everyday English. “Champagne” and “burgundy” would be close calls. They have “anachronistic” origins but their ordinary meaning (at least here in the US) is to refer to a type of drink rather than a type of drink that comes from a certain place (that doesn’t happen to exist in the world I have created).

Is there anything to be said other than “whatever works for you” ?

September 23rd, 2004, 04:32 PM
I don't really understand your point but in a way I do.

I think making up languages and giving the characters surprise on it fun.
They don't know what their saying about them or anytihng.
Imagine having two people talk to you like a dog in different languages.
Wonder you be confused and at the same time scared?

I don't like fantasy stories with swords and stuff involving a car or time travel, or in your case, a machine gun though I think old fashioned rifle are good.

If this complies with your post then here ya go.

September 23rd, 2004, 05:55 PM
What Prunesquallor is talking about is speaking appropriate for the period and background. And its a two-edged sword. On one hand, it adds to the character of the book but the problem is getting the reader to understand it. Too much and the reader's going to give up and go read something else.

You and I understand deja vu and its something the reader understands. But if its wrong for the character of the book, then the writer's got to work around it somehow without trying to invent a whole new language.

Rowan knelt in front of the armored door. Staring intently inside the keyhole, his hand dipped into his jerkin to produce his roll of lockpicks. From long practice, he had the roll untied and draped expertly over his knee, sparing it a glance only when he mulled his choice of tools. But when he reached for the diamond-shaped pick he paused, staring blankly at the handle.

"What is it?" Therin demanded softly, leaning over his shoulder.
"Hmm? Oh, nothing," Rowan muttered as he pulled the lockpick out. "For a moment I had the strangest feeling I'd been here before..."

September 23rd, 2004, 07:32 PM
I think what is really being asked are phrases which are OUT of place for particular time.

Such as a knight as big as truck. Or talking about dragons which "dive bomb". It makes sense as a metaphor, but jars a bit as you are using a modern term in a medieval like context.

Tolkein did this in Fellowship when he talks about the Dragon firework, rushing through like a "freight train".

Rocket Sheep
September 23rd, 2004, 07:57 PM
That's it exactly. Modern references in historical tales stick out like sore thumbs to people who have thought about it but most readers just put it down to writerly expression.

I hate the whole champagne, bordeau, thing as well. Australia has to market its wine as 'sparkling'. I'm sure the wine houses of the champagne region would gang up on Mordor Champagne just as they have done to Australia... and the logistics of importing stuff from France to Mordor... hmmmm.

Of course, the fact that fantasy races speak English, follow patriarchal systems, have Royalty or governing councils or are concerned with human modesties sometimes, could also fit into this argument if we tried. But these things are accepted as normal by the majority of readers... (the rest of us just hang out for the fantasies that break these ideals) ... but this indicates that there is a fine line to this chronological/regional/linguistic/behavioural argument.

September 23rd, 2004, 08:04 PM
True, but most fantasy stories revolve around people. (Or beings who behave very closely to people, with some peculiarities).

Because of this, most things will be the same. They will have some form of government, some familial structure, some sort of bond from parent to child, some rituals which develop out of eating.

As to champagne to Mordor? I wonder if the Nazgul made deliveries? :)

September 24th, 2004, 08:16 AM
"the logistics of importing stuff from France to Mordor... "

if the story could make sense of it, great!

what I wonder about is how we draw the line. The concern is to avoid having the author intrude into the story the knight hit him repeatedly - his fists were like jackhammers and maintaining the appropriate voice for the narrator, how to stay true to the world you have created.

"or are concerned with human modesties sometimes"
Exactly. I wonder about this too. It sticks out like a sore thumb to me when an author dresses up traditional western values in fantastical garb. "they prayed to the three gods of Glub for mercy and justice".

On the one hand, readers come to the text with certain expectations, and writers can and should take that into account. On the other hand it smells a bit like an anachronism, and takes away from the "other worldly" feel I expect from fantasy literature.

I don't know if there is much to be said about this, but I thought I would toss it out.

September 24th, 2004, 11:59 AM
I understand what you're saying, though I think the examples of what you're saying are usually more subtle. Most writers won't make the mistake of using jackhammers to describe a knight's blows, as it's too modern and mechanical, but they are likely to use phrases and terms that are common nowadays, like "dead as a doornail," or "dog-tired" which are not necessarily historically accurate. And sometimes those can hit you the other way too. I vividly remember reading a sf story set in the far, far future, when human consciousness could be put into a computer, and the guy on a boat was using his fax modem. Now, it's possible that several thousand years later we'll still be using fax and modem as terms, but it's rather unlikely.

But that is the decision that writers have to make regularly when dealing with alternate and speculative realities. Not only do they have to think about how to describe things without it sounding strange for the prospective time period, but they have to decide if they're going to call a minute a minute, Sunday Sunday, if the Earth is going to be the Earth, and if, more than likely, it's not, do they still use the word earth to refer to dirt? Because theoretically, since most fantasy realms do not take place in Earth's past history but in an imaginary realm, it's possible that the word earth developed out of some language to describe dirt. It's faintly possible that there was a freight train in Middle Earth somewhere that we didn't see, though I admit that since they probably would have made use of the train if they had it, it was undoubtedly a slip that didn't get caught in editing. But I would, in all likelihood, allow that in an imaginary realm that does not have a place called Burgandy, there still might have developed a wine called burgandy.

For a reader who knows the origins of a word or phrase, the inclusion of it may be problematic, but for many others who don't, the disparity won't be noticed. And realistically, an author can't research the entire history of each word they use in a story. Just doing some of that for creating some languages, my reading the origins of words in the dictionary, it's dizzying. Even modern words that were not used in the medieval ages may be made up of or spun off of old words, and many of the English words that were used in medieval, pre-industrial times for things are very different from the words we use now, enough to sound like a completely foreign language. We could all try to write our narrative text so it sounds like Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare and it might even be neat to try, but I think if all of us did it all the time, our audience would become rather small.

If a character in a fantasy uses "ipso facto," well, yes, it probably wasn't a phrase used in medieval England. But it is based on words from ancient Latin, and given that the fantasy realm in which the story takes place probably didn't even have a Roman Empire or equivalent in its history, is it worth quibbling that they're using a Latin phrase ahead of its non-existent time? Must they make up their own version of Latin and decide when each phrase came into use? Of course, some authors do that sort of thing, but it's usually in service to the story.

The best an author may be able to do is to try and avoid really aggregious anachronisms, of words and of props. But the rest really is up for grabs and can be adapted as the writer sees fit.

ironchef texmex
September 27th, 2004, 10:04 AM
Anachronisms drive me nuts in fantasy lit. We should make a quick distinction though. None of the words or phrases that were originally given are actually anacronistic. Gestalt is a recent addition to the language, but assuming the fantasy world is make believe and not a revisionist history then the author is just translating from another language(s) -- common or whatever -- and has free reign to decide what ideas can be verbalized and how.

The stuff about jackhammers and freight trains, which is anachronistic, bugs me much less than the social/cultural stuff. If we're talking about humans as the central feature of the story, then we have to acknowledge that humans and human constructs tend take certain forms. Lose sight of this and you sacrifice realism.

The anachronisns that get me are the ones that take modern, post industrial ideas and attitudes and push them onto a bucolic humanity: medeival-type characters who are worried about their waistlines, highly literate peasants, female fighters in the adventuring party, but opposing forces that are exclusively male.

I think that some people write fantasy thinking that since it's a made up world, they don't need to do any research. The truth is that fantasy authors need to be students of history, sociology, and mythology. Otherwise, the fantasy world can be painful to read, and not because it has the word bedlam somewhere in its text.

September 27th, 2004, 02:44 PM
"I understand what you're saying, though I think the examples of what you're saying are usually more subtle."

I agree, I chose those examples to illustrate the point. The subtle ones are more interesting. The point about days of the week, etc, are the sorts of things I wonder about.

"None of the words or phrases that were originally given are actually anacronistic."

Initially I was going to describe them as "something similar to anachronisms" but after thinking about it, I am not sure there is a difference. Both the freight train and the word 'gestalt' are human artefacts of a particular time and place.

"the author is just translating from another language(s) -- common or whatever -- and has free reign to decide what ideas can be verbalized and how."

That is how I think of it, but I think there are limits.

It seems to me that there are several considerations - maintaining a certain voice for the narrative, balancing the desire to develop an alternative universe with the practical need to play off of the readers preconceptions and shared knoweldge. Any others?