I was wondering if I could trouble someone knowledgeable for a sanity check on a 2K-word section of text that involves one character who speaks in Archaic English. I'm moderately confident about my use of thee vs thou, but I'm hoping I haven't left something out, and I'm also worried about my conjugation of verbs with the est, eth, and st endings.
The scenario is a confrontation between two "modern" people as of the times of the book (though it's set technologically in the 1700s), and one wizard who has been imprisoned in a sort of limbo for five hundred years. He does speak the language (called Feccish in the story), but he speaks it as people did five hundred years before the events of the book.
I've read my fair share of Shakespeare; I've just never tried to write dialog for someone who actually speaks that way. Any takers?
I'm confident in my thees and thous and eths and ests. I'm less confident when it comes to period appropriate word choice, but I can take a look if you want. You can send it to email@example.com
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It's said that Shakespeare (and the King James Bible) "fixed" English---what came before has to be translated (think Chaucer), but everything since is intelligible to the reader of today.
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Since nobody's mentioned this yet, "thee" and "thou" were the singular second person nominative and objective case, whereas "ye" and "you" are second person plural nominative and objective. In early modern English (late 1400s to early 1600s) the plural was used to address individuals as a mark of respect, the singular was used for familiar address, much as in the Spanish "tu"/"usted" or the German "du"/"Sie".
There's a very good article on Wikipedia on Early Modern English, which I recommend you look into. If you are writing English dialog for the 1500s, you're going to have to master the various verb conjugations that differ from English:
I read/we read/you read/you all read/he reads/they read. I read/we read/thou readest/ye readeth/he readeth/they readeth
And of course there are different verb endings and irregular verbs to deal with.
Your best sources for Early Modern English style would be Shakespeare and the King James Bible. That's tough enough for most casual readers. If you are going before 1470 or so you're into Middle English which is difficult even for an educated English reader with plenty of Shakespeare and KJV Bible under his belt.Prior to the Norman conquest in 1066 you're into Old English, which is as incomprehensible to modern English readers as modern Dutch or Frisian would be.
Tolkien is worth study too. He consciously used archaism in his writing as *characterization*. All his characters speak different periods of modern English. The Hobbits speak modern 19th C. English; elves like Elrond speak 18th C. English. The Rohirrim are perhaps late 17th C. English in style. The corrupted wizard Saruman speaks uncannily like an ultra-modern 20th C. politician.
His archaic speakers not only use archaic vocabulary, they use a looser sentence order that is a gradually disappearing legacy of an English that had more noun declensions and verb cases than our English does. We're much more likely to say "Tom gave me this book," than "This book Tom gave me," which sounds affected and hifalutin'. We'd never say, as a German might, "To me this book Tom gave," although we can comprehend it so it remains arguably grammatical.
Dialect is hard to do right, so what most writers do is they don't bother to get it right. And most readers probably don't notice, but a few do and find the story spoiled because it's not right.
A good example is in the handling of the "r" sound. Asian characters are often shown using the "l" sound for "r", mispronouncing "pray" as "play" for example. A native speaker of Cantonese or Mandarin would have no problem saying "pray"; the "r" and "l" sounds both occur in all Chinese dialects, but "r" never at the start of a word and "l" never at the end. Thus a Chinese character with poor English skills would have no problem saying "ladder", but would find "radial" a mouthful, just as we have difficulty with foreign words that start with "ng". We have that sound in English, but never at the start of words.
Japanese speakers have a different problem with English in that their "r" sound is pronounced with the tongue in a different position. The unfamiliar consonant may sound like an "l" twisted into an "r" to an English speaker.
If you can't be bothered to get the speech patterns right, it'd be better to avoid the issue altogether and have the character speak excellent standard English.
Still, dialect while hard and potentially insulting can be fun and useful; you just have to do your homework rather than parroting other writers who don't know what they're talking about and may well be bigots.
I have one character who speaks an over-the-top South Midlands dialect that is roughly based on Will Rogers but is also a deliberate satire of dime-novel cowboy-speak. In truth there was no universal "cowboy" accent in the 19th C. because cowboys came from all over the place. Cowboy "slang" is liberally salted with nautical references, because the same kind of man who went to sea often found driving cattle an attractive calling. Just like you'd have New England Quakers, Africans, Cape Verdeans and Portuguese sailors before the mast, you got all kinds on the trail.
What the dime novel writers conceived of as THE "cowboy accent" was an inland Southern dialect carried by emigrants from the Ohio River valley westward across Oklahoma and Northern Texas. It was easy for me to do that dialect because it *is* an iconic one in popular culture. I knew I got it right when one reader objected that this character spoke exactly the way the ignorant hillbilly kids in his high school used to speak. That high school was right in the historical heartland of the dialect, and I was evoking a time before mass media had made suppression of regional quirks a sign of intelligence, or assimilation a sign of sophistication.
So I have consciously chosen to use dialect in a way that's not strictly justifiable from a linguistic standpoint, but in a way that's obviously satirical and over-the-top. The exact geography of the character's origin is never specified; she comes from the West of the Cowboy Myth.
I'd say if you want to use dialect, do your homework. Try to get to the point where you can hear the dialect with you ear instead of having to construct sentences according to some list of rules. Immersing yourself in the King James Bible would be a good way to train your ear to early modern English; if the result is a bit anachronistic (i.e. if the characters are from the 1300s and should be speaking the Middle English in the Canterbury Tales) I don't think that's a problem. It's more important to be consistent than precisely accurate as to period, and you can also explain this away by claiming the speakers use a dialect that later became fashionable in London. Because travel was so difficult there was greater regional variation in dialect back then.
I have the luxury in my case of not having the story set on Earth; they aren't speaking English at all, nor are the wizards speaking real Latin (any more than Harry Potter's spells are real Latin).
I did want to be consistent, though, and translate the one characters ancient dialogue well. I'm going to have the accent gradually disappear over the course of the story, and indeed as the villain he doesn't appear in every scene, so I don't have masses of text with which to be careful. I haven't done as well-researched dialect creation as you mention, but I have done some quasi-dialect writing in the past (posted long ago), with regards to people speaking a foreign language without resorting to writing the accent. I'll be careful.
Thanks for all the examples though, it is fun to read and good to keep in mind.
quote:Your best sources for Early Modern English style would be Shakespeare and the King James Bible.
Those are good places to start. I'd also recommend looking up the Lisle Letters and Paston Letters, both of which I think Google Books has put up online. The latter tend to be a bit difficult for a casual reader as the editor has made no attempt to "correct" the spelling, however they have a very late medieval "feel" to them that's worth checking out. (And if you just sound out the unrecognizable words, their meaning tends to become clear.)