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Dialogue in Historical Fiction (Part 2)

A little while back, I blogged on why historical novelists make characters speak in peculiar ways. I argued that it’s not just about making characters sound historical (i.e. verisimilitude): authors also make dialogue deviate from modern Standard English for characterization, social or political statement, and for sheer fun.

In this post, I’m going to investigate how novelists evoke historical-style dialogue in their fiction. What exactly does one do to make dialogue sound “historical”? In brief, my answers are: with historical forms of grammar, altered word order, historically specific or foreign words, and—counter-intuitively—deliberate anachronism. (Actually, because I spent too much time digging about in historical grammar, I’m going to leave the latter three for the next post.)

At first glance, it might seem I am overcomplicating matters. It’s a historical novel—just make the dialogue sound exactly like speech would have done in that period! Actually, such a feat is not only impractical from both a reader and writer’s standpoint, but also simply not how any novel works. Real human speech is full of ums, awkwardness, rambling, and—most importantly—inconsequentialities. Writers occasionally echo this sort of tedious reality if they want to make a point (e.g. this character is nervous ... um, er), but they don’t want to fill their novels with boring dialogue. Characters in novels (contemporary or historical) simply don’t speak like real people. They’re far more concise, or witty, or eloquent.

Then there’s the issue of comprehension. If an English-language novel is set in Indonesia, clearly the dialogue needs to be cast in English, even if we understand the characters are actually speaking Indonesian. Language changes with time as well as geography. We might comprehend the language spoken in World War One England, but we’d seriously struggle with the language of War of the Roses England. Not only would it be draining to read, but it would demand a Herculean feat of linguistics from the author to create. My point is, unless an author’s making a literary point or writing in a very recent, same-language era, their characters will speak quite differently from the real inhabitants of that period.

Given all that, how does a novelist create dialogue that we can both understand and yet seems spoken by vivid characters in a credibly historical way?

Historical Grammar

One way to make speech sound “historical” is to sprinkle archaic forms of grammar throughout. This technique was used liberally in nineteenth-century historical fiction, became established as a convention through influential authors like Sir Walter Scott, and still lingers to haunt us today. I, for one, believe this particular ghost ought to be laid to rest.

But let me offer some illustrations so you can see what I mean. Here’s some dialogue from Scott from his 1819 medieval-set bestseller Ivanhoe:

“A murrain take thee,” rejoined the swine-herd; “wilt thou talk of such things, while a terrible storm of thunder and lightning is raging within a few miles of us? … Thou can’st play the rational if thou wilt; credit me for once, and let us home ere the storm begins to rage”

Apart from the old-fashioned term “murrain”, Scott largely relies on archaic grammar to lend pastness to the speech. There are the personal pronouns (thee and thou), and the verb forms (wilt and can’st). This speech looks incredibly stilted and artificial today, yet the principle of giving the occasional pronoun or verb an archaic tweak lingers on in historical fiction even now.

Archaic personal pronouns are particularly prevalent in Scottish-set historical fiction, as exemplified in Hildie McQueen’s The Lion, (2021):

“Do ye even hear me, Laird?” one yelled.

“Ye do not care, do ye?” the other screamed.

“Enough!” Darach roared and stood to his full height, towering over the men from the high board. “I am yer laird and will not tolerate insolence.”

Here, the “ye” and “yer” apparently signify that this dialogue is spoken in a strong Scottish accent. Unfortunately, “ye” is an archaic English word. In Scottish Gaelic, which was certainly the primary language in this 1601 Hebridean setting, “you” is thu (singular) or sibh (plural or polite).

“Thee” and “thou” also make occasional historical-novel appearances, but the chief culprits of archaic grammar are contractions of “it”, usually with the verb “to be”. ’Twas and ’tis play starring roles here, but there are other variants, as Maid Marian sums up with ludicrous style in the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993):

Maid Marian: Oh darling, don’t despair! for it is written on a scroll:

One day he,

who is destined for me

shall be endowed with a magical key

that will bring an end to my ... virginity.

Robin Hood: Oh Marian, if only ’twere me.

Maid Marian: Oh, if ’twere you, ’twould be ... twerrific.

Pray excuse me for using a film example, but Mel Brooks’s parody presents the matter in a nutshell: to modern ears, ’tweres and ’twoulds sound slightly ridiculous. (Slightly?) They are an outdated approach to making historical-fiction dialogue sound authentic. Like ye, ’twas is used to signify pastness in speech. Maybe these grammatical tactics worked for nineteenth-century readers of Scott, but for me, they have the opposite-to-intended effect: clichéd archaisms break the historical spell.

I could offer up further examples of archaic grammar in historical fiction, but I’ll spare your sensibilities. Besides, I don’t want to deride authors who employ these tactics. Archaic grammar is a convention of historical fiction, if a dated one now. It can simply seem right to an author to sprinkle this language in. I know I made a Scottish character “ye” with the best of them in my first book for exactly this reason.

And that’s the point of my ranting on about this topic in the first place: I want writers of historical fiction to think about the language they put in their characters’ mouths. In my next post on this topic, I’ll address other ways novelists make their dialogue sound historical ... or deliberately choose not to.


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