Limited Vocabulary

When I first began to write seriously, I received one particularly good piece of criticism.

“Your characters sound too modern.”

Nailing down that “timeless” narrative voice is a major struggle for anyone writing medieval-ish fantasy.  Language changes over time.  Words come and go along with advents in culture and technology.  Some words change meaning, and some evolve in spelling and pronunciation.  Others are locked away in a dusty corner of the dictionary, preserved but generally unknown.  And if you are writing about a place that is not on Earth, what do you do about the names of flora and fauna?

First, you must remember that you are writing for a contemporary audience.  Even if your character is technically wearing a “cotehardie”, you might want to call the garment a “dress” or “gown” (or “tunic” or “coat” for a man).  Forcing too many unfamiliar words on your readers is a great way to spoil the flow of your storytelling.  In general, if a smaller or more common word will work, why bother with a longer or less common one?

Of course, there are always times when you need to use the right word, even if your audience may not be too familiar with it.  That’s alright.  Just don’t make them look something up on every page; you’ll only be killing your own flow.

That brings me to “hello.”  I have had actual heated arguments about using “hello” in my medieval-ish writing.  It is semi-common knowledge that “hello” only rose to prominence with the invention of the telephone, but various forms of this attention-getting word have been used all the way back into the 1400s.  Hullo, hallo, holla, hollo, and so on.  While my characters usually great each other with “good morning” or some other time of day, I will occasionally sneak in a “hello” when it seems appropriate.  And I use “hello”, not “holla”, because I’m not writing for Elizabethans.  I’m writing for contemporary English speakers.

There are also common words that I pointedly avoid.  “Shock” is one.  While “shock” predates the discovery of electricity in the English language, the modern understanding of the word derives from the jarring sensation of touching a live wire.  It’s just easier to keep my readers in a world without electric lights if I avoid describing anyone as “shocked”.

“Galvanize” and “mesmerize” are right out, as both of those words come directly from the surnames of 19th century scientists.  I don’t use “earth” to describe dirt, soil, loam, sand, stone, or the ground.  My characters aren’t on Earth and don’t know about Earth, so why would they ever mention it?  “Infection” is another good one to avoid, even if your world has excellent magical healthcare with zero reliance on balancing humors.  My characters aren’t worried about germs and bacteria when they boil dirty water; they don’t want to be poisoned.

Diana Gabaldon has an excellent scene early on in the first book of her Outlander series, where Claire Beauchamp, a WWII nurse, tries to explain that she is a nurse to her new friends in the 18th century.  The word “nurse” originally relates only to the feeding of infants, and so the 18th century Scots think that Claire has just told them that she is a “wet-nurse”, a surrogate pair of milk-producing breasts.  It’s little relativistic touches like this that make me jump up and down and cheer when I’m reading Gabaldon’s work.

Oh yes, I am absolutely that nerdy.

I do like to mix and match a bit when it comes to the names of plants, animals, musical instruments, and items of clothing.  It comes down to readability.  If I was working on a comic book or movie, I might go ahead and invent hundreds of new species because you could actually see them on the page or the screen.  James Cameron’s Avatar and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind both create entire alien worlds to great effect — but how could I ever describe so many strange plants and animals in words alone?

So even though I write about the world of Endrion, it is peopled with humans (and elves and orks).  They have cats, dogs, horses, fish, flies, apple trees, grapevines, wheat, and so on.  I do include several species of monster or magical animal, all taken from the mythology of various cultures.  I will also invent specific species of plant or insect, and give them names that are evocative of their overall form and function.  “Moon leahs” are nocturnal flowers with bioluminescence, and “good eyes” are butterflies with gold-colored eyespots on their wings.  And you can probably guess what “pinstripe ivy” looks like.

As to clothing and musical instruments, these are items that vary in flavor but not much in overall form or function from culture to culture.  I try to use real words for the most part, and so my elves traditionally wear “obis”, those wide belts that the Japanese wear over their kimonos.  On the other hand, I wanted to give my minstrel an instrument to play that set her up as an outsider to the kingdom and culture that she lives in.  So I invented the “vesvel”, an onomatopoeia for the sound of striking the strings of an instrument similar to a guitar.

There are also subtle, grammatical rules at work if you want to sound more like JRR Tolkein and less like Terry Pratchett (no disrespect to Pratchett, his medieval-ish characters sound modern on purpose), but it all comes down to flavor.  Avoid anything too slangy, remember to add “ly” to your adverbs, and read.  Read a lot.  Eventually you’ll have a good feel for how to achieve that “timeless” narrative voice.

Sometimes it is frustrating to stick to my own rules, but limitations spur creativity.  The point isn’t to sound like Chaucer, but to impart enough of an old-timey flavor that my readers can  leave behind our high-tech age for a little while and get in touch with the rawness of the world.

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