“You may charge me with murder—or want of sense—
(We are all of us weak at times):
But the slightest approach to a false pretence
Was never among my crimes!
“I said it in Hebrew—I said it in Dutch—
I said it in German and Greek:
But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
That English is what you speak!”
The Hunting of the Snark, Fit the fourth, Lewis Carroll
As a fisheries scientist, one of the places my work took me was into the fish-factories, where the catch was processed.
Now: I’d grown up being a obnoxious fisher-brat in the harbor, on and off a commercial fishing boat, been at an all-male boarding school, been a NCO during my stint as a conscript.
I labored under the delusion that I could swear the devil out of hell, his ears burning. I always laugh when I hear these upper middle-class female arts graduates expecting me to be deeply impressed by their venturing on the courageous use of ‘…ing ( you know, like Sir Terry Pratchett. “…ing”) I’m sure it’s meant to make them sound avant-garde, liberated, and tough… Yeah, well. Fish factories. Almost always female staff, the wives, girlfriends and daughters of the fishermen. You’ve heard of fishwives? It’s true.
I learned I hadn’t even got to the kindergarten stage of descriptive foul language. Your daring hot-house flower lib arts graduate is a premmie baby by their standards.
I got on very well with them, they thought I was nuts, as all I wanted from the sharks were measurements their guts and a piece of vertebrae (age and growth studies, – bone-deposition rate is seasonal) and I thought they were the salt of the earth – and very salty it was indeed at times. It was all in Afrikaans, which is a wonderful snot-clearing language for describing your drunken husband’s sexual inadequacy in great and scathing detail. I did my best to swear back, and that they found very funny. They’d all attempt to teach me new colorful expressions to try out on the vicar. This pastime delighted them and has flavored my books ever since.
In the context… oddly, there was nothing offensive about it. I had the greatest of respect for them – trust me on this, ANYONE has the greatest of respect for someone who can fillet a fish in less than two seconds, the knife speed only eclipsed by the non-stop tongue – which was at least as sharp as the knife. But aside from that, they worked incredibly hard, cheerfully and loudly (and, um, most educating obscenely) for a pittance, under conditions which would make most first-world women puke (just the smell would do), to keep food on the table, to keep their families going. The West Coast fishing communities were rife with alcohol abuse, drug problems, plenty of violence, poverty and yet… they could laugh. And work. And the language was appropriate for those ladies, who were, by-and-large, worth ten of the bwave feminist Ivy League Masters in Post-Modern English Literature and victim of masculine micro-aggression, saying that daring ‘fuck’.
Language and context for that language are major issues for writers, and not just because not all of us have blundered into fish-processing plants.
There is appropriate language use for the appropriate context – just as in real life. The difference being that context is determined by the reader, NOT by the actual reality. Let me explain: I was avoiding work on Facebook the other day when I happened to see a sidebar comment by an historian I know (An Historian, like An Elk. They too have theories, but not always about dinosaurs). I read it, read the original post which was something of a rant by an author who writes about Chinese myth. She’d been reading some High fantasy set in the 15th century… and hit, in dialogue, the word ‘Okay’.
This was a terrible affront because in fifteenth century they did not say ‘Okay’.
Which is true.
They also in reality didn’t speak modern English (or as most high fantasy seems to be set in Europe, any kind of English). Indeed in her own novels set in a mythological China, they probably wouldn’t speak much English either, and, to judge by the directly translated instructions which I have frequently read — too late — on Chinese-made appliances, the language and expressions are quite different. (Brush-cutter instructions may otherwise presage doom and destruction. ‘If you fell your leg in a whole, place blade in earth to stop revolutions’.)
They probably used a colloquial expression, which if you translated for meaning… would translate as ‘Okay’. The objection is meaningless.
Or is it?
Yes… in reality. No, as a writer.
English is a rapidly evolving and changing language – read a Bulldog Drummond novel (1920’s thriller, contemporary setting) and it jumps out an hits you in the face (yes, the attitudes of the author are also something of a shock to people who assume the mores of today are eternal and anyone in 1920 who didn’t conform to modern mores was an …ist (choose your …ist) rather than just reflecting the zeitgeist of their time.)) It’s particularly obvious in a contemporarily set novel – but less so in period pieces and fantasy and sf. Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom is easier for modern readers to cope with than Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond. You could say the same thing about Georgette Heyer, with her Regency and Historical novels being ‘easier’ to read now, than her detective novels which had contemporary settings, and language (they read more like ‘period pieces’ now).
There are expectations of a kind of language. The expectations (like the mores, and attitudes to sex or women’s liberation) are quite probably wrong and owe more to Hollywood than historical accuracy. But this is my point: They are what the reader expects. If you (and yes, I did this. I regret it) use modern colloquial English appropriate to your character’s station in your fifteenth century novel (where as in Shadow of the Lion, the characters are speaking bastardized Frankish ) many readers will expect the fake-formal olde English of the High Fantasy Novel and will be pissed.
(the pic is a link if you are interested)
It’s a pain in the ass, but there it is.
Knowing about it hopefully makes it easier to deal with. And there is nothing like knowing a convention, or a rule, to improve your ability to break it and get away with it.