Suitable language for a lady

“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.

24 Comments

Filed under BY THE MAD GENII, DAVE FREER, WRITING, WRITING: CRAFT

24 responses to “Suitable language for a lady

  1. It’s a matter of speaking in the key you’ve established. In historical fiction, “Aye” can work where “Okay” flings the reader halfway into orbit even if the actual language spoken by your characters had neither word. And v.v. — you wouldn’t expect a 20th century rapper from Detroit to be saying “Aye”, would you? In fiction, a word that’s “out of key” grates on the ear — unless you’ve already established your local patter where that word can feel like the right note, as A Clockwork Orange did so well.

    • B. Durbin

      As a musician, I like the analogy. I should also add that a trained musician can throw in notes that are not “in key” (hence sharps and flats), but if an amateur does that, chances are that they’ve picked the wrong key. Or simply don’t have a musical ear to begin with.

      And now I’m going to push the analogy a little bit further. A couple of months back, I came up with a theme for something that I’m working on. I sang it all the way home (because of course I was driving at the time, drive time is like shower time for musical inspiration) to fix it in my head.

      At this point, I should mention that while I’m creative musically, I’m half-trained at best. So transcription is like trying to write a novel when you’ve got the handwriting skills of a second-grader, and were it not for computers and their playback, I would have to have someone trained write things down for me. (Well… maybe not that bad anymore. But I still have to do fractional beats with my hands to count things out, and don’t even get me started on how I apparently use various modes without knowing why they work.)

      I went to the piano, figured out what the notes were, and transcribed the theme, accidentals and all. Then I took a look at what I’d done, realized there were six flats in the key signature, plus more in the text, and shifted the whole thing up half a step so that people performing it wouldn’t hunt me down and kill me. (Hooray for computers.)

      The analogy part there is that a piece of writing can be completely factually correct, and be good and internally consistent, and you’ll still want to shift things so that the readers don’t hunt you down and kill you.

      • Holly

        Let me just say, on behalf of whoever may end up playing the peice, thank you!

        Though I will also say, if the new key doesn’t feel right, put it back. Pianos do that equal tempered tuning thing, as do computers, but a lot of the rest of us still play just tempered (not necessarily on purpose, it seems) so when you get it in front of musicians the key may really matter. I’d rather deal with a proliferation of flats then a key that doesn’t work.

        • B. Durbin

          I honestly don’t have enough orchestral experience to know if a different key is going to change the feel of something not in equal temper. I can transcribe the whole thing out and then defer to someone who knows better. (Like my friend who works with the local youth symphony. 😉 )

  2. The thing to do is to make decisions about discourse levels and stick with them. Zelazny and Tolkien made different artistic and linguistic decisions, but they were both very steady about establishing and using exactly the right discourse for the characters, ethnicity, and situation.

  3. With my cross dimensional things, I try to use “all right” just to avoid that jar to the readers. Which isn’t at all realistic in any civ that descended from the post WWII American swamping of media..

  4. Eric Ivers

    By-in-large? From a professional writer?

    • All right, smart-arse. Put your money where your big mouth is. You want ‘professional writing’ from something I do on top of my professional writing, for free, in that ample spare time I don’t have. (My day yesterday started at 4.30 AM and finished at 11.30 PM.) Good. So you’re up for paying for it – because that’s what one does for professional writing. Got it? Right, I’ll get a proof reader, you pay for it, or don’t whinge.

      Anyway, you give me an opportunity to rub your nose in something. Some people spend their time obsessing about grammar or spelling. They miss the point of successful professional writing entirely. The above is only relevant in that it relates to the ability of the author to communicate with his audience. It actually makes no difference to the commercial success of an author at all, if they communicate well, tell a great story, and their spelling and grammar are going to send Eric Ivers to his fainting couch. Yet the most particular fussbudget, who makes not one error of spelling or grammar can be — and often is — a complete failure. So: just what is important to a professional writer? What makes someone a professional writer? Here’s a clue-bat. It’s not their spelling or grammar. It’s selling a lot of books.

      • Bibliotheca Servare

        I just wanted to say, I don’t mind typos or grammatical quirks, I’m just delighted to get a peek into the head of one of my favorite authors! ;D I confess I also enjoy the giggling that almost always results…fishwives versus modern womens’ libbers…oh my… *collapses in a paroxysm of giggles*

  5. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    In one of the 1632-universe novels, an up-time character speaking French (of the 1630’s) uses the term “your boss” while talking to some down-time French characters.

    This appeared in the snippets I post over on Eric’s place and this one individual went crazy over it.

    To him (assuming it’s a guy), the authors should have used a French term or a formal English term.

    He’s apparently a “Language Nazi” as he also complains about any “misuse” of “foreign names” in stories written for an American English reader.

    It gets annoying especially since none of the other posters agree with him. [Sad Smile]

    • Chris Nelson

      If you work in a international community that values precision, you are only a “Language Nazi” when it comes to programming languages, electronics and logic, everything else is secondary since English may be a second or third or fourth language. You help those folks with the documentation instead bullying them and they really do appreciate it.

      As for swearing, nothing beats an special forces NCO that speaks 9 different languages and has several advanced degrees including a masters in psychology. The man could kill with a look or stop a riot with a whisper. We were convinced that he was a alien or a true demi-god in disguise. He creatively tore me apart and built me back up within a few minutes. Never encountered anyone in fiction to match his truth. Must have been a few million reincarnations to create a being like that.

  6. Uncle Lar

    My first job out of high school in 1969 was in a factory with 2500 employees, 2000 of them women. We manufactured appliance controls, timers and thermostats, that sort of thing, and women seem to be better at repetative small parts assembly. The guys were around to do the heavy lifting and machine setup.
    Small midwestern mostly farming and light manufacturing community. Entire town was only 4500 so we drew employees from the surrounding area. The ladies ran from teenage girls to grandmothers in their 60s, and when displeased could peel the paint off walls with their language. Or light a fire under an innocent young fellow just starting out in a grownup world.
    It was quite an education.

  7. My mother grew up on an island. One of the colorful locals was an elderly fellow of Scandinavian origin who had come to the States by stowing away on a boat as a youth. I will simply say this: he learned all his English from sailors. Consequently his language was *rather* blue but it was clear he didn’t really know what all the *&#&%#*#% meant. He thought it was like “um” or other throat-clearing. Even the persnickity church ladies did not take offense 😉

  8. Back when the US Army still included a Women’s Army Corps, it was common consensus that the most ‘foul mouthed’ thing in the Army was a WAC Drill Sergeant.

  9. richardmcenroe

    I ran into that with one of my yet unfinished works which opened with the assassination of Christopher Marlowe for the first time. It was a real juggling act between capturing the Elizabethan flavor and *nasal whine* “But what does that mean?”

    In my not so humble opinion, Patrick O’Brian had a genius for striking that balance. The saddest thing about Master and Commander the movie was the “modernizing” of Stephen Maturin.

    • “which opened with the assassination of Christopher Marlowe for the first time.” Did you kill him more than once? Don’t you know only I can do that?

      • The short story entitled “The Unkillable Christopher Marlowe” should be coming to kindles near you any day now, right?

        • B. Durbin

          “Marlowe was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Shakespeare signed it: and Shakespeare’s name was good at the Globe, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marlowe was as dead as a door-nail.

          Shakespeare knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Shakespeare and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Shakespeare was his sole executor, his sole co-producer, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Shakespeare was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of theatre on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with a well-played tragedy.

          The mention of Marlowe’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marlowe was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

          • Bibliotheca Servare

            I’m already curious. Well done! If that was off the top of your head (figuratively)…*grumbles*

            • B. Durbin

              It’s basically just a copy-paste of A Christmas Carol, precipitated some time ago by the nugget of information that Marlowe is a direct ancestor of the name Marley. I don’t know exactly how you’d map the rest of the story, but there’s something there (especially considering the Shakespeare-is-not-Shakespeare crowd.)

            • B. Durbin

              … doesn’t everyone know how A Christmas Carol begins?

      • richardmcenroe

        Yyyyyyes and no….. I think you’ll find my take interesting if I ever get it finished.

  10. Verisimilitude: the appearance of being true or real

    It’s a word that every writer of fiction really ought to know. In fact, it should be one of the words stuck on the wall above your computer screen so that when you look up, you can’t avoid it. Along with “you wanker”.

    The short version is: I agree entirely with what you’ve said here. The long version isn’t worth going into, but I would add that I think it’s something we all have to deal with eventually. It’s the difference between what the reader expects and believes, and what you know from personal experience or careful research.

    Example: turns out that historically, there were almost no “quick-draw” duels in the Old West. Yet how often do those turn up in the movies and the old Western novels?

    You just have to figure out what people “know” to be true, and sort of write your way around it. As if that’s easy…