I often pore through old correspondence and antique books as part of my research. Reading those letters and books isn’t always easy. Wordy, run-on sentences, unusual phrases and uncommon words makes it incredibly frustrating to fully comprehend what educated men wrote all those years ago. How different our language has since become and how much it has evolved. As a historical fiction author, I meet that challenge and try to write an adapted and aged dialogue style into a readable and believable story.
Authors wishing to write and capture the nuances of Old English, (Anglo-Saxon) will understand the challenges facing readability if we want to be true to the time period. Certainly, Modern English or New English has evolved since the days of Shakespeare, and regional dialects only add to the difficulty.
Experts believe Old English was spoken primarily between 500 AD to around 1100 AD and originated from the Germanic Anglo-Frisian tribes. After the Norman conquests of 1066 AD, the Anglo-Norman language, a close resemblance and dialect of French, was adopted by the upper class and its use defined the end of the Old English era.
To add confusion, Middle English was spoken after the Norman conquests until 1500 AD and is known also as Shakespearean English. But the clue to correct interpretation of each English reiteration may lie in the phonetics. However, this does little to help an author advancing a dialogue scene from a by-gone era.
“How are you?”
Middle English (Shakespearean)
“Gow now?” (How are you?)
Old English (Anglo-Saxon)
“Hû ârian êower?” (How are you?)
While I’m no English language scholar, I find it unlikely an author would write “How are you?” when he/she is writing a novel set in the year 1100. A possible selection of alternative phrases may include.
“Fare thee well?”
“Are ye hale and hearty?”
While neither of the above examples is technically correct, the reader could feel somewhat placated and buy into the believability of the time period and the story. It’s what authors do.