Speaking So You Are Understood

I feel a bit sorry for the writers of Downton Abbey.  They’re getting a lot of flak for language infractions, and I’m not sure they deserve the microscope for that particular shortcoming.

Frankly, I’m more in this guy’s camp.

Still, it’s a worthy topic of discussion.  Research for writing is imperative, even fiction worlds that exist only inside a writer’s head need to have guidelines and structure. If you’re going to defy the laws of physics, you need to set the laws you can’t defy. Know the rules before you break them, etc. etc.

So a realistic novel, in most cases, should not feature a woman who can teleport. Generally speaking, a story set in the 1940s probably should not have characters speaking exaggerated Valley Girl.

But if you’re writing a kid’s book that’s set in medieval times, is it really a requirement to write in medieval dialect? Fie.I think not.

In the movie interpretation of the Hunt for Red October, the Russians start out speaking Russian, then morph into English so the audience doesn’t miss the action trying to read the subtitles. I thought this was a clever and effective device. It was a kindness to the viewer, and an instance where religious adherence to accuracy was abandoned in favor of effective communication.God bless it.

It’s more important, I think, to maintain internal consistency.  If you’re going to write a story set in medieval times but make a character talk like a Valley Girl, she has to stay a Valley Girl throughout. And her character has to make clear why you’ve adopted that particular conceit for her.  Making Beth from Little Women talk like a Valley Girl is a bad choice.  Giving that vocal style to Amy, on the other hand, could be brilliant.

But maybe I’m dead wrong, and it’s much better to render Latin unto Caesar. What do you think?


About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
This entry was posted in Language, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

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