Creative Licence or Obsolete Language?

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The English language is constantly changing. In fact, it has changed so much that the Father of English Literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, is considered to have written in an almost completely different language. I should correct myself: we write in a completely different language. One of my most fascinating moments in college was when my professor of my Chaucer class actually read The Wife of Bath’s tale how it would’ve been read when it was written. As a reader and a writer, this moment stood out to me because we’d been studying Chaucer’s works long enough that I could comprehend reading it on my own, but then I listened to it (I have to admit I purposely didn’t read long because I wanted to submerge myself in what this was like.) Perhaps, if I read along, I would’ve thought this was nothing because I would’ve understood what she was saying, but I’m glad I didn’t read along. It proved how much has changed. Obviously, Chaucer isn’t the only one in history. But the purpose of sharing this story is less about Chaucer and more about how much has changed.

According to this article, changes have happened in the “sounds (phonetics), in their distribution (phonemics), and in the grammar (morphology and syntax).” I think most people agree on this fact, but what does this mean for the future of the English language?

As writers and readers, we might see a few grammatical errors, strange diction, and/or syntax we wouldn’t expect. In fact, we might mark this as a mistake. But what if the author intended this? When I come across something “strange” I begin to think of all of the “rules” we are given when studying writing.

Don’t use the passive voice. Don’t tell, just show. Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use anything but “said” after dialogue. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. But how will the English language change if we are stuck in our ways? When did we–as artists–stop challenging expectations and conform to rules because someone told us “this is the better way to write”?

I think dialogue is the easiest thing writers and readers can change and agree upon: it can change because no one speaks very properly. But what about prose? Personally, I think writers need to consider their settings and characters but ultimately follow their writer’s heart. If it doesn’t sound right, even if it’s proper, change it. If it feels right to be proper, be proper. For instance, I know a lot of writers who write historical fiction, and everyone insists they write in that time’s speak, but who’s to say there isn’t an audience who wants to read historical fiction written in today’s language in order to relate to it easier? In this case, I think it’s a risk, but, at the same time, I think the writer should be true to themselves. Challenge the English language. It’s meant to change. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, I would suggest there are many rules that are in place for a reason: like commas. Missing commas can be a HUGE problem.

So where do we draw a line?

Personally, I think we need one in certain areas–mainly with slang. I suppose this line is more about how quickly slang changes rather than the inappropriate usage of it. For instance, I wouldn’t want to read “OMG, he’s totes my bb4l, broseph.” (I don’t even know if that’s right or up-to-date.) Then again, when I was 14, I enjoyed TTYL by Lauren Myracle, which is entirely written in an AIM format. So, yes, I just contradicted myself, but I have a point to it:

When it comes to drawing the line, I think it more comes down to a balance of realistic, entertaining, and comprehensible language rather than whether it’s technically correct or not.

On my FB Author Page, I asked this question, “The English language changes constantly. Words that were once used daily are now obsolete. For instance, I was reading and a character asked, ‘Whom is that gift for?’ And I was taken out of the story. Although correct, I found the dialogue to be unbelievable. So my question is what are your opinions on instances like this (not necessarily whom)? Should writers change basic grammar like this since language is changing or be proper?”

Here are some opinions:

Samantha Ann Achaia: I think that a writer should write in the way that they feel best fits the time period, location and audience of their story. For example, if someone was writing a book in the 1500s, today’s grammar, spelling and sentence-structure probably shouldn’t be used (unless they want to). If a story is set in London and the characters are London-born then they should speak like the British do. If the book is aimed at senior citizens or children one may not want to curse as much as they do in books that are for Young Teens to Middle Adults

LeeAnn Jackson Rhoden: Characters speak the way the do according to their age, culture, location, era, and personality. I never worry about grammar in dialogue. In the text, that’s a different situation. I try to use correct grammar unless it sounds too awkward.

Carra Edelstein Saigh: I’m more bothered by spelling errors, and the use of the wrong word (ex: isle instead of aisle–isle is like an island; aisle is like an aisle at the grocery store). I don’t mind it so much when the story is written the way most people talk as long as it doesn’t get crazy. Outdated grammar rules become that way because no one wants to sound like an English textbook.

So what are your thoughts? Do you think authors should follow the current grammatical rules or do you think there are exceptions–such as in dialogue? If so, is dialogue the only exception or can the creative license move over to prose as well?


22 thoughts on “Creative Licence or Obsolete Language?

  1. I agree with you that from both morphological and syntactical points of view, the language of Chaucer is not the same as contemporary English anymore. However, the evolution of a language provides the continuity that binds the two languages into one. They mix well in the same text or even the same paragraph, with or without the device of dialogue. Now, if you try mixing in French into English text, that becomes a different problem. Most readers will ask you to translate the French text into English, of equivalent forms, of course. So, if they mix well without translation, they are roughly the same language. Otherwise, they are not. How do you like this rule of thumb?

    English is not my mother tongue though. However, I do have an opinion about English poetry (http://simplyjet.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/the-problem-with-english/). I hope you don’t get too angry about my opinion.

    I do agree with common opinions that grammar matters, context matters, knowledge matters, content matters and stuffs like that. For me, these are all too basic in English. After all, writing is all about communication. If we write in a way that most people can’t comprehend our writing, the purpose of communication is lost. Life is all about achieving, isn’t it? Of course, writing rules matter. I hate slang, too. It makes my life difficult as a non-native speaker.

    1. Oh, no! I’m not offended easily. In fact, I love it when I’m challenged. I read your piece. I found it very interesting, especially since I studied in poetry. I would add to it, but you’re very right on one thing: poetry is not easily defined in the English language, especially now. I find poetry can stretch beyond rhymes and structured rhythms. Your question about using other languages is a challenging one as I would agree: when reading, I’d like it translated to English (put in italics to represent they are speaking in another language) because I don’t understand that language. That is not to say I don’t want to learn that language, but, as you said in your article, it is very challenging to grasp a language outside of your native tongue. When I was learning Italian, I loved reading poetry in Italian. I often practiced by translating my favorite English poems to Italian and sadly found I liked it more in Italian. But I am still unsure if that is because Italian is exotic to me or because English is a very harsh language compared to most of European languages. Perhaps this is why poetry is somewhat of a struggle for English writers. Thank you for commenting.

      1. I’m happy that you weren’t offended. That’s my style of writing when I vent. Most people can’t handle it very well, because I push the buttons very accurately and intensely, all in very compact paragraphs. It takes time to accumulate that much bitterness to let go in one shot.

        I like English though. It’s a very unique language that comes with beats/stresses. I have yet to find another language with the same language feature, which makes it naturally musical. Most English speakers are very humble, because they think French, Italian, Greek and even Hebrew are more elegant languages. I understand the religious aspect, but I don’t get the Latin aspect. I guess it’s just a tradition from a time when the Roman Empire was the center of the known world.

        If most English poets alive today prefer a new definition of poetry through sampling, two sets of samples must be defined to figure out the patterns of poetry to agree upon: the inner set and the outer set. The inner set includes the poems that 90% of English poets agree are poems, while the outer set needs 25% of votes only. Of course, we can always create more levels, such as Class A Poetry, Class B Poetry and so on, all by votes within an international English poets’ society. The calibration will reveal a contemporary view on how English poetry is defined.

        The problem is, the English language evolves. I personally prefer the musical approach, as these musical elements are way too basic to change over time. A stable and reliable definition can go a long way in improving the quality of writing, as industrial standardization does to engineering. Keeping a clear high standard always helps and helps a lot in the long run.

        Thank you for taking the time to read my post though. Much appreciated.

  2. Great blog Shannon. I have this argument with my editor, dialogue should be shown how it is spoken by the character, and for everything else I strive to write well without overdoing it.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece, and thank you for sharing your personal experience. I completely agree on the “without overdoing it” part. It’s a balance, and it’s a very delicate balance at that.

  3. I think the important thing in a story is not necessarily “following all the rules”, but being consistent in the ones you do follow (or break). If you use slang in dialogue, the characters that use it and the way you annotate it should be consistent. Most readers can get used to new rules as long as there is consistency.

    1. Yes! Consistency is very important for believability, too. For instance, I was reading “Edge of Truth” by Natasha Hanova, and she jumps right into the lingo of her setting. It immediately placed me in her futuristic society, and her characters use it in a very believable way.

  4. Great questions you have there! I think the more correct the language is, the more you can get away with in the storytelling because the reader will feel he is in capable hands.I don’t like to read through passages of modified words even in dialogue–lathough Zadie Smith does a brilliant job recording accents and slang so there are always exceptions. However I tend to scrutinize the use of commas more because I think too many of them can seem clunky and outdated. We live in more pared down times.
    Chaucer was my introduction to English Literature too. 🙂

  5. To me, intention is key. if it’s an odd word that stands out from all else, it will seem like an error. If it’s in dialogue, it needs to be in keeping with the character’s persona.

    101Books is reviewing John Barth’s “The Sotweed Factor,” a book written to mirror English from an 18th century perspective. Here, if the author “slipped” by using a phrase or term from modern culture or language, it would stand out against all other. But if the author does this in some sort of pattern, or for some apparent reason, then the reader would feel like the author is in control and not be pulled out of the book’s world.

    Does that make sense?

  6. What great comments! As a reader, I like to see language consistent with time and place, but I do realize there are always eceptions. Inconsistant slang drives me nuts. Since I write futuristic SFR I never use slang like OK. When my readers are in the 22 nd century I don’t want them to whiplash back to the 21st.

  7. This is just a separate question. There wasn’t any audio recording technology back in Chaucer’s time. How did you get to know how English was pronounced? In Chinese, we mostly depend on the rhyme tables and the poetic contracts the ancient poets and musicians compiled for themselves. Even then, it’s still always very hard to tell. If there’s a trick, maybe we should learn from you.

    1. Just to add that there were ancient dictionaries to consult, too. However, they mostly tell you how to pronounce a word through a homophone. So, you end up with a list of homophones, but you still don’t really know how to pronounce them. A step further will be to track how the pronunciation evolves through time with each word, just to figure out which words are more stable in pronunciation than others. Then, we can use the stable vocabularies as a basis to do the reverse engineering.

      1. Do you have her contact info so that I can drop her an email? Usually professors answer questions enthusiastically within 2 days.

        Two stanzas of mine demonstrate why I love a traditional musical approach to English poetry, which serves both rhythms and rhymes:

        A brilliant smile behind her eyes
        That speak her lips that touch
        Hides not at all her soul that sighs
        Of fears in me too much.

        A beaut’ful mind atop her nose
        Can tell the subtlest scent
        Not from within a budding rose
        But of my heart so meant.

        You can visit this post of mine for more samples at the bottom of the page (http://simplyjet.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/the-heart-of-poetry/). For me, if a poem is not musical, it’s a prose at best. Free verses disgust me to no end. 😉 I’m joking. Don’t take it too seriously. That being said, poetry is dear to my heart.

      2. Okay. Thank you anyway. It’s not that important after all. By the way, I appreciate a professional writer’s praise. Truly flattered.

  8. Beautifully said, madam.

    And congrats on the book coming out. Something I had to remind myself in that situation, so I’ll pass it on just in case: breathe. Don’t forget you still need to breathe. I swear I hyperventilated a few times in various forms of anxiety. 😉

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