Monday, August 30, 2010

Archaic vs. Accessible

Carla Nayland, author of Paths of Exile and Ingeld's Daughter, has an excellent essay entitled "Archaic Terminology in Historical Fiction." First, she notes the pluses of using "archaic" words to create atmosphere within a historical novel:

On the one hand, period terminology can evoke a sense of entering a different world. If one opens a novel and encounters...a fyrdman carrying a seax or a musician playing a rebec, it’s immediately apparent that the story is set in a world that is not the same as the modern world, where people dress and act and perhaps think differently.
 Then she offers the corollary caution:
On the other hand, archaic terms can act as a barrier. Too many words that are too unfamiliar can create the impression that this world is not so much different as incomprehensible. 
There are two ditches here that the historical fiction author must scrupulously avoid. Overburdening your novel with archaic (but accurate) words might make it cumbersome and confusing to the average reader. And yet modernizing all terms can destroy the atmosphere of the world you are trying to create. What's an author to do? Nayland gives her solution:

I prefer to err on the side of accessibility, given a choice.... For me, too many archaic terms have the effect of distancing me from the story. I like to ‘translate’ archaic terminology into a modern or near-modern equivalent whenever I can, in the hope that this makes it easier for a reader to conjure up the intended mental image.
How does this philosophy work itself out in her writing? Nayland gives some examples from her novels which are set during the Anglo-Saxon period. Instead of using the Anglo-Saxon word "Witan" for the assembly of nobles who advised the king and chose his successor, she chooses to use the more accessible word "Council." Instead of using the technical name "seax" for the Anglo-Saxon weapon, she uses a simple phrase like "fighting knife." Sometimes, if she feels that the word has no acceptable modern equivalent, she will use it as-is, though making sure to define it by explanation or context.

I am curious what historical fiction readers think of Ms. Nayland's approach to archaic terminology. Patrick O'Brian, in his 19th century naval series starting with Master and Commander, uses a plethora of unfamiliar nautical terms (so many that Dean King has published a Lexicon for readers to use as they are reading O'Brian's books). And yet, Patrick O'Brian's series, which immerses you in the atmosphere of the Napoleonic era, is immensely popular.

How accessible should a book be? Do you, as a reader, want to be stretched by having to deduce what certain archaic/unfamiliar terms mean? Or will you give up on the book if you encounter anything in unfamiliar language? Examples?


  1. I maybe one of only a few but i do like to findout what "archaic" words mean! lol
    I'm not bother one way or other too much if i get really interested i go findout.
    A good example of the search for knowledge is Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England". which i love .

  2. I've read Ian Mortimer's book The Greatest Traitor. He's an interesting writer and a good historian. I'll have to check out his Time Traveler's Guide. Thanks for the post!


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