Random Thoughts: Think You Know English?

Don’t worry, neither do I. At least, not in the way I thought I did.

That’s my initial reaction after having just made it through the first hundred and fifty pages of Bill Bryson’s Made in America, a fascinating look at the history, growth, and development of the American English language. I’m not nearly as familiar with the roots and etymologies of certain words as I thought. For instance, I wasn’t aware at all at how modern the term “Hobo” was (1891). Nor was I familiar with the origins of the word “Yankee” (the jury is out on whether it was an accented, slang form of the name “Johnny” or an insult-name that began with calling someone a “John Cheese). Crud, I wasn’t even aware that the oft-contested word “ain’t” has been in the English lexicon for almost three hundred years, having been steadily rejected from American dictionaries for centuries.

Actually, it can go one step further. Did you know that dictionaries disagree on the spellings of over 1200 (and in some volumes as high as 1700) different words? Kind of puts an old sting on all those days when your teacher would tell you to go look up a word in the dictionary, doesn’t it?

The discoveries I’ve made over the last few days reading through Made in America have been quite enjoyable—enough so that I’ve actually purchased a paperback copy of it. If you’ve read Bill Bryson’s work before, you know that he’s got a wonderful, informal style that keeps his work from being dry or boring, yet manages to convey a lot of interesting, detailed information. And it doesn’t just talk about where a word came from either. Bryson mixes historical details into his writing so that you learn how the word arose: What its roots were, where it came from, why people began using it … sometimes even what word or words it replaced.

Right, obviously I’m enjoying the book, but I’m not trying to make this an ad. There are two reasons that I’m writing about this, both of which come back around to being a writer.

The first is that after reading even a hundred and fifty pages of this book, I realize exactly how fruitless it would be to write a contemporary, perfectly period-accurate book. The second is how many liberties we take with our own writing even in Fantasy and Sci-Fi genres.

With that first one, I’m not mocking those who do choose to write period-accurate pieces, nor am I saying that it couldn’t be done. But until now I hadn’t quite realized how many everyday words I would be required to strip from my vocabulary if I ever attempted to do so. Now, I know we all accept that in order for things to be comprehensible, we all know authors cut corners … but after reading Made in America I’ve realized that we probably cut a lot more corners than we realize. I now know that I’ve read quite a few books set in the mid 1800s or even earlier that are considered quite accurate but have the characters using terms, words, and slang that I now know didn’t exist for another hundred years or so.

Second, looking at some of the origins of these words, it’s all the more apparent to me  now how many liberties I take with language when writing in fantasy. There are basic, integral words to English that surprisingly only exit because of several other languages or specific situations. And yet you can see these same words come up in fantasy where such situations never would have occurred or existed.

Am I saying this is bad? No. I’ve spoken before on coming up with colloquialisms and sayings for fantasy worlds, and while those things still hold true, I’m not saying we should all run out and eschew fantasy, Sci-Fi, or period novels that don’t quite get rid of the modern English vernacular. Readability is part of what an  author should be striving for, after all.

But reading Made in America has made me more aware of the liberties that writers must take to reach that level of readability, as well as how much of it we take for granted and how fickle a reading audience can be. You’re not attempting to write something period accurate, you’re attempting to writer something that the readers believe is period accurate. A fact which most writers (including myself) already knew, but until now I wasn’t aware exactly how severe it actually was.

The point? We’re handwaving stuff all over the place with regards to language. And you know what? That’s okay. I’m completely fine having a character from the late 1800s use period accurate slang while still speaking a form of English that’s easy for the reader to understand. Same with how a perspective piece from a character who’s native tongue isn’t English I don’t do entirely in Swahili, or speakers in a fantasy world use a term that technically wouldn’t exist because there was no American Revolution to … you get the point. As long as we get some of the other details right (or, at least, believable), we can handwave a lot of the filler, including the English, to a more modern variant of some level just for readability. Made in America just draws attention to how severely we actually do this. It’s fascinating.

That said, if you’re a writer or just an English devotee, you should try and track down a copy. It’s a fascinating read steeped in huge amounts of history and background, and Bryson does a great job of digging up interesting details about history that can be quite surprising (such as the detail that travel was so uncommon in early America that John Adams didn’t leave Massachusetts until he was in his fifties, or that one reason America jumped to the automobile so quickly is because the logistics of keeping tens of thousands of horses in cities for transport was a complete, unhealthy nightmare). I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time with it so far, and it’s eye-opening to dig into a history that so many around the world (because many American English words are now ubiquitous) now take for granted.

As always, if you want to be a writer, read a lot.

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