THE LANGUAGE OF THE BOOK
Wednesday, 17 October 2012
Below is the text of the appendix which will appear at the back of The Wake, explaining how - and why - I constucted the language (or should that be the dialect?) of the novel. It's an attempt, after the fact, to explain how this happened - a process which, as it went on, I wasn't always even quite aware of myself.
A note on language
What we now call ‘Old English’ was the language of the English people until the invasion of 1066, when it rapidly began to mutate with the arrival of Norman French as the language of the ruling class. This novel is not written in Old English – that would be unreadable to anyone except scholars. It is written instead in what might be called a shadow tongue – a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today.
The language of this novel evolved as I wrote it over a period of three years, often seeming to do so beyond my control. Eventually, in an attempt to prevent things getting entirely out of hand, I tried to hem it in with some rules.
The first and most important rule was that I wanted to use only words which originated in Old English. The vast majority of the vocabulary of this novel consists of words that, in one form or another, existed in English 1000 years ago. The exceptions are cases where words did not exist for what I wanted to say, or where those that did were so obscure today, or hard to pronounce, that they would have detracted excessively from the flow of the tale.
The second rule was that I did not use letters which did not exist in Old English. The OE alphabet was more limited than ours. There was, for example, no letter ‘k’ – it is replaced by ‘c’, which is always pronounced lic the modern ‘k’, never lic the modern ‘s’. There was no ‘v’ either; ‘f’ takes its place in words like ‘seofon’ (seven). ‘J’ and ‘q’ were similarly absent.
The matter of spelling was more complicated. I wanted to render as many OE pronunciations as I could on the page, rather than translating them into their modern equivalents. So the OE words daeg (day), for example, or deorc (dark) – though pronounced in much the same way as they are in modern English – are offered up with their OE spellings intact. This is a rule that I found I had to break more often than I wanted to – if I had stuck to it with every word, the novel would have been ten times harder to read. I had to use my judgement as to when to use OE spellings and when to modernise them, and if so by how much.
Choosing OE, or pseudo-OE, forms for the novel’s vocabulary means that the reader has to initially wrestle with OE pronunciation. This can be tricky to compute at first, but once grasped it becomes, I hope, second nature. So ‘sc’, for example, is pronounced ‘sh’ – as in biscop. ‘Cg’ makes a ‘dg’ sound in words lic bricg (bridge). ‘G’ can be pronounced both as a hard letter, as in mergen (morning) or as a soft equivalent of ‘y’ when it appears in words lic daeg. ‘Hw’ sounds lic ‘w’ in words like hwit (hwit).
Finally, it’s worth stressing the catholicism of my approach to the language, old and new. To achieve the sound and look I wanted on the page I have combined Old English words with modern vocabulary, mutated and hammered the shape of OE words and word endings to suit my purpose, and been wanton in combining the Wessex dialect with that of Mercia, Anglia and Northumberland – and dropping in a smattering of Old Norse when it seemed to work. The syntax used is mine alone, its structure often driven by the limitations placed on me by the available vocabulary.
There was one final rule I set myself, and it was this: all of the previous rules could be overridden, if necessary, by a kind of meta-rule, which functioned as a kind of literary thegn: do what the novel needs you to do. This, in the end, was a matter of instinct, which means that I have no-one to blame for the results but myself.
Why bother with all this? Why make life harder for myself and for the reader? There are two answers to this question. The first is that I simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language: they ring false. The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them i-pads and cappuccinos: just wrong.
Which leads on to the second reason for playing with language in this way. The early English did not see the world as we do, and their language reflects this. They spoke their truth, as we speak ours. I wanted to be able to convey, not only in my descriptions of events and places but through the words of the characters, the sheer alien-ness of Old England.
The early English created the nation we now live in. They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from. Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis. Language seemed the best way to convey this.
This novel is written in a tongue which no one has ever spoken, but which is intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land: a place at once alien and familiar. Another world, the foundation of our own.
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