Voice in Ancient Mystery

The amazing Irene Hahn hosts a regular online discussion group covering Roman mystery books. I attended the most recent and had a lovely time. If you're interested in ancient mysteries then this is a good place to meet like-minded people. Personally I found it educational (and useful!) to hear what obviously knowledgable people thought of the books they'd read.

I confess every time someone said something positive or negative about a book, I instantly ran my mind across my own work to see if I got a tick or a cross. Someone mentioned they didn't like to see, "OK." In 2 minutes I'd done a global search across three manuscripts and confirmed I was clean. Phew!

Yes, the paranoia of a debut author knows no bounds.

One thing in particular which came up I thought I'd comment on: appropriate voice for characters speaking thousands of years ago. How do you make it sound credible? It's a tough problem. The options are:
  1. Write everything in Attic Greek. This scores points for accuracy but limits the print run to single digits.

  2. Write everything in a manufactured old tone, to give the feeling it was spoken long ago. This inevitably ends up sounding faux-mediaeval, faux-Shakespearean, or faux-epic-fantasy. Worse, the old tone is no more accurate than modern vernacular, because people just didn't speak like that.

  3. Go for totally modern colloquial English. This gives the image of Socrates walking into the room and saying, "Hey bro, watcha doin'?" No. Although in some ways it would be more authentic than the fake old tone, because at least we are saying in current English what was spoken in current Attic Greek. The problem is, colloquialism associates the speaker with a modern cultural grouping which is entirely wrong.

  4. Write more formal English avoiding anachronisms and anything which associates the language with modern culture. This is the way forward.
There are people who've already had to tackle this problem: translators of ancient texts. In particular I think quality translations of Aristophanes are a good model, such as the Penguin edition, because he is utterly irreverent, very funny, and highly colloquial in his own language. So for a good example of how to do it right, read translations of Aristophanes.

By that logic, is "OK" okay? Personally I wouldn't use it, but instead I use "Alright". I can't actually think of a reason why "OK" should be banned, it just doesn't feel right to me.


Matthew Delman said...

The problem with the word OK is the unusual etymology of the phrase. Some say it came from the Greek phrase "ola kala" (in which case you're fine), others go with American President Martin Van Buren's nickname of Old Kinderhook, still others say it originates with the misspelled phrase "Oll Korrect."

For further possibilities, we get into the Choctaw word "okeh," which was in use in the early 1800s as a trade language in the Ohio River Valley over here in the U.S.; and then the West African language of Wolof has the word "waw-kay" in its usage.

Everything except the "ola kala" origin places the phrase OK as coming into prominence somewhere in the last three hundred years. And even with that Greek origin, the phrase still wouldn't have potentially popped up until the industrial area of abbreviations.

That should be all the reasoning you need to not include it. Well, beyond it not feeling right I mean.

Gary Corby said...

Ah, but here's the problem with the etymology of virtually every English word: they almost all have their origin post my period.

If a character forward references by quoting Shakespeare, the Bible, or some other well known source then clearly I have a major problem. The same rule can't apply to generic, non-easily-attributable words, or otherwise my only option is to revert to Attic Greek.

Matthew Delman said...

Fair point, and I see your difficulty. Which is also why you're better off with using terms that can't be construed as contemporary slang, a status OK definitely has.

Side question: I tend to spell the word as "All right" instead of "Alright." Is the second version standard among Commonwealth countries? Or is it still an either/or proposition?

Gary Corby said...

In my world:

All right means everything correct, in the sense of, Did you get your test questions all right?

Alright means I agree, in the sense of, Alright, I'll tidy up my room.

They're not interchangable.

I wasn't aware the US can mix them up. Thanks for warning me. The copyedit on my first book is going to be an interesting experience.

Matthew Delman said...

It's a preferential thing over here more than anything. Every American grammar text I've seen advocates "all right" as the proper formal usage, even though people do use "alright" quite a bit.

TrishaleighKC said...

Very interesting Gary, thanks for the post and the information. It's a problem I'll be tackling myself soon. I tend to write historical characters in a casual tone but *try* and avoid modern phrasing or words. It's lots of work. I commend you on making it to this point!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Trisha! Your biggest problem, and I speak from deep experience, is going to be weeding out modern quotations which are so ubiquitous you don't even realize they're quotations.

An interesting test for anyone with a US edition of a Lindsey Davis book would be to look for any use of "all right" and/or "alright". I'm sure her UK originals would have followed the same convention as me.

moonrat said...

personally, i would have voted for Attic Greek. but i never win.

Bill Kirton said...

On the general point, I recognise and sympathise with the problem of register but your preferred solution surely makes it more difficult to distinguish between narrative and dialogue. It's essential, of course, to avoid the 'Yo, Socrates' approach but they have to be relaxed human beings rather than buttoned up grammarians. In my novel set in 1840, I needed a colloquial word for 'having sex' and was surprised to find they used 'shagging'. I chose it but it still doesn't feel right.
And, in the same text, my (terrific) American editor changed every occurrence of 'alright' to 'all right'.

Loretta Ross said...

Interesting post! I'm glad the only historical parts in my book are in American English and only go back to the 1880s! That's pretty easy to do.

FWIW, "alright" always looks wrong to me, however it's used. It kind of looks like it should be someone's name, though, maybe.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Ugh. I hate alright. HATE it. It's not even slang, but we Americans can't seem to get rid of it. I refuse to use the bugger.

Great post, Gary. I struggled to get the tone of Hatshepsut's dialogue just right. At first it was too formal and then the pendulum swung the other way. Now I think I've got it, but occasionally a beta will catch a phrase that is too modern for Egyptians 3.500 years ago to have said.

irenesbooks said...

(Thanks for the plug, Gary!)

It's a tricky question. I tend to give mystery writers more latitude when they write in the gumshoe fashion, although David Wishart, whose otherwise excellent "Ovid" we discussed tonight, takes some getting used to, he can be extreme. From "Pukkah" to "we are still talking baby slopes here, lady" ... and having the sleuth address people, including senators, as "Pal."

I'm more critical towards general historical fiction. For example, Colleen McCullough trying to project Roman low class slang is a total failure, and Allan Massie is skirting the language occasionally.

irenesbooks said...


English is my second language. Having been brought up with "British" English and now living in the US, I think having special American editions for books by Commonwealth authors totally unnecessary and outright silly. Isn't that an insult to the intelligence of American readers? And where does that leave Lindsey Davis, who has at last one made-up word in every of her novels?

But then again, what do I know, I'm just a little old lady in tennis shoes ...

Gary Corby said...

Thanks for your vote moonrat. I'll be sure to mention it to my editors. (And in passing, I know Editor Kathleen likes your blog!)

Bill, I probably phrased that badly. You're right that relaxed is essential, but it does need to avoid anything obviously associated with modern slang, IMHO, and that inevitably means it will come out a little more formal than usual.

Stephanie & Loretta, the "alright" issue has totally surprised me. Who'd've thought it could be such a big cultural difference? Fascinating stuff.

Irene, re the different language editions, you probably know the quote from Churchill about the UK and the US being divided by a common language...

Tabitha Bird said...

Wow. I have never had to think about whether or not to use "OK" Maybe I should? Then again. A memoir is my memory turned story. I am guessing "OK" is Okay :)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Tabitha, it all depends on the voice the story demands of you. OK is okay for any modern memoir, but I wouldn't be keen to see it in, say, a mediaeval romance.

The one which has surprised me is the strong views on "alright" versus "all right". English is an interesting language!

RWMG said...

Irene, Lindsey Davis has a few trenchant remarks on the subject of adapting the vocabulary in her books for American audiences.

I was particularly amused when I read the transcript to notice that 'corn' came up in the chat.

Amalia T. said...

Writing Helen, I had a terrible time describing childbirth without including modern phrases and understandings, and I'm sure I didn't quite get it to the point where it is 100% accurate to the times.

I've also struggled with finding the right tone in the historical elements of my book-- it's an ongoing issue, I think, and it will be forever. Not only do I have to be aware of the tone of my every day joes, but also have something that distinguishes god from mortal. (Would the gods be more precise, or more cavalier?) And all of that leaves aside developing the individual voices of the distinct personalities coming from different backgrounds. What kind of language variations would exist between a Norse god and an Olympian--assuming, of course, that they can speak a common language at all. (And is the common language they speak something mortals do? Or a universal language of the gods that is incomprehensible to the man on the street?)

And for the record, I've avoided OK my self. One of my MCs habitually uses "of course" instead, and another (from a different background) tends toward "certainly."

Amalia T. said...

also: in school in upstate NY I learned "It's never all right to say alright."

Gary Corby said...

I can already see the "alright" controversy will be dogging me for the rest of my life.

That's an interesting link, Robert. Very apposite for the book chat.

Amalia, maybe you should get the Norse Gods to sound like they're speaking in the Eddas and the Olympic Gods sounding Homeric? Granted there's not a lot of difference.

I think I can help you with the childbirth terms. Hippocrates wrote on birth. Stick to what he said and you'll be safe.

Amalia T. said...

Thanks, Gary. I'll check Hippocrates out for vocabulary.