Writing Medieval Dialogue

One of the most challenging aspects of writing a medieval novel is to create authentic sounding medieval dialogue that the reader can follow. Certainly most readers would be completely lost if the novel was written in Middle English!

If we look at The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in the 1300s, it is in Middle English. The language reads like this (the "typos" are correct):

Ther is, at the west syde of Ytaille,
Doun at the roote of Vesulus the colde,
A lusty playne, habundant of vitaille,
Where many a tour and toun thou mayst biholde
That founded were in tyme of fadres olde,
And many another delitable sighte,
And Saluces this noble contree highte.

Certainly in some cases the words are the same, even if the spellings have altered over the years. Most of us can understand that first line - that something exists on the west side of Ytaille, i.e. Italy. We get the sense that "toun" is now "town" and "fadres" is now "fathers". Maybe we might figure out that "tour" was an alternate spelling of "tower".

But would we know that "highte" meant, not a measurement of how tall something was, but rather that a name was associated with something?

Words change over the years, both in the way they're spelled and the way they're used. "Gay" simply used to mean happy. Now it has a much different overtone. If we used the word "Gay" in a modern novel - no matter what it might have meant in medieval ages - we have to be aware of how our modern readers will perceive it, including its shadings of meaning.

In the middle ages, the word "highte" referred to the name of something. That last line in essence says "And Saluces, this noble country was called." But would a modern reader know that? Is it reasonable to expect them to?

So we accept, on one hand, that we need to create dialogue using modern definitions that modern readers will understand.

Overly Modern Words
So let's look at the other side of the scale - using words that are too modern.

First, let's agree that physical anachronisms should never enter into dialogue (or into descriptions either, for that matter). Certainly a person in middle ages shouldn't be talking about "faster than an airplane" or "sharper than a rapier" since those things did not yet exist. That to me is a given.

So now let's look at things which are not physical anachronisms. These would be choices of word or phrasing. The interesting thing is that we react to phrasing and word use in our every day life. If someone came up to us and said "My bad, Pops, that skate is too leet!" many of us might form an opinion of the speaker because they were using slang and not "proper English." If we imagine this discussion going on at a job interview for a bank finance officer, in many cases the dialect style might affect the hiring decision.

So we can probably also agree that, since we can react to new-slang even in modern interactions, too-current slang would feel improper in a novel with historical characters.

So how do we find a healthy middle ground where the characters are using words that clearly convey the tone of what is being said, without appearing to be hanging out in a suburban mall chewing bubble-gum?

Pater / Fadres / Father / Dad
Here's a word to ponder. In Middle English, there was a word, "fader", meaning the male parent of a child. We have already changed that by turning it into "father". But would all children in medieval times only ever call their male parent by the official title of "Fader"? Was there never an opportunity for a child to use a more gentle version of a word when they were feeling affectionate? Maybe "Fa"? The Latin word was "Pater". So maybe the young kids would call their male parent "Pa" or "Pa Pa" in the babbling style that most babies have. If we had a character in a medieval dialogue tenderly calling their father "Fa" it might have been historically accurate - but it would be gibberish to modern readers. The modern reader would think, perhaps, that the speaker was talking about the fourth note after Do-Re-Mi. So to my mind, while "Dad" as a word originated in around 1500, it was an evolution of whatever previous word they had been using for the same concept.

We know there was no word "father" in middle english. In The Physician's Tale from The Canterbury Tales we hear:

Ye fadres and ye moodres, eek also,
Though ye han children, be it oon or two,

So there was only a word "Fadres". Yes, now we use the word "Father" in place of that word. It is logical that we now use the word "Dad" in place of whatever tender word they used at the time for that meaning. We are writing the same concepts, while using modern worlds that our modern readers will draw the same meaning from.

Anachronisms in Word Choice
I certainly agree heartily that a medieval novel's dialogue should not contain concept anachronisms. Characters should not speak of danger in terms of muskets, or talk about the travel distance of spaceships.

However, I deliberately choose for my dialogue to make the tradeoff of not being written in Middle English and instead to contain word choice anachronisms. I will not have a character say "God woot that children ..." because my modern readers would be baffled. I substitute in the modern word, "knows", for the now unused "woot". I don't worry if the specific word "knows" had been used in medieval times, because to me that's not the issue. Medieval speakers had a word for the concept of "knows" - and that word was "woot". I am substituting in the modern equivalent that my readers my understand. (It turns out that the word "knows" wasn't used in the middle ages either. Their word for the concept was "knowen".)

And, when you're writing, do you use the word "groups"? Heck, that word was only invented in the late 1600s! You shouldn't ever talk about a group. You should instead use the word "flokmeele". Or should you? Would your readers be baffled?

Do you use the word "hug" in your story? If so, that only came about in the mid-1500s. You'd have to use a different word or phrase to be accurate.

How about "bracelet"? That only dates to the mid-1400s.

The point is that many words that are a normal part of our language are not necessarily "eternal". We have to write in words that our readers understand. We can't obsess too much over when particular words came into being.

Even phrases have this issue. In medieval times they would say "sad corage" when they wanted to give the impression of "steadfast spirit" - would your readers draw a different impression from those words?

We cannot write in medieval language. Our modern readers would not know how to interpret it. We have to use modern words. We have to use words that came into being after our time period.

The key for me is to strive to stay on the "gentle side" of too-modern slang which would, just as in the finance interview, give readers a sense that the person was talking in a specialized sub-language of modern youth. I want to avoid slang triggers while remaining perfectly understandable so the novel flows along through its plot lines.

This is my take on the topic - I would love to hear your feedback and ideas!

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About Medieval Language
Medieval Languages - the Basics
Writing Medieval Dialogue
Contractions in Medieval Dialogue
Glossary of Medieval Terms