I’ve been vaguely interested in reading Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake because, as its Author’s note says:
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.
Sounds enticing, right? Fortunately, I’ve been warned off by Two Linguists Explain Pseudo Old English in The Wake, an excellent demolition job in which linguists Gretchen McCulloch and Kate Wiles explain exactly why it would enrage me to the point of throwing it against the wall if I ever tried to read it. Some excerpts:
Gretchen: The Wake uses fuck quite a bit, with the spelling fucc or fuccan because it’s avoiding k. Here’s an example sentence from page 99: “go fucc thyself i saes and let thy frenc freonds do the same”. It’s set in 1066, so is fuck old enough? Should Kingsnorth have been using swive or something else instead?
Kate: HAHAHAHA YES LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT.
He’s fallen into the most basic of heffalump traps. Everyone calls it an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word but it’s really not. In fact, none of the Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words were Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words. Most of them aren’t even Anglo-Saxon. There’s no denying they had a filthy sense of humour so there’s plenty of smut. But they were a pragmatic bunch and their taboo words, certainly as we have them recorded, were pretty literal: shit had all the scandalous effect of ‘defecation’; words for sex were no ruder than ‘intercourse’ in the contexts that we find them used and ‘bastard’ just meant illegitimate.
And this is super weird as he went to such pains to stress he’d only used vocabulary which existed in Old English and has survived to today. But I suppose ‘fuck’ really works to confirm our stereotypes of this period as nasty, brutish and short and its people as crude and bodily. Why bother trying to conjure up a nuanced and balanced world and take the reader ‘back to what it was like without anachronism’ when you can use the language as a tool to bludgeon the reader with the stereotype they’re expecting.
Gretchen: […] From my perspective, if one of the major selling features of your book (and reasons it got nominated for a Man Booker Prize) is that you’ve written a hybrid language that evokes the linguistic spirit of a particular era, it’s an important service that someone analyze this language for how well it does that, so your readers know what’s being evoked in them. And unfortunately, I have to give it a failing grade.
Kate: Well said. The reduced vocabulary, simplified syntax, and avoided punctuation/capitalization also take readers in a particular direction, making the Anglo-Saxons seem less capable of complex thought. As an artistic decision, I’ll defend to the end of the world an author’s right to muck about with language however they like; but as a decision that’s explicitly meant to put readers into the Anglo-Saxon “worldview”, I need to point out that the world we’re viewing is through glass that’s more cracked and warped than it needed to be.
Gretchen: Yeah, and instead, he’s actively choosing to perpetuate a certain mindset associated with Anglo-Saxons, that they had the same taboos as a modern reader, which is just so many kinds of false. But it’s the type of false that most people aren’t going to catch, and therefore highly misleading. Throwing around Ren Faire thees and thous might not be completely accurate either, but adding an extra letter to a pronoun isn’t wholesale cultural revisionism the way altering their entire taboo system is.
Kate: Exactly. All of this feels like cherry-picking the best olde bits that most match his preconceptions of Anglo-Saxon England, rather than building the world from the roots up. Which is fine, but by using the language in this way it gives such a message of ‘authenticity’ that everything that’s expressed in his shadow tongue is represented as ‘historical truth’.
Oh, these writers who have brilliant ideas that they’re too lazy to do a good job of realizing! The whole discussion is well worth reading even if you have no interest in the novel, because it’s lively, funny, and informative. (Via Mark Liberman’s Log post.)