I’m about halfway through Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, a very well regarded author who’s won just about every award you can win in the field of science fiction. I used to read science fiction continually and omnivorously, but that was several decades ago, and now I do so only rarely. I’m reading this because of a rave review (in Russian) by Anatoly, whose literary judgment I tend to trust. This time I’m afraid he led me astray.

I’m not blaming him, mind you; his only sin is one of excessive enthusiasm, and that’s not only the most venial of sins but one I’ve been guilty of myself far too often to even look askance at. I’m not sorry he got me to give it a try, because it’s a good read and any science fiction fan would enjoy it (it did, after all, win both the Hugo and Nebula awards). But Anatoly called Willis one of the best authors he had read in recent years, recommended the book not just to sf fans but to “lovers of good literature in general,” and said the book was “a genuine tragedy, without any discount for genre… a very, very good novel [настоящая, без всяких скидок на жанр, трагедия… очень, очень хороший роман].” And that’s just not true. As I say, it’s a good read, but it’s basically a mixed salad of academic humor (professors concerned only with their specialties, scheming heads of departments, etc.), young adult adventure (our plucky heroine must confront the unexpected in fourteenth-century England), Oxford mystery/thriller a la Inspector Lewis, and just plain sitcom (various characters exist only to provide easy jokes at regular intervals). The characters are one-dimensional, each concerned about one thing to the exclusion of everything else (I must get to my dig! I must practice my bell-ringing! I must watch over my son like a mother hen! I must worry endlessly over my student!), and the plot is drawn out to a ridiculous degree, every action being repeated over and over and over (it’s not enough that a character who has crucial information is delirious and unable to provide it—the character who needs the information has to be repeatedly shown visiting him, asking his questions urgently, and getting delirious responses). It could have used some ruthless pruning, and once again I lament the abdication by publishers of the editorial responsibilities they used to assume as a matter of course.

But none of this would drive me to write about the book here; what bothers me with my language hat on is the translator implanted in our plucky heroine, a graduate student sent back in time as part of a regular program of exploring the past. She has, of course, studied Middle English, French, and Latin (as well as every practical skill she could conceivably need), but just in case the locals don’t speak the dialect she’s learned, she has this translator thingie—a wise precaution, as it turns out. At first she can’t understand anyone (and the bits of dialect she hears are rendered in a clever sort-of-transcription through which you can sometimes make out what’s being said), but as the translator absorbs more of the speech around her it starts working and she hears what people are saying in Modern English.

Except not. For some reason, it doesn’t translate into modern Modern English, it translates into Historical Novelese (described in this 2006 post). What she hears, via this translator thingie, is full of words like “fain,” “broidery,” “bade,” and “Oxenford.” One character says “Found you aught that might tell us of the lady’s identity?” and the response begins “Nay…” (There are also sentences like “She will no doubt have a relapse,” so it’s not that the thing isn’t capable of truly modern translation. It just enjoys Ye Olde Englisshe Feelynge, I guess.) And what really takes the cake is that Willis does not understand the words “hence” and “thence,” taking them to mean “hither” and “thither” (cf. “when we came hence [to this house]” and “and brought you hence [to this house],” and “Can we go thence [=there] now?” and “Why would you go thence [=there]?”). I am mildly shocked that an award-winning author does not understand these frankly pretty simple and common words, and even more saddened that no one at Bantam noticed the problem.


  1. the abdication by publishers of the editorial responsibilities they used to assume as a matter of course
    I didn’t know about that. (Well, that’s not saying much.) When, how, why, did this change occur?

  2. I do hope you will not forsake modern sci-fi/fantasy altogether. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of those works of the genre I’d love to hear your opinion on, if only for all the obscure references I’m sure I have missed.

  3. I’d heard so many good things about this book that I finally decided to read it a few years back. I had a lot of the same problems with it. My favorite bad language moment was when the first main character first wakes up, and someone asks her something like “Needstu piss?” and she has absolutely no idea what they’re asking. Even after years of studying Middle English dialects and with the aid of some internal translator thingie, she can’t figure out someone asking her if she needs to pee?

  4. Trond Engen says

    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
    It was briefly brought up by Tom Recht last November. When I got it for Christmas, I remembered the mention.
    I’ve been meaning to ask about it when I’ve read enough to form a firm opinion, but it’s taken its time. I’m not halfway through yet. It’s funny and intelligent, but so long and full of detail that if I’m too tired or lose my concentration I fall out and have to go back. Typically I put it away for weeks before reading another 100 pages in one sitting.
    About the language. Tom said:
    I remember being brought up short while reading Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which is set in the early nineteenth century, and is quite well written on the whole) by a character expressing a reservation with the line, ‘I do not know that I agree’. It stuck in my mind because of the blend of anachronistic modern idiom and equally spurious contraction-avoidance.
    Apart from contraction-avoidance and possible overuse of idioms I assume were picked up from early 19th century writers, I’m struck by the consistent shew – shewed – shewed.

  5. Harsh, but probably fair. I liked Doomsday Book, but then I didn’t expect it to be anything but genre literature, and it also benefited from a sort of halo effect because of (a) my love of self-consciously “realistic” time-travel stories AND strong interest in the time/place visited (b) the girl who recommended it to me. Still, I found the ending quite affecting, even though I will admit that none of the characters involved ever seemed really REAL to me, and I remember admiring the relentless atmosphere of predestined doom, starting with the very title.
    Re the translator, yeah, it was a bit inconsistent. I remember satisfying myself with the explanation that the translator performed the minimum work necessary to create an acceptable Modern English sentence, such that ye olde sentence structures were left as they were if they would still pass in, say, twee poetry.
    I think you might like “To Say Nothing of the Dog” more — it’s in the same “universe” (grad students travel through time!) but is more of a light-hearted romantic comedy, with no doom weighing it down. Willis also recently published two more time-travel novels, this time to Blitz-era London IIRC, called “Blackout” and “All Clear”, but I haven’t read them.

  6. It’s funny and intelligent, but so long and full of detail
    Amen to that, on both counts. I’m stuck at page 200 or so.
    As for “I do not know that I agree”, what’s the modern part? A brief search through Google books will find instances of the very same phrase used in 1876, 1874 or even 1825 (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, volume XVIII, July-December 1825). And as for the spurious contraction avoidance, two words: Jane Austen.

  7. I do hope you will not forsake modern sci-fi/fantasy altogether.
    Just to reiterate, I am enjoying the book and will probably read more Willis. Matt didn’t have this reaction because he didn’t expect it to be anything but genre literature, and if I had had the same expectation I wouldn’t have felt let down. The field is rife with one-dimensional characters and clunky plot exposition, after all, and they’re mother’s milk to me. It was Anatoly’s firm statement that this was Real Literature that led me to expect something more like, say, Gene Wolfe. Again, I don’t blame him; we all over-advocate for what we love. It’s just how it worked out.

  8. And I agree with bulbul about “I do not know that I agree”; it doesn’t seem anachronistic to me.

  9. “Genre literature”. Grrrr.
    But I have promised to remain silent, at least as to vocal expression, until James has read Myers unabridged.

  10. Maybe it’s explained in the book, but if you had studied Middle English for a reasonable period of time before heading to the past, would you really have that much difficulty understanding it? I imagine you might find it hard to SPEAK Middle English and that people might have a hard time understanding you, but Middle English is much closer to our tongue than the Englisc of the 10th century. After a little study, I don’t really find Chaucer all that difficult, even when read with “historically correct” pronunciation. And with a few months preparation I imagine I could do OK in 14th century England, couldn’t be that much worse than rural Scotland today, especially with adequate preparation.
    So is the thesis of the book that everything we know about Middle English is simply wrong for some reason? The “it’s a dialect” excuse seems a little shaky. The dialects of English had had less time to diverge in the 14th century, there shouldn’t have been as much regional variation back then as we find later in 19th century England.
    I think I will try China Miéville’s novel Embassytown instead. That novel appears to have a very interesting linguistic slant (surprised Hat hasn’t mentioned it, actually).

  11. Maybe it’s explained in the book, but if you had studied Middle English for a reasonable period of time before heading to the past, would you really have that much difficulty understanding it?
    No, I don’t imagine you would. I was willing to go along with that particular bit of plot, but I agree with you, it’s extremely implausible. Furthermore, she keeps having shocked reactions to things she should know perfectly well, and explaining things for the benefit of the reader. Like I said, that part of the plot is basically young adult adventure, which is annoying considering she’s a grad student who’s been studying this stuff and is presumably not otherwise experiencing delayed adolescence, but her reactions are pretty much those of a junior-high heroine.

  12. Speaking of scifi / fantasy and Real Literature (TM) (R) (C), I always thought Iain M. Banks was pretty close. Not all the time, but, say, the first three Culture novels, especially “Consider Phlebas”.

  13. Vanya,
    I’d love to get your opinion on Embassytown. I’m about to finish it and … Ok, no spoilers. Just let us know.

  14. I always thought Iain M. Banks was pretty close. Not all the time, but, say, the first three Culture novels, especially “Consider Phlebas”.
    I have heard good things about him, and your recommendation has moved him closer to the top of the To Be Investigated list.

  15. LH: I’ll second bulbul on Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.

  16. Bulbul,
    I will put Embassytown next on my list. Struggling through Sapkowski at the moment (struggling because my Polish needs a lot of help, the books are very entertaining).

  17. I’ll third the Banks Culture novels. If he had a translator speaking Olde Englyshe, it would be doing so out of the desire to irk the person it was working with.
    Can’t STAND China Mieville. I always picture him rereading his every sentence with the thought,”This one will wow the rubes for sure.” He’s also not as smart as he thinks he is. Of course, I feel exactly the same about Don DeLillo so I may not be the best guide here.
    I don’t remember who recommended it, but one suggestion that has stood me in good stead is to read all the ‘historical’ speech in Daffy Duck’s voice. It was recommended specifically for Jeffery Farnol’s work, but is more generally applicable.

  18. I had the same reaction to China Mieville. I (mercifully) can’t recall the name of the novel I tried but I found it extremely tedious, in a this will wow the rubes sort of way. Conversely, I was addicted to Susannah Clark’s Jonathan Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell almost from the first sentence.
    I found the Doomsday Book interesting only in a genre-suspend-my-disbelief sort of way+ Competent but immediately forgettable.

  19. I read Doomsday Book a few years ago, and enjoyed it. But there was this little thing that irritated me again and again, like a mosquito: the word “muffler”. For some reason, which I didn’t manage to fathom, the muffler is a recurring motif. But the novel is nominally written in British English, and we never call it a muffler, ever! It’s a scarf, and any British proof-reader would have been able to say so. The devil is in the details.

  20. SFReader says

    I’ve also read Doomsday Book and was most impressed with Middle English part. Pity if it’s not as well researched as I thought…
    By the way, compared with other languages, how far have diverged English from 14th century?
    I’ve read some German texts from 13th century which are pretty readable. Spanish and Galician texts I’ve seen also seem little different from present.
    French, IIRC, diverged strongly in pronunciation, but kept old spelling, so French texts from 13-14th centuries still quite readable.
    Russian, if we are judge from birch-bark letters from Novgorod reads like a different language.
    Any more examples?

  21. marie-lucie says

    Both French and English have kept a lot of the old spellings, while changing a lot of their pronunciation.
    If you read Middle English texts aloud, in most cases you should read the vowels as if they were French (this was before the Great Vowel Shift), so round is [rund] not [rawnd]. In words like night or daughter the gh is pronounced like ch in German (differently depending on the preceding vowel).
    If you read Old or Middle French texts aloud, you should pronounce every word-final consonant, and of course every vowel, as they are written. For instance, you should read MidFr beau not as [bo] but as [beaw], with a triphthong! But final x in plural words is not like x in exercice but [s] or [z].

  22. SFReader:
    Here’s the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written around the end of the 14th century. I show it three times: first in the original orthography, then in a modernized orthography, then in Gerard Necastro’s Modern English prose translation.
    Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
    The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
    Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
    The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
    Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
    And smale fowles maken melodye,
    That slepen al the night with open ye,
    (So priketh hem nature in hir corages):
    Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
    And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
    To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
    And specially, from every shires ende
    Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
    The holy blisful martir for to seke,
    That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.
    When that April with his showers sweet
    The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
    And bathed every vein in such liquor,
    Of which virtue engendered is the flower;
    When Zephyrus eke with his sweet breath
    Inspired hath in every holt and heath
    The tender crops, and the young sun
    Hath in the Ram his half course run,
    And small fowls make melody,
    That sleep all the night with open eye,
    (So pricketh them nature in their courages):
    Then long folk to go on pilgrimages,
    And palmers for to seek strange strands,
    To foreign hallows, couth in sundry lands;
    And specially, from every shire’s end
    Of England, to Canterbury they wend,
    The holy blissful martyr for to seek,
    That them hath helped, when that they were sick.
    When the sweet showers of April have pierced to the root the dryness of March and bathed every vein in moisture by which strength are the flowers brought forth; when Zephyr also with his sweet breath has given spirit to the tender new shoots in the grove and field, and the young sun has run half his course through Aries the Ram, and little birds make melody and sleep all night with an open eye, so nature pricks them in their hearts; then people long to go on pilgrimages to renowned shrines in various distant lands, and palmers to seek foreign shores. And especially from every shire’s end in England they make their way to Canterbury, to seek the holy blessed martyr who helped them when they were sick.

  23. SFReader says

    Spelling is recognizable, but pronunciation is very strange.
    The Canterbury Tales Prologue in Middle English

  24. “Russian, if we are judge from birch-bark letters from Novgorod reads like a different language.”
    Actually, Novgorodian can be counted as a separate Slavic language. Some linguists even put it into its own group as “North Slavic”. It’s neither ancestral to Modern Russian nor even to the Modern Novgorodian dialect, as Novgorod was populated by newcomers from Central Russia after its destruction in the 16th century.

  25. Bathrobe says

    It reads better in the original. At least everything rhymed.

  26. Rodger C says

    Most recorded versions of this, including the one linked to by SFreader, render “Aprille” as “AHprill.” Shouldn’t it be “ahPRILLeh”? It’s spelled that way, it scans better, and it fits with the carol made familiar in modern times by Britten:
    He cam al so stille
    Ther his moder was,
    As dew in Aprille
    That falleth on the gras.

  27. it scans better
    Actually, it doesn’t. Reading it AH-prill fits perfectly into the meter, which is one reason I prefer it.

  28. You really can’t reliably tell whether Chaucer’s final -es are silent or not. Sometimes they clearly are, sometimes they clearly aren’t, sometimes it’s ambiguous. I say “Aprille” with three syllables, with the first as pretty much extrametrical, but I have no rationale for this.

  29. Rodger C says

    As for the scansion, I think inverting the first foot sounds better than amputating its first syllable.

  30. marie-lucie says

    Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
    English stress has been steadily shifting left over the centuries. Words borrowed from French into Middle English retained French stress (on final syllable except if that syllable was -Ce), but now have earlier stress. I think this applies equally to aPRILLe, liCOUR, virTUE, meloDYE, etc.
    After reading the whole section of the poem aloud, trying to place stress in the right places, I think that the first line sounds best like this, stressing aPRILLe and sounding all the e‘s:
    WHAN that aPRILLe WITH his SHOURes SOOTe
    Of course, native speakers more familiar with the English of the period may disagree with me (but I think this agrees with what JC says).

  31. SFReader: the only languages I know of with alphabetical scripts whose spellings have diverged from pronunciation as much as French or English have are (Scottish and Irish) Gaelic and Modern Tibetan (for the vowels, I think Modern Greek is comparable). Khmer, Thai and Burmese also have a very conservative system of spelling, but I’m not sure to what degree it can compare to French and English.
    And that Youtube video you linked to wasn’t that good: “sweet” was sometimes pronounced with an /i/, as in Modern English, instead of an /e:/, for instance. Granted that there is a good deal we don’t know for certain about Middle English pronunciation: but that double e was consistently realized as /e:/ is one of the things we are certain of.
    Finally, Hans makes a good point about the language of Old Novgorod not being directly ancestral to Modern Russian: the same is true for a number of “Old” or “Middle” forms of various Modern languages, whose “dominant/standard” form very often stems from a geographical area other than the one which the Modern standard comes from.
    Indeed, I vividly remember a syntactician who was fond of applying recent “theoretical” work which “elegantly” explained various changes between the Old Spanish found in the CANTAR DEL MIO CID and the Modern language…seemingly oblivious to the fact that the language of the CANTAR is quite mixed, with Castilian and Aragonese elements. The fact that the features which were “lost” in the transition from Old to Modern Spanish remained alive and kicking in Aragonese well into the twentieth century would have been rather difficult to explain away. If this “scholar” had actually known or cared about such matters, that is.

  32. WHAN that aPRILLe WITH his SHOURes SOOTe
    Indeed, that’s exactly my reading of it: [ˈʍan θət əˈprɪlə ˌwɪð ɪs ˈʃurɪs ˈsoːtə / θə ˈdrɔxtə əv ˈmaːrtʃ aθ ˈpɛrsɛd ˈtɔ ðə ˈroːtə]

  33. You say [θət] and [θə]? Weren’t those voiced by then?

  34. marie-lucie says

    JC, thanks for the phonetics. What font are you using?
    I would be inclined to drop the final schwa in [ˈdrɔxtə] because it is followed by a word-initial vowel. But maybe this is because of my French habits.

  35. Rodger C says

    @marie-lucie: I think you’re right, and in fact that’s a pretty general rule in Chaucer, perhaps because the verse form is French in origin.

  36. m-l: I am not using a special font. If you want to know how I am entering IPA characters, I’m using this live IPA chart: click on a symbol and it appears in the area at the bottom of the window. You can intermix clicking with typing whatever characters your keyboard provides: for example, I usually type æ (AltGr+a on my “U.S. programmer’s Latin-1” keyboard) rather than clicking on it.
    Hat: I was taught back in the late 70s that initial “th” was not yet voiced even in function words in Chaucer’s day, so I voice it only when the previous word ends in a vowel. Apparently this is not the current view.
    m-l: I agree that [ˈdrɔxt] is better, and I’ll try to switch to that. Habit is strong, however.
    Correction: ˈtɔ should have been ˌtɔ.

  37. SFReader says

    –the only languages I know of with alphabetical scripts whose spellings have diverged from pronunciation as much as French or English have are (Scottish and Irish) Gaelic and Modern Tibetan (for the vowels, I think Modern Greek is comparable). Khmer, Thai and Burmese also have a very conservative system of spelling, but I’m not sure to what degree it can compare to French and English.
    The current standard Mongolian based on Khalkha dialect is also extremely divergent from classic Uighur Mongol script spelling (to the point where students have to memorize spelling of each and every word).
    Though I am not sure if this is due to pecularity of the script (which lacks letters for some basic and very common vowels) or due to divergence of Khalkha dialect from 13th century.
    Possibly both.
    The best example is, as I mentioned in earlier thread is name of the capital city which is written in Uighur script as Ulagan Bagatur and pronounced as Ulaanbaatar.
    * the letter *g is not pronounced and serves as a regulator of vowel length. But is not clear what the situation was in the 13th century.

  38. marie-lucie says

    JC, alas, the IPA chart does not have some crucial symbols for the relevant Amerindian languages, such as lateral affricates. But thank you anyway.

  39. Definitely both. Mongolian script represents the pronunciation of Genghis Khan’s day, but it’s also the case that it has many identical letters (or letters used in divergent ways, depending on how you look at it). Quoth the Unicode Standard:
    For example, the four Mongolian vowels o, u, ö, and ü are considered four distinct letters and are encoded as four characters (U+1823, U+1824, U+1825, and U+1826, respectively), even though o is written identically to u in all positional forms, ö is written identically to ü in all positional forms, [and] o and u are normally distinguished from ö and ü only in the first syllable of a word. Likewise, the letters t (U+1832) and d (U+1833) are often indistinguishable. For example, pairs of Mongolian words such as urtu “long” and ordu “palace, camp, horde” or ende “here” and ada “devil” are written identically, but are represented using different sequences of Unicode characters.

  40. m-l, as far as I know in IPA (as opposed to Americanist notation) there are no symbols for affricates of any sort: you use the stop followed by the fricative, placing the tie-bar symbol (under “Other symbols”) between them if you need to disambiguate.
    All the Americanist characters AFAIK are in Unicode (Ken Whistler and others made sure of that!), though they aren’t available on the IPA chart.

  41. Bathrobe says

    Try this page for IPA on a Mac:
    Linguistic Mystic Using IPA fonts with Mac OSX

  42. marie-lucie says

    Thanks, Bathrobe. I thought that perhaps the info was too old, but I see that some of the comments are dated this month! I will try it.

  43. Tom Recht says

    On the possible anachronism of ‘I do not know that I agree’ in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, bulbul and Hat may be right, and I may have been suffering from the Recency Illusion. (Regency Illusion?) Context counts for period-trueness too, though, and I don’t remember the context of this line. I enjoyed Clarke’s style on the whole, but I do remember being occasionally annoyed by what struck me as false notes; for example, there was a supposed medieval prophecy, if I recall correctly, which I thought was stylistically unconvincing. But of course maybe it was my ears that were off, not Clarke’s.

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