I yield to no one in my high regard for Annie Proulx (see this 2005 LH post), so it was a shock to read the following section from Ian Frazier’s appreciative but unawed NYRB review of her novel Barkskins:

So you have the setting, the first of many through which the story moves, all of them drawn with vividness and unexpected similes. The dialogue, though, is another matter. Historical novels present their writers with a challenge, because they never heard their characters’ real-life semblances actually talk. No one really knows how Indians of seventeenth-century Canada talked. Maybe they really did say things like “Bad plant grow where step whitemen people,” as the Mi’kmaw Indian, Mari, who becomes the wife of René Sel, tells him when he points to a stinging nettle. Maybe someone like Mari would have said, “No him child. No-bébé medicine know me,” as she says when reassuring René that she never had a child by Trépagny. But me reader kind of skeptical be.

Sentences spoken by certain characters can be reverse-engineered perhaps from writing of the time, but they sometimes come out clunky, too. At moments of excitement the Frenchmen exclaim “Zut!” and “Sacrebleu!” and “Mon Dieu!”—all plausible enough. But often you bump into distinctly unlively dialogue:

“This meeting is fortuitous. I have wished often to speak with you about the Maine forests.”

“I have wished often to tell you of the opportunities for the timber business in Maine. Have you visited that region?”

And sentences with an informational purpose end up sounding as if pasted in from a history textbook:

England, he knew, badly wanted naval stores as the endless war had disrupted their heavy Baltic trade.

“That’s that fellow Franklin. I knew his brother James. A family distinguished for their seditious bosoms.”

And that fellow Franklin’s inventions: the lightning rods, which had saved hundreds of churches and houses from destruction, and the stove, which encased fire safely. It was an exciting time to live.

I just… how can anyone with Proulx’s feel for English write like that? Frazier is being too kind when he writes “plausible enough”; what he should say is “exactly the kind of tired cliché stage Frenchmen are made to utter, as Irishmen say begorra and Scotsmen hoot mon.” And as soon as I read something like “This meeting is fortuitous. I have wished often to speak with you about the Maine forests” I close the book and move on; life is too short to subject oneself to that sort of thing. (See my remarks on Historical Novelese in this 2006 post.) The past is a foreign country; they speak cardboard sentences there.


  1. “No one really knows how Indians of seventeenth-century Canada talked.”

    Maybe she learned their language from Cooper.

  2. The unkindest cut of all!

  3. I understand the problem and I think a good approach is the way they do subtitles in Chinese historical dramas. The subtitles for “Empresses in the Palace” were exquisite. They sounded like Downton Abbey; in other words they reflected what the characters would have said if they were saying it in modern English. The series made quite an impression in china and apparently the dialog is so refined that people put on parties where everyone speaks in that style, sort of like the way people do cos-play to watch Rocky Horror Picture Show.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    “Seditious Bosoms” would be an awesome name for a rock band. It’s a pity that the Meat Puppets have apparently already booked Sumo Princess as their opening act for the NYC-area shows on their upcoming spring tour …

  5. Based on the example that comes readily to mind, Maillard’s Account of the Customs and Manners of the Micmakis and Maricheets Savage Nations, 17th century Mi’kmaqs probably spoke a lot like educated Englishmen. 🙂

    page 25 in the abovelinked PDF

    How great (will the oldest of them say) art thou, through thy great, great, great grand-father, whose memory is still recent, by tradition, amongst us, for the plentiful huntings he used to make! There was something of miraculous about him, when he assisted at the beating of the woods for elks, or other beasts of the fur.

  6. “I have often wished to speak to you about the Maine forests”

    I believe that line was stolen from an early John LeCarre novel. The correct response was “The woods of New Hampshire also offer some intriguing possibilities.”

  7. I think I’ve read a longer Twain’s diatribe against Cooper, something about him (that is, Cooper) using grandiose language when necessary and unnecessary, but that’s not what’s at the link. There are two points worth quoting even if you don’t like literary put downs:

    3. They [the rules of Romantic fiction] require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

    This can replace the “cardboard” complaint. Also proves that vampire fiction is not romantic.

    5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

    This predates Grice for how long?

  8. Sacrebleu indeed. Also, I’m pretty sure people in the seventeenth century knew what “fortuitous” means, even if today’s eminent novelists don’t.

  9. @D.O.: There is indeed a second version of Twain’s attack on Cooper, which was published after Twain’s death. I have only read one of them, and I am honestly not certain which it was.

  10. Yes I’m surprised at Proulx writing dialogue like that — even if her usual style is laconic/oblique.

    Is there some sort of conspiracy amongst authors/publishing industry about what historical dialogue ‘should’ sound like?

    I ask because the quoted passages are strongly reminiscent of The Luminaries (Booker 2013). I was told you get used to it after about 50 pages, as you might with original C18th novels or even Dicken’s prolixity. I climatised pretty quickly to (say) Tristram Shandy or Gulliver’s Travels. But to Catton’s cardbard never.

  11. I’m curious to know when verb contractions came into English. Makers of period dramas mostly seem to think it was after the time of Jane Austen. But I wouldn’t take them as gospel. Can any reader advise?

  12. Actually, “No him child. No-bébé medicine know me” does sound like a reasonable approximation of Algonquin grammar.

    For example, Mi’gmaq phrases look like:

    Mu nem-i’li-w-g.
    No see me no she
    She doesn’t see me.

    mu ges-al-i-w-eg
    No love me no us
    You don’t love us.

    It seems pretty good guess that native Mi’gmaq speaker in 17th century would speak in broken English using similar grammar.

  13. Actually, “No him child. No-bébé medicine know me” does sound like a reasonable approximation of Algonquin grammar.

    That may be the case, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible way to render dialogue in a novel. In the first place, if it sounds dumb and off-putting in English, it needs to be rewritten, for the same reason that novelists don’t reproduce the way people talk in actual conversations. In the second place, it’s wrong to assume that native Mi’gmaq speakers would have spoken in broken English using the grammar of their own language; see pc’s comment above (January 11, 2019 at 10:14 pm). There would doubtless have been a range from “broken and barely intelligible” to “eloquent and reasonably grammatical,” and it’s the novelist’s job to pick a version that works well in her text, not to show off how much she’s learned about Algonquin grammar.

  14. It turns out, in 17th century the Mikmak communicated with European sailors using broken Basque (not English):

    “The writings of many early visitors to the region observed that some coastal Mi’kmaq had begun sailing European style ships and speaking a half-Basque pidgin language by the beginning of the seventeenth century”

  15. Then I recommend historical novelists render their dialog in broken Basque! The hell with the reader!

  16. David Marjanović says

    The hell with the reader!

    “But you must admit, rudism was an interesting ideology.”
    – comment on the extinction of the rudists.

  17. Not actually “broken” (in the sense of “badly learned L2”) but a stable Basque-Mi'kmaq pidgin used up to the late 17C, possibly a bit later. There was also a Basque-Innu pidgin; as often with pidgins (notably Russenorsk), the French who learned it later thought they were learning Innu, whereas the Innu thought they were speaking the white man’s language. One or both of these were also probably learned by Laurentide Iroquoians (not Iroquois in a political sense), who were also on good terms with the Basques.

    By the way, the uncurly apostrophe in Mi'kmaq marks vowel length, and the final consonant is /x/.

    Both “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (which is in the public domain) and “Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses” (which was published posthumously and is still under copyright) are readily available on the Internet by searching for their titles. The “rules” are contained in the first, but referred to by number in the second. I think they are both howlingly funny, especially when read aloud with a straight face (as Twain did with his own works), and never mind that I happen to enjoy Cooper’s books too.

    As for contractions, googling for [site:gutenberg.org title:"by jane austen" "isn't"] returns no results (although Google then automatically tries again without the quotes and coughs up a useless hairball of results), so it’s probably right that the contraction was not written in Austen’s time. Of course it may have been used in speech and yet expanded even by so colloquial an author as Austen.

  18. It seems to me I’ve seen contractions in the writings of Newton, before they were banished from printed prose. It was a long time ago, but it struck me.

  19. Seditious Bosoms, the somewhat tamer opener for Pussy Riot.

  20. David Marjanović says

    BTW, when was zut last seen in actual usage?

  21. Stu Clayton says

    Par le capitaine Haddock.

  22. Writing characters with broken English is hard, not merely because it is difficult to get results that are comprehensible but characteristic of a different grammar and idiom. It also makes it hard to give a character a unique, revealing voice. I don’t especially like writing dialogue anyway, but I puzzled even more about this problem, when I had a major character who wasn’t a L1 speaker of the common tongue. I eventually decided that the best idea was for him to become more fluent pretty rapidly.

  23. Brett, I have (almost) never tried to write fiction (except my thesis), but I don’t see the difficulty. Non-L1 speakers can be taciturn or gregarious, serious or jocular, have verbal ticks and beloved expressions and on and on, just like native speakers. I would even think that non-native speakers allow a larger range of verbal characterization. If someone cannot speak unmarked everyday language well what do they do? Go for high register or for slang or mix the two in a comical way? Use professional jargon? Try to communicate in stock phrases? Become tongue-tied or try to convey their native expressions by translating them? Should be fun if done right.

  24. Matthew Roth says

    I cannot say that I have ever heard “zut” used in real speech…

  25. I have heard my mother say “zut” ocasionally, which she’d picked up from a stint in Paris in the 1950s. She’s not a habitual French speaker.

  26. Whatever the linguistic accuracy of Proulx’s Indianese, it reads like Cooper. Even if you find an actual recording of a 19th century Indian saying “White Man speak with forked tongue”, that doesn’t make it any less rotten to use in a novel.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    On Twitter 2018:

    # Zut, toi aussi tu as entendu des vilaines choses sur moi, mais est ce que cela est vrai ? #

    Character in the novel L’Empreinte du Père from 2013, by the québécois writer Hervé Leduc:

    # Ah, et puis zut ! Toi, ça va ? — Ça va… Dis donc, Charlotte, à quelle heure finis-tu, toi, aujourd’hui ? #

  28. In Pride and Prejudice there’s a sprinkling of “can’t”, “won’t”, “shan’t” in dialogue, and of course “’tis”, which is Early Modern at least. Austen also uses “can’t” and “won’t” in her letters.

    I’m pretty sure I heard “zut” in France in the 80s, though probably from the middle-aged.

  29. I liked a book where the author had the foreign character speak with a lot of idiomatic phrases in slightly wrong context, even though it is not at all how people who are learning idiomatic phrases speak. It made for a memorable character and fun word-play. In reality, people who are learning idiomatic phrases, including native speakers and foreign speakers, use the right phrase with the wrong words, or use it in the opposite meaning, or things like that. Very seldom you hear the exact phrase in more or less the correct context from a learner. Another author choose to show the foreigness of the main character by referencing common topics in the education of immigrants, showing the immigrant background not through the language but the experience of a language class. Not surprisingly, that author worked as a teacher.

  30. Moa, might you be referring to The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*AN, by Leo Rosten?

    One night Mrs. Moskevitz read a sentence, from English for Beginners, which included the phrase “the vast deserts of America” ….
    “Who can tell us the meaning of ‘vast?” asked Mr. Parkhill, lightly.
    Mr. Kaplan rose, radiant with joy…”Ve haff four diractions! De naut, de sot, de heast, end de vast!”

  31. Here’s a bit from L. Sprague de Camp’s time-travel (sort of) novel The Glory That Was:

    Bulnes shifted to his rudimentary Classical Greek. He had found that by throwing in a word of Modern Greek when he could not think of the Classical form he could sometimes make himself understood. “O Kallingos!”

    “You called?”

    “Mine dear fellow, shall you not — ah — share cup of you — uh — excellent wine at us?”

    “What did you say?”

    Bulnes repeated the offer with even greater care.

    Nai,” said the innkeeper, wagging his head and confusing Bulnes until the latter remembered that this meant “yes.” “O Bouleus, you are as polite as a Mede, though not so stupid. Boy! Another cup. You should not, however, call this Attic belly wash ‘excellent.’ If I could sell you a jar of my Lesbian . . .”

    “What’s he saying?” Bulnes asked Flin [classical Greek scholar], who translated.

    Bulnes gathered his mental forces and replied: “Me fear not; no got enough money. Whom — uh— who am the man — er — what’s the word, Wiyem? [i.e. William]”

    “The man with whom you were speaking,” said Flin.

    “Not the kind of man,” said Kallingos, “you like to talk about.”

    “What’s that, Wiyem ? . . . Who this man, please?”

    Kallingos lowered his voice. “Phaleas the son of Kniphon.”

    Bullies and Flin exchanged glances of incomprehension. The latter said: “Didn’t Diksen [i. e. Dixon, an American disguised as a Scythian policeman] say something about Phaleas’s gang?”

    “Could be he.” Bulnes turned to Kallingos. “Are him — er — ah — uh— ”

    “The noted criminal,” put in Flin.

    Kallingos looked over his shoulder. “He is. He says two members of his band were slain four nights ago by a pair of barbarians […]. That was the same night that the mysterious ship appeared in Zea Harbor.”

    “What mysteriously ship?”

    “[…] The ship sank near the wharves, and can be dimly seen lying on the bottom even now, with sails of strange cut mounted all awry. There is some talk of sending divers down to fasten ropes to the hull.”

    “To raise she?” said Bulnes, concealing his eagerness.

    “Zeus, no ! What use have we for an outlandish rig like that ? They will tow her into deeper water where she will not interfere with navigation. […]”

    “I see … O friend Kallingos, I fear we must leaves tomorrow.”

    “I am sorry. Is there anything you do not like?”

    “No; it are that we am going at Athens.”

    Now I’m sure that Bulnes’s Classical Greek was much, much worse than “it are that we am going at Athens” (later on Kritias says ““He mixes his case-endings just like a milk-drinking barbarian, does he not?”) but making Bulnes say that is (a) indicative of the kind of problems he is having, (b) perfectly intelligible to any anglophone, (c) funny, at least in my view — the novel is a comic one.

    One of my own characters whose English is none of the best, and is also a comic foil, speaks somewhat similarly. When the reader first meets him, he says “I lock door, keep other people out, show room is, uh, using. Like with crapper.” This is a serious, formal situation, and the person he is talking to is not only nervous in general but specifically worried about the locked door. Not only has he not got the active vs. the passive participles straight, but the last word is a major violation of tone.

    Much later, his English has improved greatly, but he still says when responding to a question about an injury from a worried relative, “Minor contusions only. Fortunately, we were able to remove chain [with which the patient was restrained] by deforming links.” Of course it’s perfectly cromulent to speak of “deforming links” in a physics or engineering context, but it doesn’t fit the register of the rest of the sentence, and so he still sounds weird. The equally technical “contusions” (instead of “bruises”) passes muster because the reader knows they are in a hospital and he is on the staff.

  32. David Marjanović says

    # Zut, toi aussi tu as entendu des vilaines choses sur moi, mais est ce que cela est vrai ? #

    That’s downright literary.

    “He mixes his case-endings just like a milk-drinking barbarian, does he not?”

    Contemporary milk-drinking barbarians probably had less trouble with case endings!

  33. marie-lucie says

    Zut alors!

    When I was a child, Zut! was the mildest swearword my mother allowed herself to use, and she admonished my sisters and me if we used it as it was not suitable for children. Any of you might hear it from me! But the comments above make me realize (one more time) of how archaic my French must sound nowadays after 50-odd adult years spent mostly among anglophones.

  34. David Marjanović says

    Even so, it’s good to know that textbooks for French as a foreign language from the 1980s didn’t dig up things that had died out in real usage a hundred years earlier.

  35. David: Actually, there do exist a few examples in Classical Greek literature of L2 Greek used by native speakers of Iranian languages (Persian, Scythian): they exhibit a lot of variation in case endings. While contemporary Iranian languages indeed had nominal case-marking, acquiring the Greek system must have been a frustrating endeavor to any L1 speaker of Iranian: First of all, the intersection in Ancient Greek of preposition and (correct) case ending would have been very difficult to acquire if it was not taught systematically (which it almost certainly was not), and second, many case endings in Greek differed from one another via phonological oppositions utterly alien to speakers of Early Iranian languages: the opposition between, say, accusative singular τον λύκον “the wolf” and genitive plural των λύκων “the wolves'” would have been, I suspect, well-nigh impossible to perceive for speakers whose L1 only had long and short /a, i, u/ (+ diphthongs) as vowel phonemes.

  36. Etienne, that’s interesting — could you point us to those examples?

    the mildest swearword my mother allowed herself to use

    I like that approach to swearing. If you haven’t got something profane to say, don’t say anything at all.

  37. TR: In answer to your question, I was made aware of these specimens of Iranian L2 Greek by reading Adams, John Noel. 2003. “Bilingualism and the Latin language”: Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: he gives examples of and examines (with plenty of references to earlier scholarship) the foreigner-talk Greek of a Scythian archer in Aristophanes on pages 97-100 (The whole section on pidgins and reduced languages, 93-105, actually, is possibly the most interesting chunk of the entire book).

  38. John Cowan says

    Zut! was the mildest swearword my mother allowed herself to use

    I suppose you mean the strongest swearword.

  39. Zut! was the mildest swearword[, which] my mother allowed herself to use

    I guess…

  40. David Marjanović says

    Good points – which prepositions or verbs (for any given meaning) go with which cases does differ a lot among IE languages.

  41. I’m curious to know when verb contractions came into English. Makers of period dramas mostly seem to think it was after the time of Jane Austen. But I wouldn’t take them as gospel. Can any reader advise?

    Shakespeare certainly used contractions – “He poisons him i’ th’ garden for ’s estate. His name’s Gonzago. The story is extant, and writ in choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife,” Hamlet explains during the play within a play. But he doesn’t use common verb contractions as far as I can tell, no “isn’t”, “wasn’t” etc.
    There are verb contractions in Sheridan’s “School for Scandal”, written in the 1770s. (“Can’t”, “’tis”.)

  42. If you run a Google Ngram you’ll find many examples of mid-17th C isn’t. (The ngram program will give you “is not” as well so you need to open individual books to check.) Tis, as you’d expect, is older. ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore was written between 1629 and 1633. And Shakespeare did use tis, as in Hamlet:

    That he’s mad, ’tis true,
    ’tis true ’tis pity,
    And pity ’tis, ’tis true
    —a foolish figure.

    In The City Lady, or, Folly Reclaimed, by Thomas Dilke (1697) we find: “Indeed, sir, I can’t tell where she’s gone, not I, not upon my Virginity.” And several other examples of can’t, plus let’s and others.

    The White Devil by John Webster (1612) has “Can’t be otherwise?” where can’t is an abbreviation for can it – perhaps evidence that can’t for cannot was not yet in common use?

    PS – you have to be careful with google’s dates- Google dates The City Lady to 1607, which is wrong, and attaches ridiculously early dates to books that are obviously 19th and 20th C.

  43. J.W. Brewer says

    It was Bloix’s comment that just made me realize that the year-1800 starting date on the n-gram viewer was just a default and you could in fact set an earlier date and get results. I am perhaps unusually slow in learning that, but can anyone direct me to an explanation of how much the quality of the corpus (either in terms of completeness or quality of OCR’ing or frequency of metadata errors like publication date) shifts and perhaps deteriorates as one goes further back in time? 1800 is maybe too round a number to be the real breakpoint, but if there are more approximate breakpoints to be aware of in evaluating how meaningful the results are, that would be helpful to know. (Obviously one variable is when orthography got standardized enough that you don’t need to be worrying that whichever spelling you’ve put in the search box is not going to get most of the hits you’re actually looking for.)

  44. To Bloix: Unfortunately I haven’t read that book. I was refering to two Swedish language authors.

  45. John Cowan says

    1800 is the year in which you begin to get about 100 million words (approximately one British National Corpus) a year. Before that you get less, and it is more sporadic.

  46. January First-of-May says

    A while back, I tried to figure out what was the oldest (printed) book listed on Google Books, or at least what year was it from.

    I forgot the answer (…well, the apparent answer, anyway), but it wasn’t much older than the oldest book that I found (and used information from) during my regular amateur research (Pierre de Saint-Julien’s Meslanges historiques of 1589/90 – IIRC, Google Books had two editions with different dates). I think it was somewhere in the 1580s or 1570s.

    That surprised me – I expected them to actually have at least a few incunabulas, up to and including the Gutenberg Bible. But apparently they don’t – or, at least, I couldn’t find any; not sure why.

  47. Well, there are obvious concerns about scanning incunabula, but still, that surprises me too.

  48. Hmm, I’m not sure what your method was, but it took me about five seconds to find a 1545 edition of De rebus gestis Alexandri Magni regis Macedonum opus by Quintus Curtius.

  49. January First-of-May says

    Hmm, I’m not sure what your method was

    I think I was searching for common words in various languages in specified date ranges; trying it just now gave me a cutoff of 1571.

    Maybe the earlier books just don’t show up on text search…

  50. I think you have to search on titles. That’s how I found the Quintus Curtius (I happen to have a 1507 edition, so it’s the first thing that occurred to me).

  51. Stu Clayton says

    Quintus in quarto ?

  52. Quintus in quarto

    … and in the cinquecento.

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