Writerly Wednesdays–Accents and Historical Fiction

This exceptional article about accents and Shakespeare (a great read by the way; it turns out Shakespeare may have sounded more American than British) got me thinking about the treatment of accents in historical fiction:


Now, it’s very common on TV and in movies to have any story set before the 19th century be populated by folks who speak British English. Indeed, it’s very difficult to find an American accent in a period drama unless that period drama is actually set in America (and even then, if it’s before the 19th century, it’s back to British accents). There’s even a TV trope for this:

The Queen’s Latin

Obviously, Ancient Romans and Egyptians (à la the HBO series Rome) spoke with various British accents. And of course, so did Frenchmen in the 17th-century world of The Three Musketeers (choose your version). It just makes sense, right?

Well, no. Because technically, the ancient Romans spoke in vulgar Latin, the Egyptians in Coptic (or Greek, or sometimes Latin), and Frenchmen in the 17th century spoke French. But, unless you’re The Passion of the Christ, you don’t want the entire movie or TV show to be subtitled.

It’s one thing to have ancient Romans speak British English because, hey, they have to have some kind of accent, and if the BBC is producing it . . . well, when in Rome (or, whatever). . . . The choice becomes blurrier when you reach the 18th and 19th century. Until about that time, there were only British accents, because only folks on the British Isles spoke English. Granted, there were scattered colonies, but the colonists were all fairly recent imports from the English-speaking homeland. I’m no linguist, but I’d have to assume that small communities of marooned pioneers sitting on the frontier weren’t big on changing the way they spoke.

By the 1700’s, the American Colonies were establishing themselves as separate from the mother country. They had their own governments (largely autonomous, given the vast distance between the colonies and Parliament), way of life (log cabins! opossums! coon skin caps!), and traditions (Puritans were very serious about observing the Sabbath, for instance). As the piece above notes, this is when the two dialect groups began to branch off: it was, ironically, the British dialects that began to change, while American English retained older pronunciations and forms.

So if you are, say, a TV show set during the Revolutionary War (like, I don’t know, the AMC show Turn), how are you to suss out the accents? Did they sound like modern Americans? Like modern Brits? Like neither? A little like both? Frankly, we have no idea what they really sounded like, though we can have some idea. In Turn, there’s a veritable medley of accents, especially amongst the Americans—they’re kind of Irish or from Northern England or somewhere in between. The Red Coats are speaking the Queen’s (or King’s) English because, well, they’re Red Coats and what the hell else would they be speaking? (To answer that question, 18th century British soldiers might actually have spoken quite differently from modern Brits—see the link above—and might have had all kinds of accents instead of just Received British Pronunciation.)

The examples of shows and movies using British accents when, quite frankly, an American accent would do just as well is long: everything from the aforementioned Rome to silly teenage television shows like Vampire Diaries (yes I watch it; no, I don’t think “Viking” vampires would speak with British accents). Why so many British accents? Well, a linguist would probably tell you that there’s no reason to value a British accent over an American one, but I’m not a linguist. And I think British accents just sound cooler. And there’s a caché. Fancy people—and everyone from the past was fancy!—should have fancy accents, right? And what’s fancier than the accent of the Queen of England? Oh, and there are the many centuries of history the Brits have under their belts, as compared to the piddling 238 years the United States has existed. (For the record, American history stretches back beyond its official founding, and though brief is at least as rich as any European country’s history.)

Counterexamples tend to prove the point that British accents carry particular cultural baggage. The movie Marie Antoinette (directed by Sofia Coppola) is an example. The stodgy old guard at Versailles speak in very posh British accents, while the spirited young folk—Marie Antoinette and her friends—all speak in American accents. Hardly an accident.

Yes, you are saying, but you write novels, not scripts. TRUE. That is true. But the written word is just as subject to dialect as the spoken word. There are differences in word meaning—tell a Brit that you got a stain on your pants, and they might look at you funny—and slang—Brits will say “cheers” as a way to end a conversation, but an American will not—and syntax—have you noticed that Brits will shorten “I have two good reasons” to “I’ve two good reasons” but an American will not?—and cadence—the ebb and flow, the emphasis and rhythm. All of those things are equally as much about the words on the page as the way the words are pronounced.

So far, I’ve written mainly in two eras: pre-revolutionary France and Antebellum America. As far as accents go, the second was an interesting challenge in its own right. After all, Americans of the 1850s spoke substantially the same kind of English that we speak now. They used the same syntax and even slang. The challenge is that it’s very close, but just a little different from 21st-century English. And readers have expectations of what they think people sounded like back then (words like “reckon” and “chaw” and overall folksiness).

Perhaps more interesting, however, was the novel I wrote about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, set in the 1780s in Paris. Naturally, they spoke French, but I don’t. I had a choice to make. Given the narrator’s occupation—prostitute—it might have been fitting to use colloquial English. After all, this was an uneducated, poor young woman who probably spoke the colloquial French of her day. Why not translate it into the colloquial English of today? I have to translate it to something, so why not to something with the same kind of cultural feel as the language she would have used?

I was stopped by reader expectations and by my own preferences. Readers don’t expect someone from the 1700s to start saying things like “dude” and “whatever”. They expect a certain cache to go along with their historical fiction (see above reasons for use of British accents in TV/movies). Also, I didn’t really want my character to come across as too frivolous or too accessible. She makes some pretty cunning moves, and I want her to come across as canny. Her personality is rather chilly, and her narration slightly detached. So, at the very least, I was going to use a less colloquial form of English.

So—British usage, or American? This was also a bit of a toss-up. I’m not British. I couldn’t get away with writing a whole novel in the guise of a Brit. I’m sure I’d mess up something because I’m just so used to American English. I’m an Anglophile, however, and am pretty aware of the usage differences. Spelling was never a question: I cannot and will not spell words like color with a “u”. No can do. Diction was a somewhat murky area: most of the things that Brits and Americans disagree about (suspenders/braces, toilets/bathrooms) just weren’t things in the 1700s. For those things that did exist, I used the European (ie, British) term. So a man wore trousers instead of pants, and it is referred to as rubbish instead of trash. Syntax is probably where I skewed most towards British conventions. I tried to make the sentences a little crisper, with prepositions and sentence modifiers in different places and contractions put to use for different purposes. This is all about voice, of course, which is notoriously difficult to pin down. (I had a discussion with someone who had been told their voice was too “young adult” for the adult market but didn’t know how to fix it. The answer is to comb through sentence-by-sentence, analyzing every choice. It’s an indefinable something that affects each word.) What I chose for Grove of Venus was intermediary: American spelling and punctuation, a few Britishisms, and some more formal British constructions. I hope that the resulting voice comes across as neither strongly British nor strongly American. I want the reader to be able to imagine a slight, charming French accent. Looking back, I think skewing towards British syntax and diction helped achieve this. (I think it was effective, but let’s see if the novel ever gets published!)

I have written another story, set in Roman Britain, which has since been trunked. Pretty much everything but the spelling there was British, to the best of my ability. These folks I imagined speaking in British English, because, well, The Queen’s Latin, that’s why.

In a lot of genres, figuring out what form English to use isn’t an issue: you generally write in an American mode if you’re American and a British mode if you’re British. Rarely do the two cross. But in historical fiction, the lines are a bit blurred since we’re delving into the past, which is, as L.P. Hartley said, a foreign country.


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