A Note on Language

We at PerchedCrowPress have two writers on our books who write novels based in Ancient Ireland. Micheál Cladáin and John De Búrca have both faced criticism for using anachronistic language. In Micheál’s case, it has always been a generic “the language can be too modern”. However, for John, actual turns of phrase have been highlighted, one such being:

“The phrase ‘energy levels’ seems so alien to the rest of it. According to etymonline.com both words started to be used in this way in the 1600s.”

The review is 1837 words, and the critic spent 624 discussing the issue, using turns of phrase like “…utterly out of place…” so obviously felt very strongly about it.

Our editor has several issues with these types of criticism:

  • the books are set in Ancient Ireland
  • before the 1600s 
  • and our readers are modern.

Ancient Ireland

“…‘energy levels’ that feels out of place for a group of warriors and village boys in dark age Ireland.”

The language in “Dark Age Ireland” (up until about 700 CE) was Gaeilge Ársa (pronounced gwailga orsa). Following the critic’s logic, this means that to be authentic, the dialogue of John’s novels should be in that language. Even modern Irish speakers would have difficulty understanding the books if that were the case, and DNF piles would be growing globally. 

What about written language? Aside from Latin, there was no written language in Ancient Ireland; history and stories were verbal, passed from druid to druid and filí to filí (bard to bard). The Last Five Swords should be spoken in a pub by a scéalaí (shkaylee) standing in front of a firepit. Picture Pippin talking about his friend Frodo in The Prancing Pony, with lots of mug-toting punters listening in rapture. 

Knowing John well, he would make an excellent scéalaí and has striven for that atmosphere in The Last Five Swords (successfully, in my humble opinion).

before the 1600s

“The phrase ‘energy levels’ seems so alien to the rest of it. According to etymonline.com both words started to be used in this way in the 1600s.”

Let’s imagine that Gaeilge Ársa did not exist, and the common language of the time was English. Modern English originated in the late 14th century but did not reach fruition until the time of Shakespeare (about 1550). Before 1600 the standard language would have been Early Modern English, which most English readers today would struggle with. However, the critic wrote that the language is anachronistic because The Last Five Swords is set a thousand years before 1600. In 600 CE, even Old English didn’t exist. Spoken language was a mix of the various immigrants to “Dark Age Britain”, such as Latin, Gaelic, and Saxon. In Ireland, it was still Gaeilge Ársa (more info HERE). 

How far back does the language of historical novels have to stretch? So far that…

our readers

…will not understand it, it seems.

If it needs to be before 1600 — as the critic implies — that would undoubtedly be the case.

But what about our readers? What are they looking for?

“…using out of place language grinds up against the suspension of disbelief.”

Most modern readers would not understand what the critic even means by that statement because they would not have attended “Creative Writing 101”. But let’s humour them; let’s say it’s true, there needs to be suspension of disbelief: the story needs to be authentically set. Is that credulity going to be battered by using words the reader understands, like energy and levels?

John has spent a great deal of effort in world-building in The Last Five Swords: from quotations in Gaeilge to a glossary and reference to ancient traditions and charcoal sketches to set the scene. We see magic swords and Fae princesses, evil Fae ambassadors and monsters, and mercenary warriors wearing boiled leather armour. If the disbelief of our readers is not suspended by John’s efforts, our editor has promised to eat a boiled leather cuirass instead of beef for his Sunday lunch.

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