Thursday, December 24, 2009

Technical Topic -- Of Historical Hyphens

Let me say right off that this is a posting only for the linguistic and philological of heart.

Discerning reader Annie posted this question:

. . .What most interested me about your post, though, is what you say about 1790s usage.

In previous posts, you've touched on when and why using a slightly anachronistic term makes more sense than rigidly adhering to contemporary vocabulary. Given your attention to detail, I'm not surprised you pay the same attention to punctuation. But I am wondering how you decide when, for example, leaving a space between counter and revolutionary helps to keep the reader in the world of the novel and when it might be distracting.

I acknowledge that folks whose pasts do not include several years deciding when to hyphenate are probably delightfully oblivious to the author’s choices in this regard, but I'm still curious.

To which I reply …

The most important thing about all this word choice is -- I’m not writing 1790s language. I couldn't, any more than I could write authentic Shakespeare-era language. My readers, (they may number in the four digits by now,) do not expect me to reproduce real 1790s-speak.
If they want the authentic they can go to Walpole and Richardson.

I 'hum a few bars and I'll fake it' my way along. You could say I’m gelding modern English by cutting off all the Victorian constructions. Then, happily mixing metaphors, I slap on a light coat of 1790s slang.

But when the reader goes, 'Boing! 20th Century American phrase!' I've failed her.
(When Lazarus says, "That's a sweet idea," that was written before it became American slang. Not my fault. Not my fault.)

I write Standard English. I avoid hitting the reader over the head with big clunky modernisms, but I don't try to reproduce the 'voice' or the word choice of an Eighteenth Century writer.
I make a plentitude of mistakes.
Though I don't indulge in outright erroneous language when I happen to see myself doing it.
Except sometimes when I cheat.

ETA:  The rest of some tiresome commentary on the use of historical language in a 2010 book  is below the cut, where it is doubtless happy to stay.


Some words are deceiving.
In French they got what they call 'faux amis.' 'False friends.' These are words like 'actual' and 'preservatif', (i.e. 'current' and 'condom'.)
If you're interested in this sort of thing, go here to see some.

We have the same false cognates when we travel back into the English language past. 'Unconscious' does not mean 'knocked out' in 1790s. 'Suggestive' does not mean 'sexy'.
(So in Forbidden Rose Maggie does not reprove Doyle for taking off his clothes in 'that threatening and suggestive manner,' as I originally intended. It's now the less wonderful, 'that threatening and improper manner.')
'Shut up' is not 'keep quiet'. It means closed. (Though I have used it in the modern sense because I am weak.) A doctor is not a surgeon and vice versa.
And this isn't even touching on the words that are just plain missing. In 1790, nobody is 'clairvoyant' or works as a 'scientist'.

But knowing this, I'll use 'unconscious', because I don't have good substitutes for it. The synonyms don't carry the same nuance.
I am the linguistic ebil.
I'll avoid 'suggestive' because I can find other ways to say the same thing that are almost as good.
That makes me feel all warm and scholarly.

The spelling of period words transports us to a particularly murky countryside.

I am not spelling the way my characters would.
If they became annoyed when Chicago Manual of Style did not let them hyphen those subtle 'colours' like blue-green, they would stomp about the 'parlour' in ire.

Words often evolve from separate words, to hyphenated pair, to compound word.
(I suppose they go the other way, too, de-evolving from a compound into separate words. 'Housemaid' and 'parlourmaid' feel like they're doing this, the need to specify these occupational categories now being rare.)

But this normal pathway of evolution means one unconsciously assumes a compound word is 'more modern' than the hyphenated or separate equivalent.

When a choice exists between separate words and a compound word, copyeditors following Chicago must go with the compound,
rather than the most ordinary modern usage or the usage in 1790,
because the compound word is what shows up in Websters and Chicago follows Websters.

To be fair to Websters, they are not making value judgements.
Chicago, however, is.

Because compound words tends to be the newer coinage,
they 'feel' more modern,
at least to me.
This is especially true when there's no difference in meaning between the compound word and the separate words.

'Sansculottes' and 'counterrevolutionary' are fingernails on my own particular blackboard.

'Sans culottes'. 'sans-culottes,' and sansculottes.; counter revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, and counterrevolutionary all existed. But the separate words were, by far, the usual form in 1790. The separate words are how the French still say it.

I'm going to assume my readership is sensitive and discerning and finds that gross hippopotamus word -- counterrevolutionary -- as unnecessary and un-French and distracting as I do.

Thus the mad outbreak of stetting on my part.

But you ask why and when hyphenating or spellings options catch my eye. When does a usage pull my chain . . .

Can I say it's the flavor of the word?

If you're a historical writer -- or anyone in the language business -- you spend a lot of time studying words and you interest yourself in the way the English language changes. You do a lot of reading in the period. You get a feel for the vocabulary.
You can still get surprised, as I mention above.
I get knocked back on my ass all the time with words that I thought were old that turn out to be modern, and vice-, as it were, versa.

Let's say I was scanning a page of writing and wondering how to keep it in 'period,' I might pick out . . . 'full of myself,' 'typographical,' 'copyeditor,' 'syntactical,' 'compartmentalize' and 'how sad is that?'
as words and phrases of interest.

I'd ask myself which ones of these 'sound' 1790s.

I'd chuck out 'copyeditor,' 'compartmentalize,' 'syntactical,' and 'How sad is that?' at once.
If they are not actually modern, they sound modern.

I'd tend to think 'full of myself' and 'typographical' were period because they sound period.
I'd go back and check them in the final draft to make sure I was right, but I suspect I am.
Then, in the end, I might toss out 'typographical' after all, however authentic it is, because it 'sounds' technological. The reader might hesitate.

As I go writing along in the manuscript, I'm doing that kinda sorting and assessing with every sentence. Every redraft is weighing the date of first use and the changes in meaning of all these words.

Counterrevolution and sansculottes would get tossed into the 'modern-sounding' bin.
Crash, rattle, rattle.

Beyond that . . .
they're just plain ugly words. They're hard to read. I wouldn't pick these awkward words out of the half-million words at my disposal even if I were writing stories set in 2001.
There is no place for such clunky words in fiction, says I, perfectly willing to make silly pronouncements at the drop of a hat.

If I encountered these words in period reading it would be one of those 'missed-a-step moments for me. It would drag me out of the fictive haze.
I'd probably do one of those superior and conceited moments when I decide an author is historically wrong wrong wrong, nanny nanny boo boo.
And I'd be the one who was wrong.
Which goes to show, eh?

So I am trying to be technically correct,
expect where it gets extremely inconvenient.
I am trying to be plausible.
I mean . . . even when I know I'm right, I also want to be plausible.
I am trying not to jar the reader.

And I am trying to be intuitively 'period', which is gut thing.


  1. Jo, it's incredibly generous of you to post this in response to my question -- and on Christmas Eve, no less! I really do find this stuff fascinating, and it goes a long way towards explaining why I'm *never* pulled out of your stories because the language reminds me I'm not in Kansas anymore.

    The reason the "infer-imply" example occurred to me was precisely because the author in question also takes enormous care to stay in tune. I might not have noticed if I had been reading an author who is less skilled. That her choice was deliberate is not surprising, and I would happily use infer for imply in exchange for a tenth her talent with words (not to mention characterization and plotting!).

    Speaking of compound words that are separating, my current pet peeve is "can not." Please, can't these two kids get back together?

  2. As to 'can not' and 'cannot',
    I'm one of those who relish the slight distinction between the two forms.

    A nice discussion of this I read a while back is

    This is Motivated Grammar's blog, with the subheading, 'Prescriptivism Must Die!' which is rather a give-away, don't you think?

  3. @ Annie --

    Speaking of ugly words,

    I mentioned 'bloodred', which the excellent copy editor -- impelled by EVIL Chicago Manual of Style -- wanted to use in place of 'blood red'.

    'Bloodred' is the past tense of 'to blooder', says I.

    In 'Forbidden' I just dug my heels in at the substitution of 'outtalk' in place of 'out talk'.

    An outtalk is an endangered South American wattlebird.

  4. Jo, thanks for pointing me towards "motivated grammar," which I've now bookmarked. Not to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but in most cases when I see "can not" used, it's not intended to convey the subtle distinction discussed in motivated grammar.

    But I'm not a prescriptivist -- really!

    "Bloodred"? "Outtalk? Yikes! These are enough to make my bloodboil! *g*