A few words about language and time

Every few months, a newcomer posts a query to the Historical Novel Society’s Facebook page asking about language and historical fiction. Typically, the poster wants to know how “historically accurate” each writer tries to be. Being a linguist, I find these discussions impossible to comprehend. Learning a past version of your native language would be like learning a foreign language you could never hear. You might master the grammatical rules — fairly easily, if your variety comes along after, say, mid-seventeenth century — but the best you can hope for is an imitation of long-dead writer’s voice.

Raise thy voice proudly


Jonathan Swift

What would be the point of imitating a writer from the past? There can’t be much joy in writing in another person’s voice. And there’s no joy in writing, then why on earth would you do it? Heaven knows it pays little enough. Perhaps we’re all in it for the fame (she types, cackling maniacally.)

Besides, people who want to read authentic Victorian or Regency fiction can just go read some. I’m fairly certain, however, that modern readers want their sentences to contain fewer than half a page’s worth of dependent clauses! We are not them, nor were they ever us. Tastes change, along with syntax and most importantly, word meanings.

Some people like these tours de force, but I always find them arch, a word whose base meaning is ‘prime, pre-eminent,’ which shifted to ‘cunning, crafty,’ then to ‘roguish, waggish,’ and then on to ‘slyly saucy.’ For some reason it has lodged in my brain with the meaning ‘pretending to be playful.’ 

I don’t find anything I want to read on this list of works from the 17th century, after Shakespeare & Francis Bacon. So we’re into the 18th century and Jonathan Swift before we can feel very much at home in English syntax. You can’t just sprinkle ‘thee’ and ‘hast’ around at random, you know. Language in all times and places has rules; yes, even non-standard dialects have rules. Collectively, those rules constitute a grammar.

Choose thy words wisely


Noel Coward in 1930

Word meanings change over time. We know this from experience, if we’re any age at all. One of my friends is about twenty years younger than I am. She uses the word ‘random’ the way I would use ‘weird’ or ‘uncharacteristic,’ if I were being academic. The word ‘gay’ meant ‘showy, brilliant, cheerful’ until the nineteenth century, when it became, for some groups, a euphemism for prostitution.

Here’s OED: “1868   Sunday Times 19 July 5/1   As soon as ever a woman has ostensibly lost her reputation, we, with a grim inappositeness, call her ‘gay’.”

Thence it shifted again in the early twentieth century, at least among artistic types, to mean ‘homosexual,’ especially with reference to men. Noel Coward gets the first citation: “1929   N. Coward (We all wore) Green Carnation in B. Day N. Coward: Compl. Lyrics (1998) 114/3   Art is our inspiration, And as we are the reason for the ‘Nineties’ being gay, We all wear a green carnation.”

Now it’s difficult to wrench the word ‘gay’ back to ‘cheerful, showy’ without a trace of double entendre.

Slang rises and falls, occasionally making it into the mainstream. ‘Groovy’ lasted about thirty years, long enough to make it into the OED: “1944   Sat. Evening Post 13 May 89/2   A boy or girl who is really ‘groovy’ is ‘skate wacky’ or a ‘skate bug’.” I’m pretty sure skateboards had nothing to do with being ‘skate wacky’!

Some words never even make it into a dictionary, like the word ‘perticels,’ for example, from a letter from Lord Burghley to Archibishop Whitgift, written in 1594, objecting to the Archbishop’s overly harsh Articles of Religion, an oath required of all clergymen intended to weed out radical Presbyterians. Here’s the sentence: “I know your canonists can defend these with all their perticels, but surely, under your Grace’s correction, this judicial and canonical sifting of poor ministers is not to edify or reform.”

We could translate that as ‘particle’: “A very small part of a proposition, statement, or text; a clause or phrase; an article of a doctrinal statement. Now rare.”

It’s rare, all right. 

Semantic drift

Words don’t all change at the same pace or in the same direction. Semantic drift (aka semantic wildflowerschange) is like a packet of wildflower seeds scattered under a newly planted tree. As the tree grows, its branches will extend farther and farther, creating more and deeper shade, with pockets of sunshine between the branches that shift around over the course of the day. The flowers that spring up from the original seeds will broadcast their seeds every year, more or less in all directions. Some will be blown by the wind, which may have a prevailing direction. Some will be picked up and transported by birds. Some of the seeds that fall under the tree will land in shade and never reach maturity. Others will land in a hot spot and wither young. Others will land in a good spot and grow to cast their own seeds, some of which fall propitiously and others not. To the negligent gardener, it will seem as if the wildflowers were moving themselves around the yard, pulling up their roots in the dead of night and sneaking over to a different patch of ground.

Words change like this too. Some die when their referents disappear. Calling someone a varlet these days will just make them laugh. Other words drift, sometimes ending up a considerable distance from their earliest recorded meaning. 

A little exercise

Engraving by J. Caldwell, 1771

He was a sad girl. Engraving by J. Caldwell, 1771

I always gave this exercise as a homework assignment when I taught Linguistics 301. In the 90s, it meant going to an actual library and using a physical dictionary. I can do it today without rising from my desk, thanks to the online Oxford English Dictionary (to which I have access as a retiree from the University of Texas.) It’s from Language Files, 7th Edition. (I’ve cut the exercise in half.)

The following paragraph doesn’t make sense in modern English. But if you track back through the meanings of the words given in italics, you’ll be able to transform it into an intelligible, if rather uninteresting, character sketch. Since this is a blog, not a college class, I supply the answers immediately following.

“He was a happy and sad girl who lived in a town 40 miles from the closest neighbor. He fed nuts to the deer who lived in the branches of an apple tree that bore pears. He was a silly and a wise boor, a knave and a villain, and everyone liked him. Moreover, he was a lewd man whom the general censure held to be a model of chastity.”

sad: definition 2a. “Settled, firmly established in purpose or condition; steadfast, firm, constant. Obs.” The last citation for this sense is from Milton.

girl: definition 1a: “Chiefly in pl. A child of either sex; a young person.” This sense died out in the fifteenth century.

town: definition 1a: “An enclosed piece of ground; a field, a garden; a yard, a court. Obs.” There’s one citation from 1425; the rest are Old English. The community meaning takes over at that point.

deer: definition 1a: “A beast: usually a quadruped, as distinguished from birds and fishes; but sometimes, like beast, applied to animals of lower orders. Obs.” This meaning dies out in c14, gradually replaced over that century with the more specific “general name of a family ( Cervidæ) of ruminant quadrupeds.”

apple: definition 2a: “Freq. with distinguishing word: any of various fruits (and vegetables), esp. those thought to resemble the apple (sense 1) in some way.” Another word that once referred to a broader class that grew narrower over the centuries.”

silly: definition 1a: “Worthy, good. Also: pious, holy. Cf. seely adj. 4. Obs.” Now, this is a word that has done some semantic migrating!”

boor: definition 1a: “A husbandman, peasant, countryman. Obs.

knave: definition 1a: “A male child, a boy. Also: a young man. Obs.

villain: definition 1a still encompasses what we mean by this word: “Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.”

The exercise obviously wants us to focus on that “base-minded rustic,” but in my vocabulary, that’s still uncomplimentary. I prefer broad-minded, or even high-minded rustics, thank you very much.

censure: definition 3: “gen. Judgement; opinion, esp. expressed opinion; criticism. Obs. or arch.” This is good right up to the dawn of the 19th century. Here’s the quote from Shakespeare for extra credit (teacher always gets an A): 1597   Shakespeare Richard III ii. ii. 114   Madame..will you go, To giue your censures in this waighty busines.”

And a final word

“Language, never forget, is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines.”
Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way


Cipollone, Nick, Steven Hartman, Shravan Vasishth, eds. Language Files, 7th Edition. 1998. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Categories: Language Writing

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