Captain Livingston has Beowulf’d and Chaucer’d “Shades of Milk and Honey”

My friend and Medieval scholar, Michael Livingston — for whom I named Captain Livingston — has written a post about the language in Shades of Milk and Honey. In it, he translates a few lines of the novel into  Old English and Middle English

Anyway, at one point Mary and I were talking about voicing and language patterns, and I told her (not for the first time) that I loved how she’d worked so hard to maintain the “Austen voice.” She thanked me, smiled, then mentioned that more than one reader has complained about how she wrote “Old English.”

We found this no end of amusing. Jane Austen, you see, wrote in the early 19th-century, and people stopped writing Old English around the 12th. The reader’s accusation was thus twice-wrong: (1) I think Mary does an excellent job within the linguistic constraints she set upon herself; and (2) Austen-speak is some 6 or 7 centuries away from Old English. Austen doesn’t sound a whit like Old English. For that matter, Austen doesn’t even sound like Middle English, which predates her by only a few centuries.

To illustrate, let’s look at a couple lines from Mary’s novel and see what they might look like in previous dialects.

Go read the full post, with his notes about what words he chose and why at: Kowal Beowulf’d and Chaucer’d: Shades of Milk and Honey « Michael Livingston. It is fascinating.

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5 Responses

  1. Julia

    See, that sort of thing tickles me no end. Having lived in Newfoundland, Canada, I’m fairly well-versed in the odd dialect known as Newfoundland English. When people ask me how it’s different, I say “Take Middle English and modern English. Smush them together and use the Irish Gaelic syntax system. Add idioms and slang. Speak with a broad, Irish-rooted accent. There you have it.” “But the words don’t sound like English!” “They are. They’re just older than the ones you use now. This is what happens when you let a bunch of Irish and British fisherman stay on an isolated island for 400 years.”

    I love this article <3 <3 <3 It makes me happy.

  2. Kai Jones

    I would leave a comment on the Orycon post but it doesn’t seem to be possible. 🙂 I certainly hope to see you there; the most likely time is your signing.

  3. Karin

    I took Old English in university…very few people got that it was 12th century. “Oh! Chaucer?” No. “You’re studying Shakespeare?” NO! “Oh, I love Jane Austen!” Yes. It’s Jane Austen. On a totally unrelated note, I need to go very far away now. *sigh*

  4. Anonymous

    That is a truly excellent post – and then I blog-trawled for a while, reading up on what it’s like being a prof of his subject and standing. Thanks for providing such wonderful fun!

    Further than mere (is it mere? probably not) blogfun, I am once again very appreciative of authors who take the time to make their world not just fun, but right – it goes by in seconds, but I cannot tell you how many novels I’ve stubbed my literary toe on a phrase (or worse, how many television or films set in the Regency or other past time period) that just Does Not Belong there. (And then there’s the times when I’m wrong, like when Andrew Davies used “The moon is made of green cheese” in Sense and Sensibility, and I looked it up on the OED, and it actually dates back far enough…silly me, assuming that I know things.) Books like yours are rare and precious.

    In a semi-related question, have you/would you consider podcasting Seanan McGuire’s tiny ficlet about Toby and the shoes? (I asked her, and she told me, and I quote: “Make sure she knows I didn’t ask you to.” Because she didn’t.)