Dated Language

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Dated Language

Postby orbivillein » Tue Nov 10, 2015 11:53 am

A point raised in writing workshops for works on the hot seat is often about dated language. Language that doesn't suit an era or time's milieu stands out and feels awkward, clumsy, unnatural, maybe forced -- outdated anyway.

Science fiction's futuristic tendency especially raises whether language suits a milieu. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine uses a few words that strive for an exotic ambiance, names of future species: "Eloi" and "Morlocks." They are somewhat awkward and unnatural for contemporary readers.

Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land uses "grok" to mean a host of concepts: understand, savvy, appreciate, realize, apprehend, comprehend, "in the groove." The term briefly enjoyed fashionable social use and quickly faded from notice. From idiom to cliche at lightspeed's pace.

George Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four introduces futuristic terms that became part of everyday language afterward: "Big Brother," "group-think and -speak," "Newspeak," and "thoughtcrime." "Big Brother" remains current and of significant social value.

Those three exemplify futuristic language's challenges and appeals. Challenges: natural ease of reading and comprehension; appeals, encapsulation of a meaningful value, heretofore unrecognized or vaguely apprehended, like "Big Brother" captures overly influential government and technological intrusions upon privacy. No wonder that term survives and even transcends its fashionable fad era. The term and its significance tap into human fears and collective unconscious anxieties and stresses.

The Digital age excited a vigorous word and language invention cycle. How many thousands of words do we now take for granted, that only a few decades before were unknown: "electronic mail" was bulky and clumsy, became e-mail, and now email; World Wide Web became Web; Web site, became website, became web and site. Less memorable word strings became medial capital case and compounded single words and more memorable, and absent HTML protocol site URLs' and file name word space underscores: Price_Waterhouse _Coopers corporation became PricewaterhouseCoopers, and, likewise, an infinite number of other word strings were condensed.

Those latter are mere natural and pragmatic processes, though. The "Big Brother" example illustrates aesthetic considerations. The term is a shorthand label for a focused though broad human social concept, albeit possibly at times anti-social. Privacy matters in an increasingly non-private, technologically-connected, interpersonally-disconnected society. We need our retreats and sanctuaries from persistent privacy intrusion for our mental health and well-being. Technology destroys privacy.

Of course, some prescience shapes how language might become future-ward different. Orwell channeled his era's vague and real fears into "Big Brother." He shaped the future of his novel and real-world through reflections from the past and present.

What important social issues do we have with which to see the future? The Puppy slate shaped for a time Hugo, fiction prize, and fiction culture language. Underlying the Puppy controversies is a situation similar to Orwell's "Big Brother." Note that those otherwise positive emotionally charged terms accumulated negative charges from their reimagination -- another feature to approach language's variants for milieu suitability: otherwise positive or neutral emotionally charged terms reinvented for negative emotional charge. That is euphemism's dual nature: some euphemisms of less objectionable labels, some euphemisms used to sarcastically victimize.

In what ways do or could and should we as science fiction and possibly fantasy writers "grok" language's suitability to a milieu? How do we appreciate how our present-day language influences our writing and how that language could be different near- or longer-term future or past use suited to a milieu? Yet still be comprehensible by and appeal to contemporary times' readers?
Last edited by orbivillein on Wed Nov 11, 2015 11:21 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Dated Language

Postby Ishmael » Wed Nov 11, 2015 8:48 am

The first time I ever attended a writers' circle meeting, one of the members read a story he'd written about the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Refugees seeking shelter encountered a farmer who replied, "It's okay with me." Such an anachronism threw me completely out of the story. I don't expect period characters to speak in period language but I prefer them to use English reasonably consistent with my concept of their era rather than using modern slang, even though the latter might be a more accurate translation of what they actually say. (Yes, I know okay has a long history in the US but it doesn't over here.)

I have once or twice written stories in correct dialect. Generally speaking slush readers do not appreciate them. If I were to write a story in Tyke I might be understood by Yorkshiremen and those familiar with my native language but very few others would begin to understand it.

I think the first thing that language has to do is communicate. The more words the reader doesn't understand, the less communication occurs. It may very well be that Martians do not speak English. On the other hand my story about Martians is written in English. This means I don't use Martian words to describe things for which English words exist.

I prefer to avoid gratuitous neologisms for the same reason. In many cases the meaning can only be deduced from context and readers soon grow tired of being put through a class in imaginary languages.

Really powerful writers can get away with a lot of rule-breaking. I don't think I can expect to do so quite yet.
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