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Murthering Your Dowsabells

Speaking the language of the past

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I’ve always been drawn to books which create their own language, inventing their own slang, spellings and pidgin diction. I remember being mesmerised by A Clockwork Orange when I first picked it up, and later by Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, with its imagined Kentish dialect of 2000 years hence, and by the Edinburgh patois of Irvine Welsh’s books. There’s a daring and chutzpah to those works, and an admirable, uncompromising belief that readers should work hard for their rewards. More recently Marlon James has written in a Jamaican creole (or ‘patwa’) in A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Paul Kingsnorth made up an ancient English tongue in The Wake.

But surprisingly few authors try and do something so inventive with language. It’s almost as if we accept the palette of paints we’re given and are reluctant to mix them up and make things messy. The reasons for that reluctance are understandable. It’s hard work to create your own language, and it can seem slightly self-indulgent when there’s already a very rich one available. It takes the writer dangerously close to being a pasticheur — or poseur. Unless you’re very good at it, the end product can come across as affected. But most of all, publishers and agents will dissuade a writer from anything which appears challenging or obtuse, and that dissuasion naturally translates into financial terms. To put it bluntly, a book which isn’t easy-to-read ain’t easy-to-sell, and publishers will trim their already miserly advances accordingly.

Despite all that, I’ve decided that I can’t write my next novel in anything other than sixteenth-century English. It’s about the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’, also known in the historiography as ‘The Western Rebellion’. It was a revolt in 1549 against the Act of Uniformity and the subsequent imposition of Cranmer’s Protestant prayer-book. The rebellion was, in many ways, about language as much as about religion. The rebels weren’t only objecting to the eradication of the old, Catholic devotions, but also to the insistence on English — which, the Cornish said, they struggled to understand. Because words were the source of the uprising, I simply felt that the novel had to incarnate, as much as describe, the linguistic debate. A rebellion about sixteenth-century language just couldn’t be told in twenty-first-century words.

Of course, my story is told in the language of the victors. Regimes which endure always impose their diction and their terms: even Brian Friel’s brilliant Translations – his play about, among other things, linguistic misunderstandings and the Anglicisation of Irish place names – was necessarily written in English. But although I employ the language of the sixteenth-century victors, my narrator’s sympathies are more clearly aligned with the Catholic serfs than with the Protestant military. I’m trying to subvert the diction of the victors in the same way that minorities often proudly take ownership of the insults thrown their way, and hope that an organic, grass-roots rebellion shines through despite suppression and reprisals. In that way, too, I’m hoping to overcome the usual danger associated with recreating historical language, namely that it sounds terribly learned and lah-di-dah. I’ve aimed for a diction that is oral and earthy, full of west country dialect and erratic misspellings. It’s decidedly low-brow and, hopefully, sinewy rather than effete.

It can, though, easily be overdone. My strategy is to have a light touch: to introduce only one or two of these ‘foreign’ words in each sentence. One has to be fairly smart in putting the word within a context that allows the meaning to be guessed at; and with repeat usage, I hope, the reader will even forget that this was once a word that was unfamiliar. I currently have a 40-page glossary to which I add words each week, culling them from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Sir Thomas Malory, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and, most of all, from the Victorian philologist Walter Skeat’s brilliant A Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words. Before writing each day I look through my glossary and skim through Skeat to find the words I know I’ll need for today’s section of the novel. If, as I’m writing, there’s a word which I know would be better in sixteenth-century English (‘handkerchief’, say), I’ll leave it in capitals and come back to it later and translate it (to, in this instance, ‘muckinder’). That way, the act of writing isn’t impeded by endless recourse to my various dictionaries.

The danger, I’ve found, is that I come across a word which I like the sound of – ‘herberow’, for example – and I end up writing about a ‘shelter’ just as a way to force it into the text. It requires discipline not to end up just writing an inconsequential collection of beautiful sixteenth-century words. As with all writing, I’ve had to murder my darlings — or, rather, murther my dowsabells.

Like many, I often find writing as much fun as root canal surgery, but working on this novel has, thus far, been thoroughly enjoyable. I’ve discovered an entirely new vocabulary that, a bit like Shakespearean English, seems to set up echoes somewhere deep inside. I can glimpse or guess many of the meanings. Somehow you just know that ‘gratulate’ means ‘pleasing’, or that ‘orgulous’ implies ‘proud’ and ‘cumbrance’ ‘trouble’.

Sometimes the defamiliarisation works simply by using old-fashioned spellings that I’ve come across in the primary sources: the reader won’t have to work too hard to understand the meaning of ‘owte-cry’, ‘bluddy’, ‘obaye’, ‘perswading’, ‘growendes’, ‘feersely’ or ‘opteigned’. Many other words are sufficiently similar – ‘idlesse’, ‘imposterous’, ‘pestiferous’ or ‘philander’ – that one can safely hazard a guess.

I often try out the more tricky words on our (admittedly half-Italian) children, and it’s interesting how easily they (at age nine and eleven) can understand words like ‘bosky’ (wooded, like the Italian ‘bosco’), ‘stank’ (tired, like ‘stanco’) and ‘merds’ (shit, like ‘merda’). I enjoy the fact that children instinctively intuit the meanings of words like ‘to mercify’ (to pity) or ‘pesterous’ (troublesome). Pretentious as it sounds, our evening meals now involve the use of these weird words, and recently I heard one of the kids scream to the other: ‘shut your neb’ — ‘neb’ being an obsolete term for bill or beak.

As anyone who speaks a foreign language knows, you become a slightly different person in another dialect or idiom. I’ve found that this book, too, has been nudged in new directions by being written in another language. As I suggested above, sometimes I am simply translating a word. But increasingly, as I become more fluent in the language, the rich vocabulary is actually informing that plot. It’s as if the use of terminology from almost 500 years ago is making the story more convincing by leading me into issues and arguments which I might not otherwise have included. The abundance of agricultural, religious, romantic and legal terminology reveals the faultlines of sixteenth-century concerns, and as those terms pepper the narrative it is, I hope, tracing those faultlines.

To give just one example: I liked the word ‘attainder’, which means the so-called stain of a serious crime like treason. In the actual, historical rebellion, the son of one of the rebels was ‘attainted’: he forfeited his ancestral lands because of his father’s crimes and was forced to become a travelling minstrel, singing in the houses of the Protestant gentry. That figure of the poor, aristocratic Catholic, going from house to house to sing his songs, gave me the figure of the actual narrator, recounting the facts of his demise. Without my initially superficial attraction to that simple word I would never have found that – to me, touching – narrative device.

Tobias Jones is the author of three crime novels and four works of non-fiction.

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