The Language of Longevity

By Kelson at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

By Kelson at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

If someone from Elizabethan England were still living, would they find themselves saying, “What think ye?” rather than “What do you think?”

As a novelist, I have to make a decision. I have characters who are biologically immortal. One is from 1400s Spain, the other is an American Colonist from the American Revolution.

Should they speak like modern people?

Should they slip into strange phrases or old-fashioned syntax from time to time?

Should they retain accents?

Does it vary from individual to individual?

So far no one has lived much longer than a century, so it’s hard to tell.

The muting or disappearance of transplanted people’s accents is well documented.

The disappearance of local accents and colloquialisms due to television and internet is suspected.

My Grandfather, originally from Missouri has a slight accent and sometimes starts his statements with a loud, “Wull Hell” instead of “Well hell.”

My Dad sometimes says, “that’s groovy to the max,” but he’s saying it ironically.

A friend in my writers group is a little older than my Dad. He sometimes exclaims “Far Out, Man,” but I’m not sure why. Does he like to advertise what generation and era he represents?

Conversly, I never thought “Cray Cray,” meaning crazy, would materialize in my vocabulary, I’m not that young, but it did.

In conclusion, I’m not sure whether to make my old characters speak in old-fashioned dialogue.

Do readers expect it from unnaturally old characters?

What do y’all think? (Or, if you prefer, what think ye?)

I don’t want to do it.  That kind of speech in novels and movies hurts my internal ear. It sounds fake and stilted and I’m not sure even the oldest human would retain their old ways of speaking. In short, it drives me cray cray.

2 responses to “The Language of Longevity

  1. Hi Laura,
    I suspect these “immortals” would be highly motivated to keep their exceptional ability a closely guarded secret. With the wisdom they’ve likely gained over time, they would certainly make a concerted effort to “fit in” and keep themselves on the “down low”. If you sound like everyone else, nobody will ever suspect…
    We’re all molded by our surroundings, and a change in our culture’s speech doesn’t happen overnight. It’s probably not much of a reach that they’d speak as present day folks do. It might be awesome though, if some old friends (or rivals) reunited many years after having assimilated into totally different cultures/languages in the modern world, so they’re forced to speak to one another in the old language/dialect they used back in the day. It might create a deeper understanding for readers to grasp the depth of experience these people have.

  2. I think there’s a lot of factors. Are your immortals in an isolated community? At what age do any of them realize they’re immortal? Do they mingle with mortals extensively? Do they have separate technologies with different terminologies?

    In general, I think the language elements (accents, words, phrasing, emphasis, etc.) of any groups will merge in proportion to the amount of contact between the groups, and in proportion to the motivation for future contact. For example, traders will tend to use language elements of the groups with whom they trade. Traders have the profit motive that drives additional contact which, in turn, drives language acquisition. By contrast, homebodies (e.g., farmers) don’t.

    The Hogben stories by Lewis Padgett (pseudonym of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) feature long-lived mutants who choose to live in isolated communities of normal humans. They continue to live among humans for economic reasons (access to food, alcohol, firearms, etc.), but they choose isolated communities so that their mutations don’t become publicized. As a result, overall contact stays low, and so does language acquisition. The Hogben grandfather, for example, continues to speak in Elizabethan English.

    Consider, too, stories concerning Fae or Sidhe. Such stories typically view the Sidhe as immortals with powerful magic that supplies their needs without having to mingle with mere mortal humans. As a result, there’s little need for contact, hence little need for languages to merge, and so the Sidhe characters often speak older forms of human languages that depend on the last time they were in contact with humans. Note, too, that the Sidhe need separate terminology to discuss their magic.

    On the other hand, there are also stories about ancient gods in modern times. One such type of stories concerns a modernized version of Satan, demons, or devils out to collect a modernized version of souls or worshippers. Think Lilith Saintcrow. Her modernized ancient gods frequently speak in the hippest modern language because they have a strong motivation (collecting souls or worshippers) to maintain contact with mortals.

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