Modern Language in Historical Fiction

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As a fan of historical fiction, I end up reading a decent amount of reviews for books in the genre. Something that I’ve recently noticed is that there are reviewers who get annoyed with historical fiction for using modern language. This is something that honestly doesn’t bother me at all and that I actually like in historical fiction so today I want to talk a bit about why this may or may not be something to complain about. This should go without saying, but obviously, this is all personal preference/opinion!

As I mentioned, I’ve noticed a few reviews of historical fiction books recently complaining that characters in the novel(s) use phrases, words, or general speaking styles that are more modern than the setting in which the book in question takes place. They note these as anachronisms that shouldn’t have been included in the book, as the phrases were not in use at the time and therefore their inclusion hurts the authenticity and accuracy of the novels. But personally, I don’t mind if historical fiction relies upon modern language. In fact, I often prefer it as it makes it easier for me to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand where these reviewers are coming from. If you want to really feel immersed in the time period the book takes place, having dialogue with modern language may interfere with that and make for a less captivating reading experience. And depending on the language being used, this could really annoy me, too. If it’s supposed to take place in the 1800s and yet there are characters using modern slang, it would certainly get frustrating.

But most of the time, I don’t really mind. Like I said, I usually prefer books to use more modern language even if it doesn’t fit 100% with the story’s setting because it makes it easier for me to understand. If the whole book – whether it be the narration or character dialogue – uses language solely from that time period, then it can become difficult for a modern audience to really understand what is being said. This becomes truer and truer the farther back in time a book takes place. I mean, can you imagine reading a book set in the 1500s that only uses language from the 1500s? A lot of people (perhaps even most people) wouldn’t be able to understand it. It’d be as if everything was written like Shakespeare and come on, those “No Fear Shakespeare” books exist for a reason: it’s hard to understand. It’s practically an entirely different language than the modern English we speak.

So I don’t mind if historical fiction uses phrases and language that wouldn’t have been used during the book’s time period. The exception to this is if the author is using modern terms for things that didn’t even exist yet. For example, if a character has a pocket watch in a book that takes place during the 1300s, that would be a problem, not because the author uses the term “pocket watch,” but because those weren’t invented (or at least weren’t commonly used) until around the 1500s. But this is more than a language issue – that is the author inserting a relatively modern invention into the past.

I’m sure there are probably books out there that would include modern language in a way that would annoy me or make it difficult for me to truly feel immersed in the historical setting. I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not trying to say this is an unreasonable complaint or one that I would never agree with. But simply put, the majority of the time, I don’t mind if historical fiction uses modern language because it makes the story easier for me to understand and thus easier for me to connect to.

What do you think? Does modern language in historical fiction bother you?


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43 thoughts on “Modern Language in Historical Fiction

  1. I don’t read a ton of historical fiction, but I never even thought of the fact that the characters use modern language! It’s definitely an interesting topic, and I have to agree with you. If every historical fiction book read like Shakespeare I would never be able to enjoy them! It would detract a lot from the actual story. Great post! ❀️

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  2. I personally don’t mind modern language in historical fiction because it’s just that: fiction. It doesn’t have to be entirely realistic, or at least I think so. Using phrases that exist in only in today’s vernacular, however, is another story. There should be some truth to the dialogue, but I’d turn a blind eye to syntax and fiction that mirrors how we speak today.

    This is such an interesting topic that I’d never thought about–thanks for posting!

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  3. I think you and I are the same page with this actually. I agree that there needs to be historically accurate language in the book, but there also needs to be some contemporary language or at least dialogue styles in order for modern readers to really connect with it. Just my opinion though. πŸ™‚

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  4. I completely agree with this post! I love reading books, but I love them even more when I can actually understand what the author is trying to put across. The thing that bothers me is, like you said, when there are objects being used in the storyline (a contemporary one), when they didn’t exist yet. There was one series I started a while ago, and was really excited for, where characters were using mobile phones during World War 2. That’s the kind of thing which makes me stop reading.

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    • Oh man, that would’ve annoyed me sooo much! I can *kind of* understand if it’s something that’s been around for a long time and it doesn’t even occur to the author that they’re writing before it was invented, but mobile phones in WWII?! Come on!!

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  5. I agree, however, if it’s something that really stands out. Like if someone in a book that takes place in the 1700’s said something like “Literally” meaning figuratively like we do now, that would bother me, something that is blatant I would find annoying. I think as long as I know what’s trying to be conveyed, that the use of an out of place term for the time is okay. Like the pocket watch example. The only thing that would really bother me is way out of place objects in use, like a previous commenter said about mobile phones. I get annoyed when there are characters using cell phones in stories based in the early 1990’s. But language, it makes more sense to write in a way that the reader will understand what the characters are saying than in a way that is truly authentic. Like you said No Fear Shakespeare exists for a reason.

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  6. Personally I agree that using modern language makes the book easier to understand but I do think they shouldn’t go over the top with it, like you said as that does tend to spoil the old feel of the book. There has to be a balance if you know what I mean: make the book understandable yet also don’t spoil the old fashioned feel of the book with too much modern slang.

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  7. I have no problem with it, as long as it generally fits. Obviously if we have Tudor era nobility talking in chatspeak, that doesn’t work (unless it’s a parody), but I have no problem with changing the wording to make things accessible for the reader.

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  8. I’ve never thought about this before! Historical fiction is probably my favorite genre, but this doesn’t really bother me. If the general feel of the book is true to the time period represented, I’m happy! As long as, like you mentioned, the authors have researched enough to not insert things that wouldn’t have existed yet into the story.

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    • I agree completely! As long as other aspects of the story make the historical setting clear and authentic enough, I like the modern language. If it takes too much away from the setting it could get annoying, but I don’t think that’s ever been a problem for me.

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  9. Personally, modern language in historical fiction, whether it is books or movies, does bother me, partially because it ruins the immersive experience and partially because I enjoy the challenge of understanding archaic terms. I had to take several literature courses that covered as far back as the 14th century. I found them to be thrilling and if you try hard enough, you begin to understand and sometimes even to think in Old or Middle English! I do understand your point, however. If done skillfully, it may not be as intrusive to the storyline.

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  10. Interesting discussion! I think what would bother me is if a character from our time traveled back to a different century and the people there talked like we do. That would just be completely unrealistic, and it would be kind of pointless considering that the exchange between the confused time traveler and the other people could be really entertaining.
    But if the entire book is set in a certain time, it makes sense that everyone is speaking like we do, because the book was written for readers of our time. No one complains about the fact that fantasy novels set in made-up worlds are written in real languages, so why complain about historical fiction?

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  11. It doesn’t bother me too much. It’s funny you actually wrote this. I recently got my mom to watch Game of Thrones and in it they say the word “fuck” and every time my mom goes “UGH THEY DID NOT SAY THAT !” hahah (I don’t know how accurate that is since I don’t know the origin of the word, but it’s just funny how it relates to this post).

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    • It makes even less sense to me when people complain about it in historical fantasy (like the GoT example) because… they have dragons? And people are complaining about historical accuracy? hahaha It might just be me though – I don’t really get that annoyed with historical inaccuracies. I have no idea why. It just doesn’t really bother me. πŸ˜›

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