Having delved into the languages and history of Scandinavia over the years, I’m always interested in the links between Nordic countries. And even with those in the UK. The language spoken when Danes ruled half of Britain (I’ve lived in both halves and find the cultural differences are remarkable even today) was not far off how Icelandic is spoken now. With so many British place names, street names, family names, dialect and mainstream words from Old Norse all still used in everyday speech… the saga certainly continues, but are we paying enough attention to it?
Writing with one foot in the pastTolkien’s writing always stirs up a nostalgic fascination in me. It’s so alive and immediate. But then, he was an Oxford professor of Old English, so he has good reason to write in that way. He writes in the way that stories were once told, orally, in large groups around a fire and under the stars etc. etc.. The success of his work cannot be based on the strength of his stories alone (improbable hero does heroic act, with no love angle, little treachery and few surprises); it is the style of delivery that is rare and timeless, and must have made an impact on its popularity.
I once came across a book written by somebody who had imagined an alternative history where English had no French influence, and who wrote in an alternative modern English; it was great and completely believable and largely understandable. Copywriters, too, always recommend the use of an Anglo-Saxon word over a Latin or Greek one - there’s something in the old languages that we shouldn’t forget. They effect us on a more visceral level.
Language history as a mirrorFor me, looking into language history gives a different perspective on modern writing, in that you could argue that writing is only a tool to ‘save’ or record the spoken word, and that the musicality, rhythms and delivery of speech are often lost on modern writers in many languages (my own included!). Irish writing seems to have retained much of this musicality and rhythm, perhaps explaining the high success rates per capita of Irish authors (from chick-lit to high-brow ‘lit’), TV and radio presenters. Striving for the stilted, ‘correct’ English, so tightly lashed to the page as to allow for no freedom at all, just as the French and Germans are forced to do in their stricter and less naturally-developed languages, is no goal of mine. Yes, precision and clarity are key, but if you focus solely on these then you can quickly forget to excite and engage the reader with a style that reaches deeper than ‘correct’ language.
Focusing on plot at the expense of delivery is perhaps something we will come to see as a mistake in the history of literature. Swedish, for me, is another language which has retained its speech-first priority and the stories written in it can be read out loud and retain their intrigue and full musicality. It could be counter-argued that the rhymes and rhythms were only used in the first place to help storytellers to remember the story, and so are not the main focus of stories written before the printing press revolution.
Personally, I tend to prefer the subtle blend of a great story that can be told in a gripping way, with whatever tools are at the author’s disposal. I’m a great fan of audiobooks (when well read) and podcasts (when well produced) so perhaps there is room yet for a new medium of story telling - a hybrid film/comic/novel/audiobook? All in good time, I’m sure.
PS As a post-scriptum parting-shot, I’d like to add that compound words should be encouraged in English, and hyphenation reduced to only certain edge cases. Could be a fun experiment for a story, at least.