Why my book set in ancient times is written in modern language

The Age of Iron trilogy is set in north western Europe between 61 and 54BC. I wrote it in modern English, including slang. A couple of people have commented about this. “I hardly think they used the word ‘hot’ to describe attractive people in the Iron Age” said one. “Some characters say ‘OK’, even though that term was invented in mid nineteenth century America” said another.

I agree with both of them. Your Iron Age Brit didn’t use those words. However, lets take a look at the phrase with the offending hotness. It comes when a troubled young baddy called Weylin walks up and sees:  “two smaller chairs, one for that terrifying greased turd Felix and one for hot young Keelin Orton”. Weylin, in whose voice this section is written, would indeed not have said “hot” two thousand years ago. But then again, he wouldn’t have said “two”, “smaller”, “chairs”, or any other of the words in that phase – or the entire book – because he would have spoken ancient British Celtic, not modern English.

I’m certain that the prehistoric British did have words for ‘two’ and ‘smaller’, etc., so it’s fine to use those modern English words. I’m just as certain that a young idiot like Weylin would have had a whole range of slang words to describe attractive women, any number of which might have been temperature-based. In order that readers might understand the characters, when writing the book I translated everything Weylin and everyone else is thinking, including their slang, into modern English.

I didn’t have to. I had three language choices:

One – To be truly authentic, I could have written the book in ancient British Celtic. It would not have been easy, since nobody speaks it anymore and there are no written records. However, by studying other historic Celtic tongues and combining them with modern Celtic, I might have been able to get close.

Two – I could have made up my own olde worlde pseudo-Shakespearian dialect:

“Prithee O clampet buffoon, what hath Lowa sayeth to thee?”

“Lorks milud, I mismember!”

Three – I could have translated all the characters’ words into early twenty-first century language English.

So there we go. I didn’t really have a choice at all. Option One would have taken ages and nobody in the world but me would have been able to understand it, which might well have had a negative impact on sales (I’d love to be in this purely for the love of writing, but I have computer to run and a Walkers French Fries addiction to feed). Option Two might have worked if I was writing a very different book which didn’t try to see things from the characters’ points of view, but I wasn’t. So it was Option Three because people in olden times were just as clever and complicated as you or me, and I had to use the best language at my disposal to reflect that.

If you really have trouble with modern language in ancient settings, you’re going to enjoy raging at Clash of Iron (Age of Iron 2, out April 2015). On the first page, Lowa describes an onerous task as a ‘massive shag’ and decides that Samalur, boy king of the Dumnonians, is a ‘dick’.

6 Responses to Why my book set in ancient times is written in modern language

  1. Ryan says:

    I love the use of modern language; I think it really helps add a bit more colour to the story. I find most things Dug says funny, particularly when he throws in the odd “badgers tits”

  2. Ian G says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the fist 2 and cant wait to read the third installment. The ending in Book 2 was a surprise but i wont give it away. Totally agree with what Ryan said above. keep up the good work and i look forward to your next books after this series.

  3. Peter says:

    It always made me smile when characters from early times are portrayed as little more than semi articulate apes. These were sophisticated people, not as technologically advanced obviously but probably more in tune with the natural world than we will ever be again. I’m thoroughly enjoying the stories, thank you.
    ps. I can actually see the real King Arthur as a barbaric Zadar type character much embellished by history.

  4. Dean says:

    …and a Badger’s bollocks from me 😉

    I am loving the trilogy, please write more!!!

  5. Paul says:

    One of the most well written stories I’ve read.
    Language and analogies were vivid and humorous…

    Do us all a favour… and get back to work writing immediately 🙂

  6. Jimbo says:

    The way you write really makes me giggle, which is a significant feat as I am a world-weary 50-something British male who has had enough grinding-down by life’s events for…well for a lifetime.

    Keep up the good work.

    Badgers arses to those naysayers.


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