Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Remember When . . . You Wouldn't Say "Wouldn't"?

English is so weird. Ever notice that? I mean, I love the language--ask anyone. I take such great joy from the intricacies and foibles of mechanics and syntax that my critique partners fondly refer to me as the Grammar Nazi. (At least, I assume it's fondly . . . ;-)

One of the things I love about English is our ability to affect the formality of our speech by using contractions. So far as I can tell, we've been so pretty much since English became English. So if you're writing a historical novel, contract away! Fear them not! Shakespeare did it, so you can too.

Other languages, though, don't often do this. They elide, but only when two vowels would otherwise be side by side, making pronunciation difficult. That's never optional--it's just done. So how, you gotta wonder, do speakers of other languages adjust formality?

I discovered the answer to this when I was writing my Biblical fiction, A Stray Drop of Blood. (See, historical. I'm getting around to it, I promise!) Since my characters would have been speaking Ancient Greek, which I happen to have studied for two years (yes, I'm a nerd--but a COOL one!), I wanted to reflect the beauty of that language with my English. Talk about a challenge!

In Greek, word order doesn't matter a whit for the most part. It's all about the endings of words and the words themselves. Obviously, I can't do that in English. But what I can do is arrange my words, choose my words, in a way that forces me to convey my meaning in a Greek way. I chose to do this by using NO contractions in my novel. Definitely a challenge. It's not the kind of thing anyone notices until I tell them, but it sets a mood, paints a picture of the place and time. I'm having a lot of fun rereading the original and seeing how I pulled this off. I'm still remarkably pleased with the results (to toot my own horn;-)

Of course, the writing of it was sometimes comical. I had to get into a Greek Zone. I'd edit my own thoughts when writing. You know, like, "He said he'd--no he would--go." But then I'd forget to leave that zone and would try to edit thoughts for regular conversation too. I'd be sitting in class, trying to formulate an answer to the conversation, and think, "He'd--no, he would--no, HE'D!" My friends all thought this very amusing.

I'm really enjoying getting back into the Greek Zone as I'm working on this. And I hope y'all do too, because over the next little while, as I gear up for the release of the new and improved paperback A Stray Drop of Blood, I'm going to be sharing all the fun stuff about Ancient Jerusalem and Rome.

So slip into a comfy tunic, grab your favorite stola (you married women out there), find a scroll and a handy quill, and settle in. It's gonna be fun!


  1. I'm a married woman! What's a stola?

  2. My Johnny/Philosphy PhD roommate asked me where you got the idea not to contract. He seems to think that Greek did have contractions. Especially Homeric Greek (in order to fit into the rhyme scheme), but also in Attic Greek (where it followed a "highly structured" format, his words). I have lost most, if not all, my Greek so I can't really weigh in here, but I am curious about these two conflicting claims.


  3. Could it be that Greek only contracted where there were vowels next to each other as you mentioned? I have to look into this.


  4. LOL, Kimberly, if anyone could argue with me, it would be Michael! I'm going off my memory of studies our first two years, and I was paying attention. I'm sure they occasionally shorten words for rhyme scheme--much like our o'er, ne'er, etc., but I wouldn't consider them informal-izing contractions. (Nice word, eh?) Not like don't, won't, isn't, etc., which we can choose to do or not at will in casual conversation.

    And Stephanie--for stola, think toga for women, only more manageable, and only worn by married women as a marker of their marital status.