Monday 2 June 2014

Articles on Language


By Mistress Mistress AElflaed of Duckford

Just as a zipper can ruin otherwise acceptable garb, and velcro on armor is serviceable but grating, a modern word or phrase can spoil a great speech or scroll text. Each word has a history, some are period and some aren't, and it's worth at least being aware that we have options. It's not as hard as you might think to bend your language use in a more period direction.

Everyday Language Use for the SCA

Just as a zipper can ruin otherwise acceptable garb, and velcro on armor is serviceable but grating, a modern word or phrase can spoil a great speech or scroll text. Each word has a history, some are period and some aren't, and it's worth at least being aware that we have options. It's not as hard as you might think to bend your language use in a more period direction. Consider these examples:

If you would like to request that people be quiet, you have some choices. Consider the tone and level of usage (formal/informal, respectful/insulting, etc.) which is appropriate to the situation. Read these and see what you think of each:

Shut up
Excuse me, but shut up.
Be quiet
I pray you, be quiet.
Hush (or hush up)
Hust ye
Be still
Peace; be still.
Keep silence
Pray, silence.
List now
List to hear [whatever]

If you're a herald, how about "Their Majesties demand silence" or "Keep peace in this hall." "Pray attend" is overused and it would be nice to use different phrases different times. Some of these shouldn't be used, because they're too rude or too archaic. Somewhere betwixt too rude and too modern and too archaic are some great, underused phrases.

Here are various bits of trivia for your consideration.

"Bear them hence" (Henry V says, of the traitors). It means literally carry them away from here. We would say "Take them away" or "Get them out."

"Thank you" as a parting is lame. At least address the phrase, as "I thank your Majesty," or "Your Excellency has my thanks," or "My Lord, I thank you."

For the end of a formal discussion, try "You have our leave to depart" (if you're important) or "By your leave," if you're the lower-ranking party. The "leave" in these phrases is "let"-permission.

"Good bye" - do you know what it means? "God be with you."

"Fare well" means "Have a nice [however long]." It can also mean "Have a nice trip."

"Come here" is what is used commonly in the 20th century - try replacing it with
  • If you please. . .(with a beckoning motion or encouraging look)
  • If it please you.
  • If it please you, my lord, a word [which is short for "I would have a word with you"] 
  • May I have a word with you? [. . . with Your Excellency?] 
  • My lady, attend me 
  • My lord, if you will attend me. 
  • I crave your attention 
  • A moment, your lordship

Ranking people shouldn't have to say much to get someone to come closer. The concept of being at someone's "beck and call" means close enough that a gesture (beck) or call will get them there in a jiffy (or, more likely, in the nonce, meaning "in an instance")

They can't come quick, because "quick" meant "alive" in period, not fast (besides, even now teachers will tell you to use "quickly."). If someone said "quickly" it meant "lively," which can also be used in terms of speed, as in "step lively." Fast meant stuck, constant, or fixed. Supper was "fixed" when it was put on the table. (In the southern U.S. people still "fix supper" even though it's not broken.)

"Fix" meaning "to make favorable to one's purposes," is late 19th century and thoroughly American. If someone says a tournament or contest was "fixed," it's a very modern usage.
"Thank you" is just okay, but it stands for more. To say "I thank you" is better but still weak. If you really want to show that you "thank" someone (rather than say you thank them), you might want to say other real words, like "bringing this gift was a gracious act of kindness" or "without your work this tournament might not have succeeded." Just to say "thank you" is like saying "greeting." It's better to say "My thanks go to you," or "Our thanks are with you." Thanks is a form of "think/thought" that goes back to Old English, and it has to do with grateful thoughts. "I thank you" means "I think nice thoughts of you." "You have my thanks" is good. "Thankful" is really good, and very old. "We are thankful for your work" and "We are thankful that you have come here" are great.

"Greetings" is no greeting. "Good morning" is a greeting. "I hope you are well" is a greeting. "Welcome," "Your Majesty" [and a bow], "Well met!"-those are greetings. In letters, greetings are expressions of wishes for health, happiness, good fortune, all that. When we write "greetings" at the beginning of a letter, it's actually sort of obnoxious-it means "here's where a greeting would go if I had one." But if you say "Lord A doth greet Lady B," and then you go on to greet somehow (even "Good wishes to you") then you have greeted and that's good.

Many good phrases can be gotten from reading Victorian novels, or their versions of classic tales and legends. The Victorians were 1) picky about language details and 2) nuts about the Middle Ages. Be careful, though, to check some of these words before you imbed them forever in your kingdom's traditions. I'm thinking in particular of "chivalric," a very Victorian word meaning having to do with the entire idea of chivalry. It's not a medieval word, according to The Oxford English Dictionary. If you've read this far and don't own one of those or know right where it is at the library, feel free to write me to find out what the going rate is to get one as an introductory offer for joining the Book-of-the-Month Club. For what used to be $19 in the late '70's and in mid-1990 was up to $32 (plus shipping) you could get one, and then have to buy three books over some couple or three years. It's worth it. You can document foods and prove heraldic points sometimes, just by looking up certain words. You can look up names of armor parts and learn fascinating bits of stuff. It's a blast for those interested in historical trivia, and you know you're one of them. If you have one and you haven't used it lately, go in there and flip pages. Look up the word that's closest to where your middle name would be - just look. If you find something neat, send me a postcard!

Don't be afraid to read period or near-period works. The King James Bible is a good start. It has simpler, more everyday phrases than Shakespeare, and smaller bits can be taken in at a time. (A related article will be found elsewhere in this section.) If you'd like to read Shakespeare but find it difficult, I recommend getting a videotape of a play you like, and read along in the book. Have a remote control handy, and if they skip a part stop the tape to see what they left out (and see if you can figure out why). If you read enough period material, before you realize it you'll develop a feel for the odd pronouns and phrases, and begin to know instinctively what's right and what's not.

Back to the subject: Speaking in public is not my forte, but I'm a pretty good speechwriter. If you've seen me in public and think that I don't practice what I preach, it's that I'm not usually able. My nervousness expresses itself in humor and goofiness. Me, a piece of paper and a person who isa good speaker make a great team. If you do no more with all this than to write one great letter of recommendation someday, or say one thing better while making an announcement in court, that will be enough. On the other hand, this may inspire you to spruce up a coronation ceremony and dazzle the multitudes. You know English well enough to read this far - it's your language. Go for it.

Reading the Bible Without Fear of Religion

A good way to learn about Renaissance English is to read it. The two most available sources are the works of Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible. Of those two, the Bible is the easier to read and is closer to everyday speech and writing of the period.

You can't learn to use the phrases and vocabulary of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries until you have a feel for how they do and do not fit together. You can use the "thee"s and "thou"s without the pain of conjugation and memorization by reading them until they sound natural.

Here are some interesting passages that can be read painlessly and without fear of religious effect. The first number is the chapter, and the second is the verse. There will probably be a list of the books in order in the beginning of the Bible.

For a little more serious reading, try Genesis 27, the entire chapter. It's the story of Jacob and Esau - disguise and intrigue. The chapters following that are good, too (including the mandrake story recommended above, and a genetics lesson).

If you read a more modern version of the Bible you won't get the effect we're after. Language like "And the King said unto Haman, The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee" will be changed to "'Keep the money,' the king said to Haman, 'and do with the people as you please.'" (Esther 3:11, chosen at random, first King James and then New International)

I don't recommend using "seemeth" in everyday speech, but the word order can be used with our own verbs and pronouns. "Do with this as seems good to you" sounds more formal and exotic than "Do whatever you want to do with it." "If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my petition, and to perform my request, let the king and Haman come to the banquet that I shall prepare for them, and I will do tomorrow as the king hath said. Then went Haman forth that day joyful and with a glad heart. . ." See? Even the verses that don't say anything weighty and wonderful can be pretty. If you don't own a King James Bible, check a thrift store, used book store, or ask an older protestant friend of yours if you can borrow one or have an extra. The library may have one you can check out. Regular bookstores probably have them, and most religious supply houses will have. Don't steal one from a motel room if you can help it.


Quiz: Which of the following constructions is the most ridiculous?

  • Professor Mrs. Simons
  • Mr. Doctor Benjamin Spock
  • Dr. Mr. Seuss
  • Princess Lady Diana
  • Mr. Lord Jim
  • Mr. Sir Alec Guiness
  • Mr. Senator Gary Hart
  • Queen Madame Elizabeth
  • King Sir Arthur Pendragonson
  • Prince Sir Thorndike
  • Count Sir Billy-Bob
  • Princess Mistress Ravina
  • Mistress Lady Maria
  • Baron Sir Anything

Answer: They are all equally ridiculous.

I know German uses "Herr Doktor Professor" and that current Britain uses "Captain Sir" in the military. Any more exceptions to declare? They're not applicable to the period and language we're using. In English (which is the language of the Society) before 1600 (which is the period we're studying) I don't know of any double titles being used. If anyone does know of any, please write to me and show me documentation. (I will not consider "Duke Sir Master Horatio says so" as convincing documentation.)

Use the highest title you know unless a person requests otherwise. If a Viscount prefers "Sir" or a Countess prefers "Mistress" that's fine. A way you can manage to indicate both on occasion is to introduce a person as "His Excellency, Sir Rodrigo" or "His Grace, Sir Rolf." If you're addressing someone to his face you should just use the address form rather than the title anyway. To get someone's attention it's better to say "Your Grace" than "Duke Archie."

(There is a bit more on this in the section on heraldry.)

Names of People and Places in the SCA

When you're choosing a name for yourself or for a new group the usual considerations are making it unique and making it impressive. I think the first consideration should be making it sound like a period name, but often that's an afterthought - an irritation when trying to justify your choice for registration with the College of Arms. It would be better in terms of time spent and final affect if people looked to choosing a period name which is unique and impressive. That way names are passed by the heralds in the absolute minimum amount of time, other groups and individuals are inspired to choose better names for themselves when the time comes, and the atmosphere of our activities is improved.

One of my favorite SCA placenames ever is "Seashire." Maybe that group is a barony now, or defunct, but it was a simple, elegant, realistic name. If Seashire became a barony it could do what the English x-shires did if they "became" counties - nothing. They can do what Pietown, New Mexico will do if it ever becomes a city - nothing. There's York and there's Yorkshire. There's New York and there's the other New York. They are differentiated when necessary (New York City, the State of New York), but the state and city are both "New York." Oklahoma has Oklahoma City. Atenveldt has the Barony of Atenveldt (which is just called "Atenveldt" locally, when it's clear that the barony is meant and not the kingdom).

If Seashire had been called "The Shire of the Sea" it would not have been a good name. "The Shire of Sea" and "The Shire of Seashire" are neither one to be even momentarily considered. I think Seashire's a canton anyway and that doesn't matter a bit.

I don't want to name names, but some of the names of SCA groups are stupid. They're embarrassing. They don't sound like the names of places anywhere on this planet, now or in the past. There's no excuse for people not to know what does or doesn't sound like a place name, since we're surrounded by them all the time. Unfortunately, there's a tendency in the Society for people to look to SCA sources for models, rather than mundane sources. You may have noticed that people in a certain area will have similar armor and costumes, for good or ill. A really great and perfect method of constructing a helm or a 15th century German costume will be copied by other people in the area. Sometimes a really ludicrous shield or costume will be copied, too. With place names, sometimes a pattern gets going in a kingdom and three or four or ten groups pick it up. It would seem that some of these people have no better patterns to follow.

I recommend reading an atlas. The names of towns in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland would be good to read, but perhaps easier to find and just as fun are the towns of the eastern U.S. and Canada, many having been settled in the 17th Century. If you don't want an English name for your group, you might read French or Spanish town names, or whatever language you're after. The thing I've seen in the Society I like the very very least is for someone to take a name that sounds like something out of "Masters of the Universe," use it a while, and then translate it (sort of) into what someone told them was Middle English, or Gaelic, or something else unpronounceable and unrecognizable. There was probably no period or place in history where people purposely named their places anything which the inhabitants couldn't pronounce or understand.

Personal names are absolutely more personal. If an individual wants to have an unpronounceable name, it's his or her own business. If an individual wants to have an unpronounceable name and then expect every herald to magically deduce it and every chronicler to unfailingly spell it, this is about like putting a chip on your shoulder and then knocking it off yourself. If your name is odd or foreign, you must graciously live with the inconvenience and you should be the one to apologize if a herald mispronounces it.

Various Problems of the Olden Days
The following letter was distributed to nearly 100 people (quite a few in those days) in a fit of frustration. It did some good, for a while. There are nearly 20,000 people in the Society now, though, and I'm putting it out once more. The original was dated April 16, 1981.

Mistress AElflaed of Duckford sends fair greetings To Whom it may Concern (and it ultimately concerns us all):

I had planned to wait and write a fancy knock-'em-dead formal letter but this'll have to do; I can wait no longer. I'll get right to the point: A person is not an officer to a group. A king is not king to a country. This nasty usage is creeping into print more and more and has lately been even inTournaments Illuminated, whence it could spread throughout the kingdoms, carried by those who trust all they see in print.

Is Mr. Reagan President to the United States? [1] Is Elizabeth Queen to England? No. The preposition should be "of." Since we're using a perfectly good language we might as well use it correctly.

Prime Minister to Canada
Prime Minister for Canada
Prime Minister of Canada
Secretary to State
Secretary for State
Secretary of State
Governor to New Mexico
Governor for New Mexico
Governor of New Mexico
Seneschal to Ansteorra
Seneschal for Ansteorra
Seneschal of Ansteorra

To be fair to the word "to" here, there is a way in which "Seneschal to ..." might be used properly." "He serves as seneschal to the king" as someone could be "secretary to the president" or "in service to the Crown." "In the service of the Crown" is still better. I am Seneschal of Atenveldt [2] and I could say I'm Their Majesties' seneschal, seneschal in service to Their Majesties, or Seneschal to Their Majesties, but the last can be avoided.
"Creative" can go too far. We do have to create and repair our anachronistic culture bit by bit but the English language has already been through the Middle Ages and all the forms we need have been established.

While I still have an audience I may as well throw in two more items of a similar nature:
  • knight marshal
  • lord marshal
  • earl marshal
  • field marshal
  • provost marshal
  • parade marshal

All these are marshals. In each case "marshal" is the noun and the preceeding word is the adjective. The plural of "knight marshal" is "knight marshals"; "knights marshal" as a singular or a plural just doesn't make sense. I think part of the confusion comes from the fact that the plural of "court martial" is "courts martial." The great difference is that "court" is the noun and "martial" is the adjective.

Two further points:

A knight marshal doesn't have to be a knight and an earl marshal doesn't have to be an earl. If it's really too confusing for everyday SCA use, perhaps we should just call them all marshals.

The modern spelling (meaning the most accepted spelling for the last few hundred years) is "marshal." Historical spellings included marescal, mareschal, maresshall, mareschaul, mareshall, mershall, marschaele, and a dozen others.

My last crusade is for the word "lists." The "lists" (and the noun is plural but can take singular or plural verbs) at a tournament refers to the fighting field. The particular verb "to list," from whence comes this noun, means to enclose or to shut in, as with rails, or to put a border around. When the Lists Mistress or Mistress of the Lists (please note the plural) writes your name down you're entering the tournament or signing up for the lists. When you walk onto the field you enter the lists.

So with this I claim the linguistic field, declare myself King-of-the-Syntactic-Mountain, and invite any comers to disprove my claims by honorable research. I further call on all officers and chronicler to cease these foul abuses unless and until my information may be proven wrong by some better scholar.

I am at your service, 

(and it was signed)

P.S. If you don't believe me, check a good dictionary ("good" meaning, of course, one that will back me up). I used the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's. American Heritage had no opinion one way or another, the matters being not American enough, I suppose.

Ten years later, there being no dispute, I consider to have won that battle, but I didn't pass it out as a flyer at the door to all the thousands of people who came later. I occasionally see a spurt of misuse still, especially in the confusion between the list of names on the sign up sheet and the lists/field. [3]

[1] I'm just going to leave that in for historical amusement. The first time I ever heard anyone talk about the SCA, the introduction to the talk went "Unbeknownst to President Nixon, the United States has been divided into four kingdoms." That's a funny memory; I like it.

[2] Remember we're in ancient history here - early Reagan days.

[3] Many in the Society call the lists "the Eric," some with the mistaken belief that is is a period term of some sort. It's a West Kingdom name for a red cloth field marker they had years ago which they called "Eric the Red." Countess Bevin Fraser of Stirling taught me that, and I understand from others that it is so. Twenty years from now if I read a historical novel that talks of knights entering the eric, I will know absolutely that the author (or his mom and dad) was in the SCA.

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