The Fell Gard Codices

Limited Synonyms

November 8th, 2012

I’ve been noting here a number of the changes I’ve made on the story so far, but there’s an edit (or set of edits) I thought about making that in the end I chose not to go with. I want to talk about it a bit because it has to do with the language of the story and how far I’m willing to go to get the tone right — or, more precisely, what I think the right tone is.

In general, when I can I like being able to use words in Fell Gard that entered English no later than, say, 1300. Maybe a bit later. At any rate, while I can’t avoid words dating from the Renaissance onward, I think I get a specific tone in the story by filling it with words that fit the period. I think the language tends to establish character: these people use these words because they’re natural to them; this is how they think.

Now, that varies by culture. The characters from Edu use one set of words. Characters from the dungeon another. Ulixa uses a couple of words (like ‘human’) that the other characters don’t. Nonhumans use others, words like ‘stalactite,’ for example. Ideally these things aren’t really noticeable; I’m hoping it’ll work subliminally, helping to build somewhat appropriate-sounding voices for the characters.

It’s all well and good until you run into problems from an overly-limited vocabulary. For example: Dungeons like Fell Gard didn’t really exist as such in the Middle Ages (leaving out oddities like catacombs and natural cave complexes and such). And the architecture of the time hadn’t developed all the different features we take for granted today. Specifically, corridors were pretty rare.

So the etymology reference site I’m using tells me that ‘corridor’ entered English in the 1590s, referring to fortifications, and only began to be used for long hallways in the early 19th century. ‘Hallway’ itself came in late in the 19th century, derived from ‘hall.’ ‘Hall’ is a great old word that goes back to Old English, but didn’t mean ‘long narrow space connecting rooms,’ which is what I’m after — it actually seems to derive from a word meaning hide or conceal, and referred to ‘a place covered by a roof.’ In the Middle Ages the Great Hall of a castle was its main room. ‘Passage’ more-or-less works; it goes back to the early 13th century, referring to a road, then became used for corridors in a building in the early 17th century. But that’s one word, and given how often I’m talking about corridors in the dungeon, I really need more than one word for the things or else risk some awkward repetition.

I could, perhaps, use words that have since faded from use. Or changed meanings. ‘Alley,’ for example, back in the 14th century seems to have meant ‘passage in a house.’ But that, I felt, would be confusing and needlessly distracting. Ultimately, this was a question of tone, and what trade-offs I would make, between things like ‘smooth reading experience’ and ‘historical vocabulary.’

I decided to keep ‘hall’ and ‘hallway,’ but avoided ‘corridor’ for most of the characters. My thinking was that I could imagine a scenario where ‘hall’ would be applied to corridors — this is a world that has rather more built and roofed corridors than in Medieval Europe. It was also possible to imagine a scenario where ‘corridor’ entered Wican, the Grey Kings’ language (at some point in the story we’ll learn a bit about the influence of various forces human and inhuman on language and culture), but it seemed to me to be better to work with a word that was in use in the Middle Ages rather than add a later word.

Anyway, that was my call. I mention it here only to give a sense of the various issues on my mind about word-use, and the back-and-forth I go through to get things that make sense to me. If, maybe, to nobody else.

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