16 October 2014

Wut Werkz and Wut Duzn't in Historrikuhl Fikshunn, Part Deyuh

by Brian Thornton

We'll begin today's post with a quotation within a quotation, and end it by posing a conundrum for the reader. 

First the quote within the quote. The initial one comes from The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk's magisterial history of the Anglo-Russian struggle for control of Central Asia (and by extension, both India and all trade routes to the Far East). Within that quotation lies a telling quotation from the recollections of one of the so-called "Great Game's" most colorful players, a British army officer and diplomat named Alexander "Bokhara" Burnes:

Finally in August 1831, laden with gifts and compliments, Burnes and his companions crossed back into British territory, making for Ludhiana, the [British East India] Company's most forward garrison town in north-west India. There Burnes met briefly a man whose fate was to be closely bound with his own - Shah Shujah, the exiled Afghan ruler, who dreamed of regaining his lost throne by toppling its present occupant, the redoubtable Dost Mohammed. Burnes was not impressed by this melancholy-looking man who was already turning to fat. 'From what I learn,' he noted, 'I do not believe that the Shah possesses sufficient energy to set himself on the throne of Cabool.' Nor, Burnes felt, did he appear to have the personal qualities or political acumen to reunite so turbulent a nation as the Afghans. 

It almost goes without saying that not much has changed in or about Afghanistan over the 183 years since "Bokhara" Burnes wrote the bit quoted by Hopkirk above (Brutal terrain? Check. Unruly tribes with nearly no attachment to the central government? Check. Hostility to outside influences? Check. The list goes on...).

And yet so many things actually have.

"Hindoostan" and Environs - 1830s
Not least the fact that, as a result of events from 9/11 onward, most Americans have actually heard of Afghanistan and might even be able to find it on a map.
The same region today

Another thing that has changed is the cessation of the at times unintentional Occidental practice of  transforming proper names and other nouns into sometimes wholly other words, or at the very least, of mangling them so badly in translation as to render them nearly unrecognizable.

Not THIS Burns (Scottish poet Robert)
Take Burnes' reference above to "Cabool." Anyone who knows anything about the region (or hasn't been living under a rock for the past 13 years) is likely quick to realize that Burnes was, of course referring to modern-day "Kabul," the capital of Afghanistan. You see this all over the place, especially during the 19th century, and particularly when reading historical accounts written by British soldiers, sailors, explorers, scholars, etc.

At times seems as if this is nothing more than an extension of the old joke about English gentlemen being fluent in any number of languages, so long as it's understood that they'll speak them s-l-o-w-l-y and with an impenetrable English accent.

For example, at the mouth of the great Indus River that drains all of Pakistan, a large chunk of
THIS Burnes (actually a distant cousin, despite the difference in spelling)
Central Asia and a significant amount of Northwestern India sits a port city called Karachi. I have seen this spelled a variety of ways, including "Kurachee," "Carratchee," and "Kharatchee."

And then there's "Hindoo" (Hindu), "Hindoostan" (Hindustan), "Peking" (Beijing), and a host of other place-names. The British take on the world they set out to colonize and "make English" through the administration of British laws and forcing British customs on the locals seems to be forever misspelled, especially from a modern perspective.

Now, of course this sort of thing isn't really limited to the British. It's just fun pointing out a few choice examples from Britain's storied imperial past.

In fact to do this is to be human.

Remember these guys...
Everyone does it. Corrupting and breaking down and reshaping words is part of what keeps languages "living." Seen the capital city of Turkey referred to as "Nova Roma" ("New Rome") as anything other than a term of art lately? That's the name the Roman emperor Constantine the Great gave the city when he founded it during the 4th century A.D. Or when was the last time that anyone other than indie rock jingle writers They Might Be Giants referred to this self-same city by it's later Greek name of  "Constantinople"?

...who did this song?
(And now you've got it running through your head, admit it..."...If you've a date in Constantinople, she'll be waiting in Istanbul!")

In fact the modern name "Istanbul" comes from an old Greek nick-name for the city: "eis tēn polin" ("into the city").

Confused yet?

Anyway, for me where it gets really sticky is when you're trying to write fiction. And not just fiction, but historical fiction about places with history such as these.

Allow me to refer yet again to Hopkirk's example above. Elsewhere in his book (and if you've not read it, you really owe it to yourself to give it a look. "Compelling" doesn't even begin to describe it.) he refers to the chief city of the Afghans as "Kabul," using the modern, accepted spelling.

But of course when quoting from an historical source it is of the utmost importance to preserve the text in its original form if at all possible. This is why actual misspellings tend to be quoted whole cloth (followed by a helpful "sic").

But what to do when writing, not history, but historical fiction?

Of course it really depends upon which person you're writing in. So much historical fiction these days is written in the form of a supposed first person memoir. This is especially true of historical mystery fiction.

If you're writing in the first person, you're golden. You can use any weird-ass, archaic derivation of one of the places you're discussing that pleases you. In fact if anything it's going to help establish your narrator as a product of the time about which they're (really you're) writing.


(Aaaaand here's the question with which we're going to end today's post)

What if you're writing a third person multiple point of view story?

What then?

Case in point: as part of my current novel-in-progress, I have my protagonist talk about a visit to the Fiji Islands during the year 1840.

Fijian (Feejeean? Feegeean?) Club Dance, as witnessed  by members of the United States Exploring Expedition, 18

During this time period the word, "Fiji", had nearly as many old misspellings as "Karachi" (see above).

Note the spelling in the map's title (Upper left corner).

Think about it. As I mentioned in my last post, a good cardinal rule of historical fiction writing (and of fiction writing in general) that you don't want to put anything into your work that will jar the reader out of the story. Scare? Sure. Frazzle? Absolutely.

But if you knock your reader out of the story, they may just give up on it.

So how about it? If I have my protagonist talking about his cruise through Fiji, should it read: "I sailed the Fijis?"
A view of Fiji (Feejee? Feegee?) in 1840

Or should it read: "I sailed the Feejees"?

Or: "I sailed the Feegees"?

See the problem? He's not writing it down. He's talking about it.

Maybe not that big a deal for some, but I have heard many readers complain about just exactly this sort of thing.

What works for you, Dear Readers? Which option is least likely to take the reader out of the narrative, and why?



  1. Personally, I think if it's 3rd person POV, and a character is speaking, then you use the "official" spelling. But if it's 1st person POV, then any way that narrator chooses to spell anything at all.

    By the way, I use Constantinople all the time. My grandfather, a Zorba clone, was born in the city he refused to ever, ever, ever call Istanbul: yes, Constantinople. He told me stories as a child about the siege of Constantinople that were so vivid I assumed he'd lived through them. Took me a couple of decades to realize he was telling stories handed down from 1453. Memories are long in that part of the world...

  2. Oh Eve! What a great story about your grandfather! It's not nearly as amazing, but a similar thing happened when we moved to South Carolina when my son was in the first grade. He came home one day and asked, "Are we on the side of the blue or the grey?" I said, "You mean ... like in the Civil War?" He said, "Yes. Did we lose or did we wiin? Which side are we?" And I said, "We are not either side. That was a very long time ago. Your great-great-great grandfathers would have said they were on sides and that they lost and won. But that doesn't apply to us." His mouth dropped open and he gasped. "Wow! The way the teacher and the kids talked, I thought it was when I was a little kid!" (Which I thought was kind of cute since he was barely 6. :-)

  3. I still haven't gotten over that Bangkok isn't Bangkok.

    I used to real a lot of Edwardian and Victorian literature, and it's not only place names that vary. It seems some mystery authors still offered the reader clews.

  4. Leigh: Or wrote about how their characters stepped right out of gaol and out onto the kerb straightaway after writing a large cheque to make bail.

  5. A fantastic subject, and superbly difficult problem. Thanks for such a terrific post! I’ve found transliteration an interesting conundrum, ever since my Russian prof — back when I was 19 — explained that linguistic experts had once determined that the English letter “h” translated most properly into Russian as the Russian letter that actually equates with the English “g”. Hence, Harry Hopkins became “Gary Gopkins” for many a Russian, though their language has a letter that sounds much closer (sort of an “hx” or “hch” sound—roughly as if one is preparing to “hock a loogie”).

    When I studied Arabic, which has THREE “h” sounds, my interest deepened. And, in Ghana, West Africa, I was fascinated to see English signs written phonetically, and not necessarily uniformly. Signs around the hospital in the capital city, requesting people to be quiet, often requested that one be “quayat,” “quite”, “kwiyat”, etc. Adding to this confusion, the small town outside the Jungle Warfare School where I worked was named Akim Achiaze (Akim meaning “town” or “village” in Twree, the language spoken natively there), but its pronunciation differed greatly, depending on which village one had grown up in. An outsider who visited only one village in Ghana, might be likely to spell it Akim Achaazee, Akim Aki-ahzi, etc., though the folks who lived there pronounced it “Ah-keem Ah-chee-a-zay”.

    A story I sold to an anthology, concerning a fictional top secret US program to counter piracy off the Somali coast, had several pirates speaking. Deciding how to handle what they said took me weeks: finding a transliteration of the words and/or phrases I wanted, locating a “talking dictionary” so I could hear enough of those words spoken to better-determine what speech sounds the transliteration was attempting to describe, and finally converting all into a sort of gestalt of phonetic spelling that I felt lent the reader a true chance of gleaning the speech patterns of the characters involved. All highly questionable in the end! LOL (Though it worked well enough to get the sale.)


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