Linguistic Anachronism

Are there pugs in Westeros?

You may already know that ASOIAF draws inspiration from the War of the Roses, which occurred in England during the middle of the 15th century. What if Martin took inspiration from that era’s language as well as its wars?At the outbreak of the War of the Roses, the printing press was newer to them than DVDs are to us today.

Let’s take a look at a text from that period. In 1485, Le Morte D’Arthur was published. We can consider this a grandfather to ASOIAF, since it inspired T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which inspired ASOIAF in turn.

If you have enjoyed my own fantasy novels, you owe it to yourself to read […] T.H. White.

Le Morte D’Arthur is quite strange to modern eyes. This excerpt is brought to you by the letter Y:

Terrabyl / So his wyf Dame Igrayne he putte in the castell of Tyntagil / And hym self he putte in the castel of Terrabyl the whiche had many yssues and posternes oute / Thenne in alle haste came Vther with a grete hoost / and leyd a syege aboute the castel of Terrabil / And ther he pyght many pauelyons / and there was grete warre made on bothe partyes / and moche peple slayne / Thenne for pure angre and for grete loue of fayr Irayne the kyng Vther felle seke / So came to the kynge Vther Syre Vlfius a noble knyght / and asked the kynge why he was seke / I shall telle the said the kynge / I am seke for angre and for loue of fayre Igrayne that I may not be hool / wel my lord said Syre Vlfius / I shal seke Merlyn […]

Obviously Penguin wouldn’t pull that off the slush pile in 2015. At the same time, it’s appealingly archaic. Language is a technology, too, and when you write fantasy you want your language to feel contemporary to the crossbows and drawbridges. There are tradeoffs, though; if you want to drive an antique car, you better be willing to sacrifice horsepower for style. Look again at that Morte d’Arthur quote. It doesn’t feel old just because of the orthography. There’s a different psychology at play. Not many fantasists are willing to embrace that. We want the horses, swords, castles, and latter-day psychology – it’s all a metaphor for our society anyway. Gene Wolfe and Cormac McCarthy do present alien voices, and the effect is exactly that. Most fantasists settle for a few linguistic relics to give a historical veneer. (Or opt for a formal diction that isn’t specific to any particular period, but still feels old because we certainly don’t talk that way now.) Martin has a few of these, like the much-teased “must needs”. There’s also “soon or late”, “pretend to surprise”, and “near as” for “nearly as”.

It’s not a crazy strategy. Worldbuilding aficionados overemphasize week one of the Almighty’s to-do list. Lift up the mountains, pour out the oceans, loose the fish of the water and set flying the birds of the air, sure, that stuff has to be there: but you can get away with less than you think. What we need to do is build cultures, not worlds. And before anything else, culture is a language, a voice. Nailing that down is what’s going to make the reader feel like they’re dealing with a native rather than a tourist. It matters if characters are called sir or sire, or if you narrator can use a word like notwithstanding. It matters what kind of trees you name, what sort of animals. I ask again: are there pugs in Westeros?

Tyrion had no doubt that Dancy would be a lively handful. She was pug-nosed and bouncy, with freckles and a mane of thick red hair that tumbled down past her waist.

She was older than he’d thought at first, Jon realized; maybe as old as twenty, but short for her age, bandy-legged, with a round face, small hands, and a pug nose.

There was ice under the big man’s squashed pug nose, where his snot had frozen.

What about longshoremen?

Arya could not read the name painted on the hull; the words were strange, Myrish, Braavosi, perhaps even High Valyrian. She grabbed a passing longshoreman by the sleeve. “Please,” she said, “what ship is this?”

Every word you pass is a marked bill. They all have histories, some much shorter than you’d think. Longshoreman came into English in 1811, according to Something as basic and stolidly named as a blueberry debuted in the 18th century, since it’s native to North America. (Blueberry still being available in the 18th century is like being an unclaimed domain name in 2015.)

Condone is latinate, but it took hold in English thanks to the Matrimonial Causes Act, an 1857 piece of legislation having to do with divorce.

A word like yen, which probably sounds old-timey because it looks like the ancient word ken, is in fact about a hundred years old, and probably borrowed from a Chinese dialect. As Etymonline has it:

“sharp desire, hunger,” 1906, earlier yen-yen (1900), yin (1876) “intense craving for opium,” from Chinese (Cantonese) yan “craving,” or from a Beijing dialect word for “smoke.” Reinforced in English by influence of yearn.

How about burp? Only a few decades older than Martin.

Readers don’t generally think about this until you get into an extreme case, like when Martin mentions snarks. (The snark is a fanciful monster invented by Lewis Carroll, and by using it in the exact same context, Martin shows you the seams of his work.)

In practice, this is something we rarely have to worry about. When you’re interacting with little kids, you automatically clean up your act. Same thing happens while writing. All the other narrators you’ve read and internalized now shape your expression. Which is wonderful, of course… up to a point, of course. Even a very young author has a rough sense of what a fantasy novel sounds like, and can approach a decent output pretty quickly. But there are limitations on this generic fantastic voice. It isn’t very funny, it gives easy credence to ideas of heroes and villains, and it has this noxious sense of fatedness. (Is it an accident that ASOIAF zags on almost all these issues?)

I have to imagine this is another legacy of Le Morte D’Arthur. These seminal works lay out the themes that will persist in the genre for centuries to come, but because of the limitations of literary technology at the time, future writers also receive an impoverished psychological gamut.

We’ve gone too long without a chart. Here are some words in ASOIAF that surprised me, for being obviously or surprisingly modern.

Word Date Information
butthole 1950 also butt-hole, “anus,” 1950s slang, from butt (n.1) + hole (n.). Earlier it meant “blind hole; cul-de-sac” (early 20c).
burp 1932 1932, noun and verb, American English, apparently imitative. The transitive sense of the verb is first recorded 1940. Related: Burped; burping. Burp gun attested from 1945.
blah 1918 “idle, meaningless talk,” 1918, probably echoic; the adjective meaning “bland, dull” is from 1919, perhaps influenced by French blasé “bored, indifferent.” The blahs “depression” is attested by 1966.
smidge 1902 short form of smidgen, 1902, American English dialect.
glob 1900 1900, perhaps suggested by blob, gob, etc. Also compare glop.
rubbery 1890 1890, from rubber (n.) + -y (2). Related: Rubberiness.
pidgin 1876 1876, from pigeon English (1859), the reduced form of the language used in China for communication with Europeans, from pigeon (1826), itself a pidgin word, representing a Chinese pronunciation of business. Meaning extended 1891 to “any simplified language.”
chortle 1872 coined 1872 by Lewis Carroll in “Through the Looking Glass,” perhaps from chuckle and snort. Related: Chortled; chortling. As a noun, from 1903.
magenta 1860 1860, in honor of the Battle of Magenta in Italy, where the French and Sardinians defeated the Austrians in 1859, which advanced the cause of Italian independence and fired the imagination of European liberals. The brilliant crimson aniline dye was discovered shortly after the battle. The town’s name traces back to Roman general and emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius (d.312), who supposedly had a headquarters here.
floppy 1858 1858, “inclined to flop” [OED], from flop + -y (2). Floppy disc attested from 1972 (short form floppy by 1974).
twisty 1857 1857, “full of windings,” from twist (n.) + -y (2). Meaning “attractively feminine,” 1970s slang, is from twist “girl” (1928), apparently from rhyming slang twist and twirl (1924).
waterfront 1834 also water-front, 1834, American English, from water (n.1) + front (n.). To cover the waterfront “deal with thoroughly” is attested from 1913; I Cover the Waterfront was a 1932 best-seller by San Diego newspaperman Max Miller.
scrawny 1824 1824, apparently a dialectal variant of scranny “lean, thin” (1820), which is of uncertain origin but probably from a Scandinavian source, perhaps Old Norse skrælna “to shrivel.” Compare scrannel.
smashed 1819 1819, “crushed,” past participle adjective from smash (v.). Slang meaning “drunk” is from 1962.
crunch 1814 1814, from craunch (1630s), probably of imitative origin. Related: Crunched; crunching. The noun is 1836, from the verb; the sense of “critical moment” was popularized 1939 by Winston Churchill, who had used it in his 1938 biography of Marlborough.
mousy 1812 1812 with reference to quietness; 1853, of color; from mouse + -y (2).
platinum 1812 metallic element, 1812, Modern Latin, from Spanish platina “platinum,” diminutive of plata “silver,” from Old French plate or Old Provençal plata “sheet of metal” (see plate (n.)). The metal looks like silver, and the Spaniards at first thought it an inferior sort of silver, hence the name platina. It was first obtained from Spanish colonies in Mexico and Colombia, brought to Europe in 1735, and identified as an element 1741. Taken into English as platina (c. 1750), it took its modern form (with element ending -ium) in 1812, at the time the names of elements were being regularized. As a shade of blond hair, attested from 1931. As a designation for a recording that has sold at least one million copies, it is attested from 1971.
tomcat 1809 1809, from Tom + cat (n.); probably influenced by Tom the Cat in the popular children’s book “The Life and Adventures of a Cat” (1760); replaced earlier Gib-cat, from diminutive of Gilbert, though Tom was applied to male kittens c. 1300. The name also is used of the males of other beasts and birds since at least 1791 (such as tom-turkey, by 1846). Also see Tibert. The verb meaning “to pursue women promiscuously for sexual gratification” is recorded from 1927. Related: Tom-catting.
torso 1797 1797, from Italian torso “trunk of a statue,” originally “stalk, stump,” from Vulgar Latin *tursus, from Latin thyrsus “stalk, stem,” from Greek thyrsos (see thyrsus).
toddler 1793 1793, agent noun from toddle. Toddlekins is from 1839.
donkey 1785 1785, originally slang, perhaps a diminutive from dun “dull gray-brown,” the form perhaps influenced by monkey. Or possibly from a familiar form of Duncan (compare dobbin). The older English word was ass (n.1).
teamster 1776 “person who drives a team of horses” (especially in hauling freight), 1776, from team (n.) + -ster. Transferred to motor truck drivers by 1907.

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