If you are a fan of the Legendary Women of World History biographies or period dramas, you have no doubt noticed that I tend to bounce around languages a great deal, sometimes at the expense of being directly understandable in a given point in the book. So why do I do it and why will I not simply put the whole damn thing in English like normal people do?
In a word, PARALINGUISTICS. Paralinguistics is a social science term for the parts of verbal communication that are not inherent in the meaning of the words we use. Paralinguistics is the HOW of our speech: its melody, its pace, its inflection and so forth. Dialect and specific word choice is also paralinguistic. It conveys to listeners a great deal of information about a person and in particular information about gender, ethnicity, place of birth, place of residence, socio-economic class, even race sometimes. Different places have different names for the same thing.
One classic example I studied in university in my “non-verbal communication” class was the word we use to refer to a sweetened carbonated beverage. No, it is not the same word everywhere. In the southern United States, the word “coke” is used to refer to such beverages, regardless of brand (I heard this myself during my stay in Louisville, Kentucky). In many Midwestern states such as Nebraska where I was born and raised, the word is “pop.” In New England the preferred word is “soda” which is the word I default to. In fact I often very purposely avoid the word “pop,” much to the annoyance of my now late mother who complained that I “didn’t talk like a Nebraskan.” That’s because I had so thoroughly adjusted my dialect to what is normal in the greater New York City metropolitan area that I no longer sounded like someone from the Midwest.
Beyond geography, our paralinguistics tell listeners a great deal about our socio-economic status and education. A person with a third grade education talks differently than a person with a university degree. A person who has traveled a great deal also talks differently from a person who has never left her own town or village. The languages one speaks is a powerful communicator of this information and how that person is perceived. As a rule, speaking multiple languages is a mark of education, travel, and often class. It tells you very concisely who that person is and what her or his background is.
No where is this more evident than in the use of honorifics.
What is an honorific? It’s a word we use to convey respect to another person. A classic example is when we address a judge “your honour” and a member of a royal family as “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” In medieval societies it was especially important to show proper respect with these honorifics which include “your grace,” “my lord/milord,” “my lady/milady,” “my liege,” “sire,” “master,” “mistress,” and so forth.
Honorifics in the Legendary Women of World History biographies almost always follow the person’s nationality or adopted nationality. So Princess Nest ferch Gruffydd respectfully greets King Gruffydd ap Cynan with the Welsh “f’arglwydd” which means “milord.” Use of “f’arglwydd” (or its feminine form “f’arglwyddes”) instantly tells you the speaker is Welsh. Likewise French Princess Catherine de Valois (book two) periodically speaks French, both to her family members and to the monolingual King Henry V, particularly during their many arguments.
When Matilda of England returns to London after the death of her husband, Kaiser Heinrich V, her persistent use of German and German forms of people’s names is there to tell you very concisely that she identifies herself as “empress” (German, Kaiserin; Latin, Imperatrix). This is absolutely historical and it is a major reason why the Anglo-Norman nobility found her impossible to work with. Using German powerfully conveys how Matilda saw herself and how she insisted on being treated.
The use of language therefore tells you who the person is and how s/he self-identifies. The actual meaning of the individual words is far less important than what the use of them says about the person as a whole and in the given moment. Queen Elizabeth Tudor spoke at least six languages and therefore very fluently moved across them as she desired and the situation merited. The immediate descendants of William the Conqueror spoke both English and French with the same fluency as many Canadians do today. By necessity they used English, French, and Latin in the day-to-day administration of their vast realms. Medieval Europeans prayed in Latin so all of the prayers found in the LWWH are in Latin as well.
Language switching in the Legendary Women of World History series is therefore essential in accurately communicating who these people were and the societies in which they lived. It might be easier to render a prayer in English from a reader point of view, but it would not be historically accurate to do so. It might be more comfortable for some readers if all dialogue were in English, but doing so would strip out all of the paralinguistics that we all use everyday when communicating with other people. It would be akin to writers universally using the word “coke” to refer to a soft drink without considering if that word is what a historical person or character would actually label the beverage. A person from the southern United States most certainly would — but not all people in the United States are from the southern region nor are all English speakers from that region either.
Whether we realize it or not our word choices are an essential part of our daily communication. More than simply which words we use, our dialects and use of borrowed words from other languages communicates a great deal about who we are to people. Fluency in many languages is driven by many factors in our lives: social, economic, educational, and professional to name just a few. How we speak is a major part of the tapestry of our lives. Embrace that tapestry in your own life and use your understanding of it to enhance your understanding of other people.