At the time period of the story, certain names are different from the modern day language.

An example of the "Japan" word in Portuguese:

  • Portuguese 2016: Japão
  • Portuguese 1506: Iapam

The questions:

  • How the characters should introduce objects and names like this above?

  • If I put today's Portuguese term, will it sound unrealistic? Or will the archaic term be too most complicated for the reader?

5 Answers 5


I would make a distinction between linguistic drift and anachronistic references. You cannot write a story about the middle ages in Middle English because no one speaks Middle English anymore. That people use different vocabulary to talk about the same things in the 14th century and the 21st century is linguistic drift. When a 14th century character pulls out a cell phone or discusses supply-side economics, that is an anachronism.

Use the modern term when the change is due to linguistic drift. Avoid anachronisms.

Or, at least, avoid the anachronisms that will irk the reader. This is the tricky part because virtually all historical novels have anachronisms because most readers want costume drama rather than actual history, so they tend to want modern people with modern attitudes, not actual historical attitudes and ideas.


This is fairly standard practice for historical novels, actually. The important thing is to apply it consistently and carefully, and only when it won't hurt the reader's comprehension.

Using the older names for places is very common and harmless. But if you do that, you need to do it for ALL place names and all names of people. If your medieval knights are heading to the port at Lundenwic they'd best not run into anyone named Olivia or Miranda. This means sometimes doing an absurd amount of research to make sure your characters have names appropriate to their time and place of origin. No pre-contact native americans named Tim.

For non-specific nouns, like "horse", just use "horse" (assuming you're writing in English). And don't use "Thee" and "Thou" unless you're directly quoting something. Your characters and your narration are all using contemporary English (or whatever language). These just become stumbling blocks which annoy (or worse, confuse) the reader. When they call Japan "Iapam" they are calling it by its proper name, in their time and place. When they call a horse a horse they're just referring to a horse, and you can "translate" like you are for everything else they say and think.

There are grey areas, obviously. Nicknames are a good example. A young Mongol in the army of Genghis Khan might have the nickname "Horse" or it might be "Aduu". Whichever you think sounds better, it's unlikely to put off a reader either way. But don't refer to actual horses in the story as "aduu". Even in worlds with wizards and dragons where no one has ever heard of England or English, people usually ride horses.

In short, use proper names of people and places taken from the actual historical context (Londun for London, Iapam for Japan, etc) but do your research to keep this historical accuracy consistent because you WILL get letters for the smallest mistake. Do not use archaic language for common nouns. There are exceptions because there are always exceptions, and there's a frustrating lack of logic to when such exceptions are made. Avoid writing in dialect (thee, thou, ye olde) as it just irritates people, unless you're directly quoting an historical document or speech.

In the case of historical fiction you also have the bonus option of being able to include a short afterword or glossary to explain archaic terms or mention what you've changed in the events. When someone writes about wizards and makes a Tolkien-esque appendix to explain the history of imaginary countries at the end, it usually comes off as ridiculous. When you write about Napoleon and include an appendix explaining what REALLY happened and how you changed the order of events or whatever, it's considered thorough. If you write about a wizard who was at Waterloo I guess it can go either way, but you should probably err on the side of "what really happened" over "the history of wizards and why Napoleon was still an important historical figure despite them"


Many novels that use unfamiliar terms have a glossary at the beginning or end. Just list all the archaic terms and their modern translations.


I read a few old books in my native language. From my experience, books written in late eighteenth century language are generally understandable, maybe with a few notes for some words. Books written in sixtheenth century language are understandable, but with a lot of notes. You definitely don't want a lot of notes, that will just annoy the reader. Words that are even older (you suggest early sixteenth century) are generally very hard to recognize, you should avoid them in most cases.

You can use a few things, for example, in English, you could replace "you" by "thou" sometimes. This has been used in a few books, for example, in King of Shadows (Susan Cooper, 1999). I don't know whether there exist similiar useable substitutions in Portugese, as I don't speak that language.


The language of your narrative is a delivery system, employed to communicate your story to your readers. This is why you should generally use modern language to address modern people, otherwise you would be making your story hard to read.

Having said that, calling certain places by their historic names is absolutely appropriate (I am actually having difficulties recalling a work of historic fiction which would not follow that principle). Your readers will learn the terminology easily (think of all secondary world fiction--they are full of made-up names, like Narnia, and it doesn't bother anyone...), just give them some credit.

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