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In a story set in a fantasy version of 5th century Persia, I've been told by a beta reader that a boy wouldn't call his father "dad", (would use "father" instead), wouldn't say "no spoilers", etc.

I am somewhat confused by this: a boy in 5th century Persia wouldn't be speaking English, and wouldn't be speaking any language that would be understandable today. Why, then, is "pass me the figs" OK, but "no spoilers" not OK? I'm not talking here of modern concepts, like rockets (as discussed in this question), but of modern turns of phrase, that describe things that existed back then as much as they exist now.

Are such turns of phrase really jarring, considering the setting? What should guide me, in terms of word choice, so as not to create this jarring effect? That is, what makes a phrase "too modern" as opposed to "timeless/transparent"?

  • It's tricky no matter which path you take. I mean. It can be argued that a boy in 5th century Persia wouldn't speak English. But if you write it in Persian, odds are you won't have much of a target audience left. But to make matters worse, 'boy' isn't even a word that would have been used back then. Let alone that English wouldn't exist back then. Let alone that if you were to portray life as it was in those times, you'd have everyone breathing down your back as promoting violence and calling you a war criminal. – Fayth85 Jun 30 '18 at 18:32
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Spoilers ARE a modern concept. Even as recently as the pre-Industrial revolution; the early 1700's, social life was radically different than what you are accustomed to. I'm not talking about any Puritan notions of sex or nudity, many commoners were quite crude in this respect and had no problem talking about that. But the idea that a story could be "spoiled" by knowing the ending or a "twist" was unheard of. When you talked about stories you told the ending and the twists, people looked forward to them.

I won't say they had childish minds, that is not true, but think of children today endlessly watching the same Disney movie or same episodes of the same cartoons again, and again, and again, until they know every frikkin' line of it. People did that with stories in the dark ages, told them over and over until the audience memorized them word for word.

Yes, the audience is expecting you to translate Persian into English for them, but they are NOT expecting anachronisms. "Dad" might plausibly be a translation of an affectionate slang for father. But "spoiler" is not, there are no movies or books or tales that a typical 5th century Persian is looking forward to seeing or reading or hearing for the first time.

Yes, considering the setting, anachronistic turns of phrases really are jarring.

What makes a phrase jarring is if it is related in reader's minds to social attitudes or social phenomenon that are modern. In the 5th century, there was little distinction between childhood and adulthood, children were expected to work a full day from the age of about three (gather eggs, pulling weeds), there was no industry of constant entertainment or even NEW entertainments, there was no school system or training system, little play, no young teen years or teen slang. Girls were getting married and having sex at 12 (and younger), boys at a similar age. There wasn't even an intense attachment to children by parents; half of them would be dead by disease before reaching puberty.

Research the life of your times. Many readers may not have done as much research as I have, but they are going to spot gross anachronisms like "spoiler alert". What's a "spoiler"? (first known use like this in 1982). What's an "alert"? (first known use as a noun like this in 1803). A "twist" in the sense of "an unexpected plot development" is only known since 1941; well into the age of mass entertainment that might be spoiled.

For a 5th century tale, I'd probably limit myself to words and concepts from the 1500's or earlier.

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    Rather than saying no spoilers somebody could say don't ruin the surprise . . . – Jason Bassford Jun 30 '18 at 16:24
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    This is of course assuming that the purpose is to tell a dry story with historic accuracy, but there are many reasons why you wouldn't do this. Comedy. Allegory. Mashup. Homage…. Also to reframe an aging text into a language where subtext, social class, or artistic flare can come across (or be re-invented) such as rapping Shakespeare. – wetcircuit Jun 30 '18 at 17:48
  • Huh, I haven't thought of spoilers like that. Higher class children would have tutors, access to written material, etc., (in fact, they'd be learning rhetoric, among other things), but I guess they wouldn't view a story in the same way - you're right. – Galastel Jun 30 '18 at 17:49
  • "spoiling the surprise" was a common phrase, from which 'spoilers' originates. – Fayth85 Jun 30 '18 at 18:34
  • @Fayth85 Yes, but circa 1982. A story pattern containing a "twist" or surprise originates in film circa 1941. "Spoiler Alert" must therefore be post 1982; a thoroughly modern phrase, like "tweet" meaning an intelligible written message; or "emoji", or "animation" in the modern cinematographic sense (circa 1912). – Amadeus Jun 30 '18 at 18:47
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I'm writing an urban fantasy set around 1927 in the US and I've run into some of these issues.

In many ways I think there are two factors going into a reader's mind:

Modern Concepts and Historical Events

In my story I've had to reword sections or even remove scenes if I accidentally referred to a concept or invention that was created later than 1927. For example, the protagonist was a wizard in Atlantis, 6,000 years ago who has been reborn into this modern age. In Atlantis he created sorcery which is very similar to a programming language. And I've had to reword around that several times because the modern computer language hadn't been invented yet! In fact, "computer" was a job title at the time.

Phones weren't as common as they are today. People wore watches if they needed to know the time, and they had to wind them for them to keep working.

I have to keep remembering that picking up some beer was a much more difficult thing at them time because alcohol was illegal.

So referring to anything like this will jar a reader who knows history.

Reader's Expectations of the Language

This is difficult to define, because it differs depending on the reader and the story. Set in fifth century Persia, readers might expect some language to sound like the movies and stories set in roughly that area and time ("Kismet" and "The 2001 Nights"). However, most of the language will be in modern English to make the story accessible to modern readers.

You should do a lot of research as to how much formality there is in common situations. How would a son refer to his father? How would a husband refer to his wife in public and private. In my story, when the protagonist was married in Atlantis, in public they referred to each other as "husband" and "wife", or "my husband" if referring to him to somebody else, never by name. In private, they use their first names. I took this practice from a field-linguistics course I took in college where we had to learn about a culture and language from a native speaker from India. When I was growing up, it was still common in some places for a married couple to refer to each other as "mother" and "father," but it seems less common today.

I also took slang from old movies set during that time period, as well as some internet sources. I use this occasionally when it seems appropriate.

I'm lucky in that I can invent my Atlanean culture, but I did have to do this. And readers do expect a "fantasy" feel to Atlantis because it was filled with magic (at the time, in the modern era, the fey have become more careful about using magic around humans).

I set a story in the late 1970's and I had to reword a few sections that referred to microwaves as they weren't common at that time. They were available, but they were uncommon. Not to mention one section where one character called another on her cell phone. Ooops. Rewrite!

The biggest thing I would look out for is modern concepts used in language. "Spoilers" seem to be one of them. In fifth century Persia I would expect that most stories were spoken rather than written and that books would be uncommon and expensive.

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You and your reader are collaborating to produce engagement in your story. Your reader's contribution is "suspension of disbelief," a willingness to accept some unrealistic elements as a part of the story. Part of your half of the bargain is making that suspension of disbelief easy to maintain.

From that point of view, what is important is not so much realism, but respecting reader expectations. The average reader is prepped to suspend disbelief for a 5th century Persian's story being rendered in modern English, but not in modern slang.

Some books use anachronistic speech very effectively and intentionally, but this demands more of the readers, and you have to a) know what you're doing (and why), and b) make it worth their while. For instance, The Princess Bride and The Last Unicorn deliberately problematize suspension of disbelief for specific effect, while The Once and the Future King is essentially telling a modern story in a historical setting. If either of these is your goal, you'll need to practice your anachronisms consistently, so they can fade into the background. A few scattered ones are always going to feel like mistakes.

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Isn't this essentially the same question you already asked? At any rate, my answer is the same: Referencing modern pop culture in science fiction

Pop culture references in real life affirm tribal affiliations. Drop a recognized quote and it triggers an autonomic pleasure/reward response in your "tribe". People who don't recognize the quote do not react and are not your tribe….

When it works the viewer identifies this character a member of his own tribe. Meanwhile, the other much more interesting (stronger, badder) characters stand around befuddled, haha the joke's on them. They are not "tribe".

The "tribe" that is being signaled with anachronistic speech, is the reader. The goal is to make the protagonist instantly more relatable to the reader. Sometimes it is reversed and a humorous villain (or sidekick) is the one who speaks anachronistically, but for the same reason: to make him (or the situation) more relatable.

Other characters can then be placed on a scale of reader sympathy based on how similarly they speak to the protagonist. His friends and immediate family members may be similarly anachronistic (by degrees), meanwhile anonymous townsfolk, disapproving elders, and important historical figures will be speak more formally with some version of Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe.

Expect the anachronistic-speaker to be an equally anachronistic thinker who can bear witness and react to the time period's social injustice, superstitions, abuse of authority, etc.

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I suppose that the short answer to your question is that to write something convincing you have to do a heck of a lot of research about it. If there are books written by Persians then read them. Read well-reviewed books about those times. Read as much as you can around the subject. And then write.

The trouble with using modern-sounding phrases is that they trigger contemporary associations in a readers mind. It's probably quite difficult (possibly even impossible) for you, as one person, to catch and eliminate all the jarring phrases in your writing so this is where your beta-readers come in. There's no point in asking someone to read something and then not listen to their advice. I mean, sure - they might not be experts on Persian culture, but they know very well when they have been jarred by something.

My advice is to write freely, then get as many people as possible to scan your work for phrases that do not work and then, most importantly, listen to their advice.

Good luck with your story.

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