Following this question, I'm struggling with writing the speech of pre-modern (in my case - 5th century) noble-born children among themselves.

Characters who are well-educated would not be making grammatical mistakes and would not be mispronouncing words (in fact, you can expect them to speak the local version of "Received Pronunciation"). They wouldn't use "Ain't", for example.

At the same time, children speaking among themselves, (as opposed to speaking to an adult,) would hardly use structured literary sentences - they would use colloquial speech.

Trouble is, colloquialisms can easily be timed and localised - they belong to a specific time (a specific century, or even a specific decade), and to a specific place. Thus, they create a jarring effect when used in a work set in an earlier time and a different place (as discussed in the question mentioned above). And of course, I have no access to colloquialisms of the period I'm writing about.

How, then, do I solve this conundrum - how do I write colloquial speech, without jarring too-modern colloquialisms? And while we're about it, what about the uneducated farmer in the same setting? Particular mispronunciations and grammatical errors are also period-specific and location-specific. How do I mark a person as a "poor farmer" without also marking him as being a "poor farmer from 1900s Northern England", for example?

  • One can do a research on colloquial speech, but in your particular case (5th century) I'm afraid too little evidence of colloquial speech remain. Vulgar Latin may be your best chance here.
    – Alexander
    Jul 3, 2018 at 7:00
  • 2
    Obligatory XKCD comic.
    – user2686
    Jul 3, 2018 at 19:30

2 Answers 2


how do I write colloquial speech, without jarring too-modern colloquialisms?

Fictionalize it. Just avoid the clichés that people would recognize; catch-phrases or gestures or accents, give them a twist and present your own.

Even then, the general rule in fiction (written or film) is to NOT be too consistent with accented speech, but spice phrases with it; or pick something that doesn't have too much impact on the reader understanding the speech.

Or skip the accents altogether: If you need a poor farmer, get into the head of one. What do they think about? What do they worry about? What do they talk about with each other? Do they think they're poor? Make their allusions and metaphors fit their trade; e.g. to describe something nearly impossible,

"Can't break that ground with ten ox pulling!"

An actual phrase from farming is "Don't eat your seed corn," meaning have the willpower to not sacrifice your future for the present satisfaction of eating. How else could you express that sentiment? Maybe, "better to eat a hen than to eat the last rooster."

what about the uneducated farmer in the same setting? Particular mispronunciations and grammatical errors..

Do not assume the lower classes are stupid.

There is a difference between being uneducated and being stupid. Most people are in lower classes due to birth circumstances. Both wealth and poverty are heritable; if your parents are poor they cannot afford your education, nutrition or health care, and you are forced into a life of early labor instead of more intellectual pursuits.

Poverty begets poverty; wealth begets wealth. In both cases, those cycles can be broken by exceptional intellect or talent, in the first case exceptionally high intellect or talent (although poor nutrition, health care and education may greatly reduce the odds of this occurring); and in the second case by exceptionally poor intellect or talent that squanders wealth to the point of losing its advantages for their descendants.

Do not include grammatical errors and mispronunciations to create colloquial speech. Almost anything you do in that regard will be considered racism or bigotry against a class, and alienate readers, and therefore agents and publishers that have plenty of other material to consider that doesn't stray into racism or bigotry.

You can use simple grammar, or a twisted but consistent grammar as some languages do, relative to English. "Cruel, he is. Believe you me," is not bad grammar, it is a different rule of grammar for the line "He is cruel. [you should] Believe me." The speaker may well consider the latter phrasing bad grammar; the "you" is missing from the second sentence. So there is an example of colloquial grammar; no assumed subjects. Or try the rule "no pronouns", or "nouns before adjectives", or other cultural modifications; e.g. men only refer to females by their name, never a pronoun.

Be consistent in the rules of grammar and pronunciation each character follows; don't try to indicate stupidity by language errors. Stupidity is conveyed through language by simplicity of sentences and concepts and misconceptions or superstitions; e.g. believing counter-factual claims. A lack of intellect has consequences in how much they can understand; both on the individual word level, and in terms of complex sentences or complex ideas. People of low intellect will reject the complex for a lack of understanding. Because they don't understand things well, they will cling to dogma and comfortable things they "know" are true (whether true or not) because they were told they were true by their parents and elders and community.

Intelligence is not marked by vocabulary (which is just memorization, and a good memory does not imply high intelligence); it is marked by insight and quick and accurate understanding of both what is being said and what its implications are. We consider Sherlock Holmes a high intellect not because of his vocabulary but because he sees clues where we see none, and puts them together into a coherent and true picture in ways we cannot. More often than not, in plain language: The clue is, "The dog that didn't bark." (Why didn't the dog bark? Because the dog knew the killer well, and did not regard him as a threat, and that narrows the list of suspects to one.) No fancy language, just a clever observation most of us would overlook.

The bottom line is do the work of a fiction writer, use your imagination to fictionalize the colloquial speech patterns you need, and in doing that you can avoid anything you recognize from real life. Clearly that is what was done with Yoda in Star Wars, and various curses and exclamations in Star Trek and hundreds of other fictional cultures and societies.

You don't have to be complex, or invent Klingon or some other language. Just a few rules (of grammar or culture) can transform a language. And mine the things and tasks these characters are occupied with all day for the metaphors and similes they would use; e.g. make them different for a soldier, a baker, a farmer or a seamstress.

  • I wasn't assuming lower classes are stupid. I was assuming lower classes are uneducated. The time I'm writing about - they'd be illiterate. Jul 3, 2018 at 17:54
  • 1
    @Galastel Sorry; by "stupid" I was referring to a proposed tendency to mispronounce words they know, or misuse words. When most of the world was illiterate, people had phenomenal memories; even in the last two centuries the average memory capacity has declined by more than half. People used to be able quote verbatim long passages of poetry, story, dogma and more; which makes sense if your only method of retaining and transmitting knowledge is verbal and active. This relates to a different question about "spoiler alerts" being modern: Because back then you heard stories 100 times; not once.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 3, 2018 at 18:24

Presumably you are writing your story in modern English -- or some modern language, let me assume English for this discussion. So your "5th century speech" is not going to be the actual language these people spoke. It's going to be an "English translation".

Readers routinely accept that you will use modern English grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation, and generally think nothing of it. But you can break the spell if you use language that is too localized in time or space. If I read a story set in 5th century France and a character says, "We had great fun at the festival", I don't say, "Hey, wait, shouldn't they be speaking 5th century French?!" I don't even notice. But if a character said, "Yo bro, that rave was the bomb", I'd be taken aback. The language is too specialized. One could argue that it's no more out of place than my first example, but it FEELS out of place.

So easy advice: Avoid slang words. Slang varies widely from place to place and over time, and thus often feels out of place.

Of course avoid references to anachronistic technology or history. Some of this is obvious: 5th century characters shouldn't be talking about cell phones or computers. But sometimes it's not obvious and you may need to do a little research about when something was invented or when some event happened. I recall a story that mentioned Christopher Columbus using a telescope to spy out the horizon. Except, umm, the telescope wasn't invented until over 100 years after Columbus.

It's not just about technology. The practice of a bride wearing white for her wedding really became an accepted practice when Queen Victoria wore white for her wedding in 1840. Before that a bride might wear any color. So a story set before 1840 that talks about white as the color of a wedding dress would be anachronistic.

One example that's really stuck in my head: Someone once pointed out that the phrase "try a different tack" is a reference to sailing. "Tacking" is steering your sailboat almost directly into the wind. So a person living in a society where sailing is unknown would never say that. I sometimes wonder what phrases I've read in historical novels that are totally out of context.

If you are willing to do the research, you could find figures of speech for the place and time of your setting and translate them. But frankly, this would be a lot of work for little benefit. The only people who'd notice would be historians and linguists specializing in the era. Easier would be to make up figures of speech consistent with the era. Just for example, a 5th century person describing why he changed his plans would be unlikely to say, "I had to slam on the breaks." But he might say something like, "I had to dig in my heels" or "I had to pull back on the reins."

  • 1
    "I sometimes wonder what phrases I've read in historical novels that are totally out of context." - One that pops out way too often is characters "firing" their bows or crossbows. Nope, nope, nope. You shoot from a bow. You can't fire it, and before gunpowder was a thing, you couldn't possibly "fire" any kind of weapon at all.
    – Divizna
    Dec 3, 2022 at 0:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.