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Currently I'm outlining a novel, mostly for fun, based in 9th century Norway. The closest to writing Old Norse names I can get is by using Icelandic characters like the ð and þ and the occasional á etc. Could I then use, for example, the name Guðrún, or should I instead Latinize it to Guthrun?

In that same vein: I'm writing in English but find words like Drengr or Holmgang to fit better than their English translations, simply because they don't really convey the meaning as well.

Even though I don't necessarily plan on ever publishing this, I wonder if there's a rule or standard for using non-latin characters/words in published fiction?

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  • ð looks like a fancy o to me (which may be due to the font). From context I understand it's eth, but I encounter it so rarely it probably won't stick. In any case, as long as you don't that mind I misread "Guðrún" as "Guorun", then I don't mind misinterpreting glyphs and ignoring diacritics.
    – user54131
    Jul 27, 2022 at 6:10

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There Are No Rules

If you're writing creative fiction then any question that starts with "Can I write..." will always have the same answer: yes. There are no rules about how to write creatively. There is no governing body that will stop you from writing whatever ideas you have.

The correct time to ask this question is when you have a specific audience in mind for what you're writing, or trying to sell your novel to a publisher, and are worried that the content might not fly with them. You specifically say that you're not angling to get published though, so this isn't a concern for you. Just write whatever you want.

On Foreign Languages in Historical Fiction Novels

An author who makes frequent use of foreign language in historical fiction is James Clavell, in his famous novel Shōgun, and other books set in East Asia. He frequently includes words, or whole phrases, in Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, or Latin, often through spoken dialogue, though always spelled out in familiar Roman letters. His decision for doing this is pretty straight forward and practical: he wrote with the intent to publish for an English-speaking audience and didn't want his readers unable to read characters' names, or to just skip over transcribed conversations in Japanese or Chinese, which is what they'd inevitably do when confronted with strings of indecipherable symbols they could not glean any pronunciation from.

This is the essential component for making this typographical decision, I think. You need to decide who you're writing for. If you're just writing for yourself then do whatever suits your personal taste, but if you're writing with a particular audience in mind, keep them in mind when you decide how to transcribe foreign words and names.

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Luckily, there is no rule! Novels have gone both ways and succeeded. Think of Crazy Rich Asians for example. There are many Hokkien words in there that English speakers won’t understand. The author does a great job putting footnotes at the bottom of the page so you can look it up quickly. Other authors have included a glossary in the back (such as the Star Seeker series by E. W. Finch.) Amy Tan’s best seller The Joy Luck Club has the narrator translate Chinese terms right in the narrative for us.

Please check this very closely related post for more pointers on when using these difficult terms is appropriate.

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Just an FYI, those are still Latin Alphabet characters. They are just give Diacritics to denote a different sound that the letter represents. Considering that the language you're writing for is Modern English, it would probably be best to go with the second version, since your diacritics are not common and most English readers won't know how to pronounce them.

The reason Diacritics exist is that the Latin Alphabet may not have been developed for a language that uses it and different languages have different sounds. For example, the Hawaiian, Navajo, and Quechan languages were not written language until westerners had contact with the Hawaiians', Navajo, and Inca respectively. The official writing script for each uses Latin, but sounds exist in a written form that may not be indicatively pronounce. For example, the Navajo call themselves "Diné" (The people). Although the word looks like it should be pronounced like the English word "dine" (as in "to eat") but the "e" is pronounced as a hard "e", like how Canadians end all of their questions, eh? But it's not nearly the same sound... it's more like the sound in "hay"... so to denote the "e" does not represent the same sound, the diacritic is added to denote to readers it's not pronounced like you would read the word.

Again, because Icelandic (also uses the Latin Alphabet... but with heavy use of diacritics because it's not a language that developed with Latin influences) the diacritics denote sounds that the letters don't ordinary represent in that spelling. But since your audience is likely to not know the pronunciation rules do to limited exposure, they might have trouble with properly pronouncing the character, especially considering you're only doing an approximation to modern Icelandic, which is several centuries of linguistic drift from the old Norse parent, which has no guarantee of being remotely close. Consider that some linguistics believe that the best approximation of what William Shakespeare plays would have sounded like is to do Hamlet... in a U.S. Southern accent instead of the Queen's. Specifically, a Tidewater accent (common in and around the state of Maryland. Although hanging a "hon" on "To be or not to be, that is the question" might be advised against. For the record, I always read Romeo and Juliet with the former in a surfer accent and the latter in a valley girl... but that's just me trying to inject humor to stave off the boredom.).

Point is, many languages develop by drifts in pronunciation becoming so distant, the parent language can't understand the child any more (Romance Languages are languages that are basically exaggerated accents of Latin from that area of the Roman Empire.). Several modern languages are now going through the process of getting regional distinctions that are bordering this (America and Great Britain are often said to be two nations separated by a common language. Latin America Spanish and European Spanish are so distant that many films are dubbed into separate regional Spanish depending on the market. Quebec French and Brazilian Portuguese are also very different from their European counterparts. Even Pennsylvania Dutch is difficult for someone who learns European German.).

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  • "those are still Latin Alphabet characters" except þ, which is a runic letter, not a roman one.
    – user54131
    Aug 26, 2022 at 20:11
  • While I do agree that using a TH instead of the ð or þ makes more sense, I feel like the icelandic characters could add more immersion. How appropriate would it be to add a footnote, or a note anywhere really, explaining how to pronounce them? I wonder if that would cancel out the original emmersion? If that makes sense
    – Slatuvel
    Aug 29, 2022 at 0:36

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