Do you know any "shortcuts" to translating passages of my story into believably sounding archaic English? I mean, without taking a full school course?

A crash course? An automatic service? A phrase book? A group of enthusiasts who will do it for free? I don't insist on a zero-effort solution, but learning modern English was hard enough and I'm well aware the old style was much more complex, and I don't require a total historical accuracy, just the general mood.

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    Read tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/YeOldeButcheredeEnglishe before you attempt to write any. It might give you pointers what not to do. It might even dissuade you from the idea all together. (Just a warning: the link leads to tvtropes.org, where you might end up wasting hours, even days of your life ;) )
    – Tannalein
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 22:03
  • Why the hell do you want to write in archaic English? You think people want to read that shit? Tell a great story in an incomprehensible way, nobody likes your story. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 5:41
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    @Aerovistae: Not the whole story, just few picked lines. One of the characters comes from times long past, and the difficult adaptation to the modern world is just one of threads of the story. A struggle with learning modern language is an important factor.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 9:52

6 Answers 6


When used sparingly or in the right context, archaic language can be fun. I won't argue any literary position, but to answer the OP's question about services or rules, incase anyone (or a future visitor) is curious, this is what I found.

Here are a few automated services :

  1. http://whilstr.org/
  2. http://www.oldenglishtranslator.co.uk
  3. http://lingojam.com/EnglishtoShakespearean
  4. http://speakshakespeare.com

Here are some rules :

  1. http://whilstr.org/rules.html
  2. http://dan.tobias.name/frivolity/archaic-grammar.html

When you say Old English, be aware that another term for that is Anglo-Saxon, which is English from before the Norman Conquest. Here's an example:

Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum
of denum ond of durum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte feredon mid liste
under hrofes hleo. Hæleð mec siþþan
baþedan in bydene. Nu ic eom bindere
ond swingere sona weorpe
esne to eorþan hwilum ealdne ceorl.
Sona þæt onfindeð se þe mec fehð ongean
ond wið maegenþisan minre genæsteð
þæt he hrycge sceal hrusan secan
gif he unrædes ær ne geswiceð
strengo bistolen strong on spræce
mægene binumen; nah his modes geweald
fota ne folma. Frige hwæt ic hatte
ðe on eor an swa esnas binde
dole æfter dyntum be dæges leohte.

Read Chaucer to find out what Middle English sounded like. Even Shakespeare, which no doubt sounds old to your ear, is of the period known as Modern English.

I presume what you really mean is archaic English. For that there is no real shortcut, and I'd advise you to leave it alone. It's like playing the violin: If you aren't an absolute master, it just sounds awful.


Read a lot of old books, prereferentially related to the topic of your own story. Get a sense of the idiom, like a sailor referring to himself as an old salt. Get it under your skin. If you constantly need to consult a phrase book, a grammar or a style manual, I'm afeared ye can nae pull it off.

In other words, if you don't feel you can write the original text in the language of your choice, you are probably not ready to write it.

Translation is in any case not a 1:1 rendition. Words and concepts might not even exist in the target language, and complete restructuring of sentences may be required. You would also need to consider that although you want an old feel, you would also want your modern reader to understand it effortlessly; so you probably shouldn't go the whole hog - depending on how old you want it: Victorian English is rather readable, medieval, not so much.

Another option is to simply develop believable characters. Let them talk and interact like they would, and language doesn't strictly need to be old, because it wasn't old to them. The movie "A Royal Affair" is set in historical Denmark, but the characters speak modern Danish. It's odd at first, but once you're pulled into the story it just doesn't matter.

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    I choose a different approach. I got the person in question far more advanced in learning modern English. I can emulate "learner's English" well enough, and throw in random archaisms as learner's blunders now and then for the right air of believability.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 8:59

Through Tannalein's link to TVTropes I found just the right resource I think I need.

Life in Elizabethan England

This will allow some basic expressions, help avoid common blunders and show pretty much where not to go at all, for risk of making utter mess.

Another resource clarifying it a little:

Speaking Ye Olde Butchered English

  • Glad I could be of some use :D
    – Tannalein
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 2:24
  • It's worth noting that the second link here does not explain verb use well at all, watch out for that!
    – wordsworth
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 20:52

Given that you're explicitly not looking for total historical accuracy, I'd recommend the following:

1) Make sure you're not employing any clearly recent or modern phrasing or slang
2) Add few well-placed, period-accurate phrases
3) Research a few period-accurate words to use consistently.

In general, the modern standard for any dialect is to suggest it rather than to try to reproduce it. It requires a lot of active work by the reader to continually translate an unfamiliar dialect, whereas it requires only a little extra suspension of disbelief to believe the character is speaking appropriately. Once you've established that, all you need to do to maintain it is to not do anything to break it.


Initial reaction:



Every question I've ever answered on this site, the answer has come to me offhand without much thought. Maybe some answers were pretty good and some were merely passable, but either way I knew what my answer was immediately without any further consideration.

This is a little different. It's a very, very difficult question. It's a question I've wrestled with before but never brought up here.

My initial reaction is Don't because, as I said in my comment above, nobody wants to read that kind of language. It's the same reason a lot of readers are very turned off from A Clockwork Orange. It's very inaccessible. If people can't understand what they're reading, they don't bother. Would you pick up a book written in Swahili? It's no different.

Really, the only difference is that this dialogue is only a portion of your book; the portion where this one character speaks. So it's a little better than in some other circumstances. But it's still a problem. Even if it comes intermittently in small pieces, readers still get irritated by incomprehensible passages of text. It really bothers me when I can't understand something, I'll tell you that. Kind of like daddy's little princess flying economy for the first time. WHERE'S ALL MY LEG ROOM???

Anyway, it's hard to come up with a good answer to your question. Even if you hire an expert on medieval language to maximize authenticity, we still hit upon that same problem I just outlined above: the reader won't understand it and certainly won't appreciate your misguided efforts.

The way I see it, this leaves you with a few options. You have to be clever. Incorporate translating technology, or have the character speak through a hired interpreter (and only occasionally do you actually write what the character himself said, in the cases where it's similar enough to modern language that the reader will understand and perhaps find some humor in the distorted familiarity in the words), or have the character speak very, very little out of shyness or shame. Or have them practice/be tutored extensively "offscreen," so that each time we see them they can say a little more, and it's realistic and acceptable that they've made this progress.

That's the best I've got. What do you think?

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    can you expand on this, please? you may have a valid point, but the poster won't learn anything from a simple declarative. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 13:16
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    You consider a discomfort to the reader an obstacle to avoid. I consider it an important tool. The conversation partner will feel just the same annoyed discomfort as the reader. The speaker will feel shame and frustration for their inability to blend in. The subject of the conversation is less important to the plot than the form of the conversation itself so important information will be either passed through other channels or hindered by the language barrier as a valid plot node, not an unintended obstruction.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 12:03
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    If the author is "being difficult for the sake of being difficult or being artsy," I agree. Gael Baudino's Water trilogy is a perfect example of this kind of writing experiment gone wrong. But having a character who speaks in a difficult way for a reason can be a characterization tool just as much as giving the character a rough upbringing or a public-school education. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 12:20
  • True. I started thinking about it in the context of having a character who always speaks in a foreign language, and that doesn't seem so bad. Perhaps. @SF, try it! See how it goes. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 21:29

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