We love seeing the grand technological anachronisms in science fiction novels set in the past, such as Victorian or Edwardian-era steampunk or exaggerated Renaissance automata. But what if you want to keep the language in your historical novel accurate for the period? Here’s a simple trick historical fantasy novelist Mary Robinette Kowal concocted to make sure the words that tumbled from her characters’ lips were appropriate for the early 19th century.
When we spoke to the Milk and Honey author about her latest novel, Glamour in Glass, which is set in 1815, she told us that she composed a draft of her novel without a limited word list in mind, but afterward edited it to remove any anachronistic vocabulary. While she was still working on Glamour in Glass, however, she explained on her blog her system for flagging words that might not have existed during that time period:
I’ve created a list of all the words that are in the collected works of Jane Austen to use for my spellcheck dictionary. It will flag any word that she didn’t use and I can then look those up to see if it was in use in 1815. It also includes some of Miss Austen’s specific spellings like “shew” and “chuse.”
It won’t be perfect. For instance it won’t flag words whose meanings have changed, like “check” or “staid” but it will be an improvement.
Kowal shares her Austen word list on her blog, and commenters over at Wondermark add that Google’s Ngram Viewer shows the frequency of words over time based on all the books Google Books has compiled.
Very ingenious approach – crate a custom dictionary based on the language actually used at the time the work is supposed to take place. It is pretty trivial now to create such a specific dictionary and even simpler to ‘spellcheck’ a new work.
Either of these would have been very laborious and time-consuming before computers. Now it is almost trivial. Google’s Ngram Viewer allows you to look for words in the entire corpus of digitized books. Thus the screenplay for Lincoln could be examined to see how anachronistic it was.
Just one of the many ways our new technology allows us to do so many things faster and better.