Friday, 18 May 2012

Extending Readers' Vocabularies

As a reader, I'm interested in my vocabulary being extended by what I read.  Recently historical novelist Liz Harris wrote a blog post about getting advice to moderate her authentic period language.  One of the phrases that it was suggested she changed was "poke bonnet".  Now, I might not have known before exactly what a poke bonnet is, and how it is distinguished from any other sort of bonnet, but I already had an image of that bonnet in my mind from reading other books - Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer - and was perfectly happy with it.  

Other words that Liz's advisers balked at were bean porridge and buck fence.  I don't know what either of those are, but I can make a guess that they're respectively something basic but nourishing to eat and a type of fence design.  Which is indeed what they are (go to Liz's post for further details).  Quibbling about the exact definition of bean porridge or a buck fence seems to me to be a nit-picking step too far, especially as the vocabulary evokes late C19th Wyoming, where Liz's book is set.  

Anne Tyler, who is one of my favourite authors, keeps having characters wrap themselves in an Afghan.  Now, the context indicates a blanket of sorts rather than a bloke in a turban.  I imagine something made of crocheted squares in black and bright primary colours, with the squares sewn together using thick white wool.  I have asked Americans and been told that an Afghan, while cosy, doesn't look like that.  It doesn't matter.  I've got the general idea, I've got a clear image, and that's all that counts to me as a reader.

Choosing to simplify one's vocabulary just because a reader might not understand really is dumbing down to the lowest common denominator - people can always look a word up if they're not sure.  Same with writing for children.  Yes, the vocabulary used needs to be appropriate for the age group, but children can handle unfamiliar words; it's part of the learning process.  

The main reason I have a good vocabulary now is because I read a lot as a child and teenager.  Books were my vocabulary teachers, so heaven help future generations if we writers limit our vocabularies today.  



Philip C James said...

Hear hear!

Liz Harris said...

I was absolutely thrilled, Sarah, that the majority of those who responded - on my blog, on twitter and in person - felt exactly the same as you.

There seems to me little point in writing a historical novel if you avoid using anything that might not be immediately familiar to the reader.

When I read a novel that's set in a place I don't know, maybe at a time other than the present, I want to feel as if I'm physically in their world, and a totally modern vocabulary would work against that.

Thank you for raising the topic for discussion, Sarah.

Liz X

Clair Humphries said...

I absolutely agree. I'm a big Jane Austen fan and whenever I re-read Austen or other historical novels there are words/phrases/items mentioned that I don't fully understand. It doesn't put me off at all - and the fun is in using my imagination to work out what it could be! As you say, Sarah, anyone who has read a lot learns to place things in context and piece together what the writer means without it breaking the flow.

Clare Wartnaby said...

I agree too. Even when I was a child I lapped up historical novels by Elizabeth Goudge and Joan Aiken, specifically because the language immersed me in unfamiliar times and places. I've never lost my liking for books that achieve this, and it's awful to think that that kind of pleasure might be weeded out at source.

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks Phil.

Liz, I agree - why write historical if you can't use the right language.

Clair, yes, absolutely!

Clare, I LOVE Elizabeth Goudge, she's one of my all time favourite writers and you're absolutely right about the language used immersing you in the period.