Although I probably won’t write a full review of it, I’ve been watching a really interesting TV mini series on DVD called “Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena”. Anyway, it contained a very interesting linguistic gimmick in the dialogue which I thought that I’d discuss here.
Even though this show has the classic “it’s ancient Rome, and most of the characters have British accents” thing, the writers have made the main characters speak in a very clipped and grammatically-different way (often leaving out the word “the”), presumably in order to mimic Latin grammar. I don’t speak Latin, but the few Latin phrases I know all use a different type of grammar to English.
It’s a very imaginative linguistic experiment, although it often doesn’t really work that well in practice. Sometimes, it sounds authentically “Roman”, sometimes it sounds like broken English and, other times, it just makes the characters sound melodramatically abrupt. Even so, I can see why they tried to do it.
When it comes to writing dialogue in comics, fiction etc… there has to be a balance between realism and making the dialogue understandable to the audience.
After all, people in Ancient Rome spoke Latin with Italian accents, rather than English with modern British accents (historical British accents sound very different). But, the show was produced primarily for American audiences (even though it was also released on DVD here in the UK) so it makes sense that the characters would be speaking English instead. So, I can see why the writers compromised and tried to include some Latin-style grammar in order to hint at the fact that the characters would have been speaking Latin.
Getting the language right in unusual settings is often a bit of a complicated thing, although I’d often argue that you should lean heavily towards understandability, even if it comes at the expense of realism. Plus, as I mentioned in this other article, there are a lot of subtle things that you can do in order to make the dialogue fit in better with the setting.
Although my other article talks more about how language evolves in fictional settings, there are obviously several ways that you can make the language used in historical settings sound more authentic, without making it seem incomprehensible. The classic trick is, of course, to use lots of posh-sounding words like “aye”, “verily” and “forsooth” (and I sort of did this in at least one historical comedy/sci-fi comic), but the opposite to this can often work considerably better.
For example, like with HBO’s “Rome” TV series, one thing that “Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena” nails perfectly is the grittiness of the language used. Thanks to Shakespeare, past film censorship and other such things, there’s often a false impression that people in the distant past were a lot more sophisticated and polite than people are these days.
So, the liberal use of four-letter words in these TV shows is probably a lot closer to how people used to speak in Ancient Rome. A time where people had fewer puritanical hang-ups about the human body, sexuality etc… A time where, instead of peacefully playing violent videogames, people entertained themselves by watching gladiators literally fight to the death.
In this context, eloquent and polite Shakespearean dialogue would seem vastly out of step with the world that the characters live in. So, this was a very clever choice on the part of the show’s writers -even if, ironically, it also makes the show seem a bit more “modern”.
So, yes, keep any linguistic gimmickry in your stories, comics etc… fairly subtle and your audience will appreciate it.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂