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The Designer's Notebook: Some Thoughts on Archaic Language

February 29, 2000

Suspension of disbelief is a fragile thing. To maintain the illusion that your player is in a fictional world, all the parts of a computer game have to work in harmony, a concept I discussed in an earlier column, "Interstate '76 and the Principle of Harmony." It only takes one wrong note to shatter the harmony and destroy the illusion.

Fortunately, I'm a fairly tolerant gamer (although you might not think it from reading The Designer's Notebook). Having played my first computer game on a Teletype, I don't mind low-res graphics or rinky-dink FM-synthesized music. If a game is good, it can overcome these purely technical limitations. Aesthetic incompetence, however, is another matter. I'm more or less resigned to bad acting - if Hollywood, with its vast pool of money and talent, can't do any better than what we see on commercial TV, I don't see how the game industry can be expected to. Bad art bothers me, though, and it has nothing to do with screen resolution; see the old LucasArts adventures to find out how good 320x200 can look if you've got good artists. But what really puts me off - what destroys the fantasy for me faster than anything else - is bad writing. When an otherwise decent game suddenly plays or displays a badly written sentence, it goes clank, like a hubcap dropped during a symphony. I'm brought up short, all illusion gone, and I find myself wondering how that got in there.

Some of the worst writing in interactive entertainment is to be found in fantasy role-playing games, especially those with a quasi-medieval setting. Archaic language is difficult to do well, and unless you read a lot of old books, you might not be familiar with it. Herewith, some thoughts on how to use archaic language in games. This isn't a primer; it's more a random collection of ideas.

A Light Touch is Best

If you're working on a game set in the historical past (as opposed to a fantasy world), and it's earlier than about 1700, you shouldn't try to duplicate the language actually spoken at that time - not if you want to make a game that sells. There's a reason that the average gamer plays computer games instead of reading Shakespeare. Archaic language can be heavy going, no matter how well it's done. And just because the words mayhap and perchance are archaic while perhaps and maybe are still around, that's not a reason to drop the latter two and use mayhap and perchance exclusively. If you try to find an antique equivalent for every modern word in your text, you'll end up with language that sounds stilted and repetitive. When in doubt, it's better just to write neat, idiom-free modern English. In Mary Stewart's Arthurian novel The Crystal Cave, she used modern English almost exclusively, and it sounds perfectly good. It makes her characters seem very rational and accessible, with none of the prejudice or superstition you would expect of Dark Age Britons, but I think that was the effect she wanted.

In short, go easy on it. Consider the following three versions of the same greeting from a peasant to a knight:

"Hail, fair sir knight! And what bringeth thee to these perilous woods this fine eventide? Be it the tales of a dragon hereabouts?"

"Good day, sir knight! What brings you to these dangerous woods this evening? Have you heard the rumors of a dragon nearby?"

"Hey, knight! Whatcha doin' in the woods after dark? You looking for that dragon they say lives around here?"

The first example is corny and overwrought, and contains usage errors into the bargain (a peasant would not address a knight as thee - but we'll get to that later). The third is too modern and flippant - if a peasant says this, he's probably wearing his baseball cap on backwards and carrying a skateboard. The second is a reasonable compromise between archaic language and readability - a light touch.

Avoid Slang and Modern Idioms At All Costs

Nothing ruins the illusion of antiquity in a game faster than a word or expression that doesn't belong there. If one character says, "Surrender, knave, or I'll give thee a right royal drubbing," his opponent should not reply, "Oh, yeah? You and what army?" or "Bring it on, buddy." Slang is a powerful cultural marker, closely bound to the time and place where it originated. The term claim-jumper, for example, immediately suggests the California gold rush, and it would sound completely wrong in a medieval RPG - even if stealing mining claims were a major part of the plot. And if you wanted to replace modern slang with its archaic equivalent, chances are it wouldn't work well even if you could research what it should be - a modern gamer isn't going to understand Elizabethan slang.

Unfortunately, this tends to result in games that sound rather stiff and humorless. There isn't much that can be done about that. Like slang, humor is closely bound to its own culture, and doesn't translate well across the centuries. Much of Shakespeare's humor is about cuckolded men and other 17th-century notions of sexual impropriety, and it just isn't that funny to the modern ear. But it's better to sound humorless than to sound flat wrong; at least humorlessness doesn't destroy the suspension of disbelief.

How to Use thy Thee, Thou, and Thine

Most European languages, both the Latin-derived ones like French and the Germanic ones like German, have two forms of the word you. One form is the plural, used for speaking to more than one person: Sie in German, vous in French. The other form is the singular, used for speaking to a single individual: du in German, tu in French. Modern English doesn't have this concept. The word you is used for both individuals and groups, except in vernacular southern American English, where you all or y'all is used for groups. However, English used to have a singular "you," thou, and a plural "you," ye.

About the only place ye and thou are still heard is in church, and particularly those churches which use the King James Version of the Bible. Thou and ye immediately convey a sense of formality and antiquity, which makes them an excellent way to give your characters "old-fashioned" speech - as long as you don't overdo it. In a game, I suggest you reserve them for particularly ceremonious occasions: awarding a character an honor, sending him on a dangerous quest to save the realm, or sentencing him to death.

In addition to the usage rule about the number of people you're speaking to, there's another important rule which generally overrides the first one. The plural pronoun (ye, Sie and vous) is specifically used in "polite" or "formal" situations, even if you're only addressing one person. For example, you would use ye to a social superior, a stranger, or anyone to whom you want to be polite. The singular pronoun (thou, du and tu) is called the "familiar" as opposed to the formal, and it's used for social inferiors, children, pets, and close friends. If you read Shakespeare, you'll notice that his nobles always use thou when speaking to commoners, who always use you in return. Old-fashioned Pennsylvania Quakers used to use thou even into the 20th century, because they believed all people were equal in the sight of God, and they rejected the notion of social classes.

In European languages today, if a friend asks you to call her by the familiar rather than the formal pronoun, she's honoring you, granting you an intimacy that strangers aren't allowed. It's a little like telling someone it's OK to use your first name, but more personal.

If you're going to use thou and its relatives, it's important to get them right. Thou has its own verb forms, which usually end in the letter T, or in -est. Here are some examples:

To be (present tense): I am, thou art, he is, we are, ye are, they are.

To be (past tense): I was, thou wast, she was, we were, ye were, they were.

To be (subjunctive): If I were, if thou wert, if he were, if we were, if ye were, if they were.

To do: I do, thou dost, it doth, we do, ye do, they do.

To plot: I plot, thou plottest, he plotteth, we plot, ye plot, they plot.

Notice that in this last case, the third person singular (he, she, or it) is used with -eth on the end of the verb. -est and -eth are sometimes mistakenly exchanged, but they're not interchangeable. -est is for the second person, and -eth for the third.

Thou is never used to address groups, even if it's a group of intimate friends. It's always singular. For groups, use you or ye.

Thee is to thou as him is to he. It's never used as the subject of a sentence, only as an object. (You say "Thank thee" because it's really short for "I thank thee.") Thy and thine, showing possession, work just like my and mine.

Eschew Ye Olde Corny Pub Sign

The use of ye instead of the on old signs isn't actually the word ye - it really is the word the. English used to have four letters that have since disappeared, and one of them, called "thorn," was used for the voiced T-H sound (as in this and that, but not thick and thin). However, because the roman alphabet doesn't have the letter thorn, for a brief period printers used a lower-case letter Y instead, so the got printed as ye.

I wouldn't use this convention if I were you. It's perfectly legitimate, but unfortunately, it has been badly overused by businesses trying to create a phony sense of antiquity, like "ye olde English pub" in an American theme park. The message it conveys is "this is a tacky tourist trap." You might be able to get away with it in long texts if you're consistent about it, but personally I think ye risk is too great. Also, since Y only replaced thorn after ye printing presse was invented, it's actually a Renaissance-era usage, not a medieval one.

You Shall Use Shall Properly

Shall is rarely heard in American English any more, although the British still use it a fair amount. In most cases it has simply been replaced by will to describe a future event. However, its meaning is actually a little more subtle. Shall is used for commands, which is why it's found in the Ten Commandments, and also specifications ("the playing field shall be 100 yards long"). Because the writer is speaking with authority, shall conveys a sense of formality. You might use it to give the player instructions. Imagine a king sending the player on a quest, and beginning with something like, "Thou shalt take this magic sword of thermonuclear explosions+2, and..."

Consider Word Origins

English is derived both from Anglo-Saxon and from Old French, which means it has a larger vocabulary than most other languages. If there are two words that mean the same thing, like start and commence, it's often because one is from Anglo-Saxon and the other from Old French. The Old French words were brought in by the new Norman overlords of England after the invasion of 1066, and as a result they were associated with the aristocracy. They still seem a little highfalutin' nearly a thousand years later. (Which is more formal, start firing or commence firing?). Anglo-Saxon words, on the other hand, are simple and short, and sound like plain speaking. You can use this to create a subtle psychological effect on the listener. Consider the following stirring passage from one of Winston Churchill's speeches:

"We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender."

The only word in this entire sentence that comes from Old French is surrender. All the rest is pure Anglo-Saxon. Churchill was using language inclusively, to bind his nation together at a time of terrible peril. He chose words that every one of his hearers, even the least-educated, would instantly grasp. To do this deliberately requires a great deal of attention, and writers for computer games seldom get the opportunity to devote that much time to their work. Still, if you like researching words and you want to put in the effort, it can be very enjoyable. Give your nobility the long, Latin-root words, and give the peasants the short, Anglo-Saxon ones.

This is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg (and that's another idiom you shouldn't use). I haven't even touched on things like reversing word order to make a question ("Know you of such a mage?") or the specialized vocabularies of extinct professions. If you're serious about it, you can spend all sorts of time learning about the difference between a groom and an ostler, or a blacksmith and a farrier. One of the best ways to learn how old-fashioned language is used is to read historical novels written towards the end of the 19th century. Authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were masters at creating highly readable prose with a distinctly romantic flavor.

Like sex and violence, archaic language is a powerful seasoning, to be sprinkled in lightly, not dumped by the bucketload. You don't have to use it at all. But if you do, and you do it well, your game will be richer, deeper, and the better for it.

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