*Originally posted on Writerspace.com July 2019!
I often write characters who are either immortal or who live a much longer lifetime than a human. I also read a ton of books with similar set ups. Every so often I run across a review or a comment pointing out how a five-hundred-year-old person speaks like a twenty-five year old in the current time and that this situation is unrealistic.
So I thought I’d debate the question with y’all – Would a “old” person use “new” language?
Personally, I land on the YEA side of this argument with a few qualifications.
This person will need to have been living the entire time (not frozen on ice and then wakes up decades or centuries later like Captain America). Even better if they are exposed to that particular culture a majority of the time. Idioms are different in cultures across the world and that’s a huge part of language.
If that’s the case for a character, then consider this… Human language evolves gradually over time. By this I mean, humans, who aren’t immortal, change their language usage as they go along. None of us use exactly the same words and phrases from five years ago let alone decades. My grandparents, while they may not have used the slang from my childhood, also didn’t tend to regularly use the slang from their childhoods either. They were living in the 1990s and not speaking like they were from the 1940s. My great-grandmother lived to 97-years-old and wasn’t still speaking like a woman from the 1890s when she passed away.
In addition, any immortal in a fictional world where humans don’t know/aren’t aware immortals exist is going to work to blend in. For example, my main character Kasia in The Rogue King is hiding what she is by living among humans. She’s a waitress in a small Kansas diner when we meet her. She’s not only going to pick up cues living among them, she’s going to consciously and deliberately alter her speech to blend in until phrases and cadences become a natural part of her own speech. Even accents can change based on your environment. My southern accent gets much stronger around others with the accent and practically disappears around others without it.
Now to the practical from a writer’s standpoint. As a writer I have to consider what would or wouldn’t pull a reader out of a story. Dialect in written form tends to pull a reader out as they have to pause to translate in their heads. And that’s a simple dialect like putting a Scottish brogue on English words. Words the reader is already familiar with. Think about books like Dune or A Clockwork Orange where words being used are so unusual, glossaries are included at the backs of books. Or I know TONS of people who can’t stand Shakespeare or Chaucer not because they don’t tell great stories, but because those people can’t get past the language.
So…what do you think? Do you fall on the YEA (hell, yes old fogies can totally figure it out) or NAY (nope, people only use words from their lifetime) side of this argument? What points did I miss?