posted on July 30, 2019 by Abigail Owen

Old People, New Talk

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?

Abigail will give away a $15 amazon gift card to one person who comment!

Abigail Owen

Abigail Owen

Award-winning paranormal romance author Abigail Owen grew up consuming books and exploring the world through her writing. She loves to write witty, feisty heroines, sexy heroes who deserve them, and a cast of lovable characters to surround them (and maybe get their own stories). She currently resides in Austin, Texas, with her own personal hero, her husband, and their two children, who are growing up way too fast.

7 thoughts on “Old People, New Talk”

  1. Avatar Jolene A says:

    I’m “yes” on this. If they have been blending in and living among people, they will pick up slang that young people are saying. I’ve picked up things from my own kids but I still use words and phrases that I grew up with. Every time I use an older slang or I use a new one from my kids, I get odd looks. I can’t win with them lol

    1. OMG I know! Mine just roll their eyes no matter what phrasing I use. Lol.

  2. Avatar MaryAnn Schaefer says:

    If I’m reading a historical, I don’t expect to see a character using words that weren’t invented yet. Like a book set in the early 1900s where a character would say something was gnarly or use props to means kudos for a job well done.

    I think it would pull me out of the story much as finding an error in spelling does. You do make a good point about characters in a new situation learning as they go along like your example of Kasia. Interesting topic!

    1. Great point about historical. If the book is actually set in a time period before current, I would expect the language to match that time period. I totally agree there!

  3. Avatar Lori Craig says:

    I was going to say “nope,” but agree that my grandparents didn’t speak the way they did when they were growing up. Language changes and folks tend to keep up to a certain extent.

    I would like to add that my hubby’s grandmother still used the expression “the bee’s knees” her whole life. 😊

  4. Avatar Jeanene Headlee says:

    I have disliked the fantasy genre since my first attempt to read it. And that was The Hobbit! My boyfriend and I read it together on the bus to and from school. I MUST be able to pronounce the unfamiliar words in my head in order to enjoy the story.
    My vote is YES. I like the idea of a non-human in a mortal world studying common languages in order to not stick out like a sore thumb.

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