Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Register, Part I

First posted in 2013 on the NaNoWriMo Plot Doctoring Forum, in response to a writer who wondered what would happen if he wrote in a 'casual' style except with 'somewhat archaic and uncommon' adverbs, such as 'peradventure', 'hitherto', and 'forasmuch'.

The main problem I foresee is not one of comprehension but one of register. For anyone unfamiliar with register, I will explain, as well as I can:

Register might be described as the level of formality and technicality of a piece of writing. For example, in English, 'The king hired an assassin to kill his rival' is probably medium-register. If he hired a 'hit-man' to 'bump him off', that's fairly low register; if it were the 'head of state' trying to 'eliminate his competitor', that would be slightly higher but more technical-sounding; and so forth. In other words, register is the 'feel' of a passage. It's influenced not only by vocabulary but also by sentence length and structure and word-order.

High register is uncommon nowadays. A sentence such as this -- 'The august monarch, having consulted his counsellors with due diligence and considered all courses of action that presented themselves to his anxious mind, when he saw that, were that malevolent duke to rise to power, all ills hitherto incurred would henceforth seem but one drop, as it were, in a sea of suffering, having first conciliated all the mightiest deities both foreign and domestic, gathered together ten talents of gold and sent for a certain man known to him to be one of the order of the Sicarii' -- is quite high-register indeed, and very Latinate and periodic.

But high register does not require long words and complex, hypotactic sentences. Tolkien's writing shows perhaps even higher register than the previous sentence, but with mostly Germanic (not Latinate) words and a very simple yet grand style:
Then Fëanor swore a terrible oath. His seven sons leapt straightway to his side and took the selfsame vow together, and red as blood shown their drawn swords in the glare of the torches. They swore an oath which none shall break, and none should take, by the name even of Ilúvatar, calling the Everlasting Dark upon them if they kept it not; and Manwë they named in witness, and Varda, and the hallowed mountain of Taniquetil, vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession. (Silmarillion 89)
Only a few of these words -- 'straightway', 'selfsame', 'hallowed' -- are words that we don't use quite ordinarily. On the other hand, only a few -- 'terrible', 'mountain', 'pursue', 'vengeance', 'possession' -- are Latinate, and most of those (especially 'mountain') have no good Germanic equivalents. The narrative also has relatively few subordinate clauses; in fact, it's not much like the previous example at all. What makes it sound so grand? It's hard to say exactly, but Tolkien is a master of register. (Probably the clearest sign of a third-rate Tolkien-imitator is the failure to maintain register.)

As should be clear, long words don't necessarily indicate high register. (Something like 'utilising dynamic opportunities to achieve initiative goals' isn't so much high-register as bureaucratese.) No register is inherently better than the others; but one generally fits a given context best. If you said, 'Hail to thee, O my beloved sister and the daughter of my mother' to your sister at breakfast, you might get a laugh; if you said 'Wassup, dude?' to an emperor, you might be beheaded (or mistaken for the court jester). Mixing registers is just as comical: 'The august monarch procured for himself a hit-man'. So if you intend the writing to be comical, mix registers as much as you like. Throw 'peradventure' into an ordinary, casual voice. It will be great fun.

The problem comes if you want the passage to be taken seriously. Of the three features -- a casual voice, archaic adverbs, and a serious (or at least not comical) tone -- you have to pick two. Scrapping the idea of archaic adverbs or taking a comical tone are probably easiest; but if you can maintain a narrative of the same register as 'peradventure' (hint: it will sound a lot like the first high-register sentence), go for it. If you try for all three, well-read persons will laugh at you.

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