“Little Brown Dog”

I tend to think that, after a certain point, researching fiction is just a stall, but Mary Robinette Kowal’s attempt to create a Regency-era dictionary sure is impressive.

The Jane Austen Word List comprises 14,793 words from Austen’s works, which Robinette Kowal is trying to compile into an Open Office dictionary so that she can ensure that her prose is period correct.

I can see the value of such an enterprise for dialogue and specialized terminology (I wouldn’t want going around misusing words like “jabot” or “phaeton”), and I realize that historical errors strain readers’ suspension of disbelief, but is the point actually to replicate the diction of another era exactly? Unless we’re talking about fictional primary documents (diaries or newspapers or something), I don’t think anyone actually expects the prose of a contemporary author to sound like that of someone writing 200 years previously, do they?

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1 Comment

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One response to ““Little Brown Dog”

  1. susan

    One the one hand, we are in an age where access to computers make it irresponsible NOT to research historical correctness. Because anyone can call the bluff of another person whether they have ‘credentials’ to do so or a reason to do so. The media does fact checking of political speeches or allegations within hours of a pronouncement. The speed and availability of the Internet allows and encourages us to do this.
    But that brings me to my other hand. My other hand thinks that much of the Uber fact-ness and the continual verifying of it is a way to deflect attention from the object (the speech, the movie, my opinion) and to perpetuate an elite circle of Insiders with superior knowledge to know the truth, the real way people spoke in 1774. When in fact, then just as now, people spoke in a variety of ways and, then just as now, misused the language and facts in a variety of ways, either through poetic license or through political manipulation.
    When the Inner Circle is perceived to be special or elite and has something we desire (knowledge, prestige, mystery, chocolate), then we a want to belong and Know that thing too. Because then we belong to the Inner Circle in some referential, associative way. And this makes us special too: we belong.
    And, heaven knows, we all want to be special.
    The truth of the matter, for me, is that I’m grateful for the 14,000+ word reference. Will I use it? Maybe. Am I glad for all the news media fact checking a speech for me? Yes. But if it’s for my candidate and fact checking is negative, I will probably discredit the newscaster; if it’s the opponent, I will probably rejoice that they have been proven wrong again. Either way, my reaction to the ‘truth’ is based on my bias or my alignment or sense of belonging/identification with X.
    The only way to use the word jabot in a sentence is to know what it means. Otherwise, we’d all be running around saying things like, “Jabot, you’re It!” or “Her mood was less then jabot when she entered the room.” or “After several years of hardship and privation, she slowly began to realize that all these years of jabotting had been better for her figure than she could have ever dreamed.”
    Maybe … I should have named you… no, I won’t say it.

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