Words out of Time?

I want your opinion about a recurring critique I get from my weekly group, DFW Writers’ Workshop.

The issue: Words I use that readers say take them out of the Anasazi historical moment. A comment from last night’s critique session: “When any of these characters are thinking or talking, they cannot use 21st Century words. Tuwa wouldn’t think or say decades, he would say moons or something.”

It’s an issue that vexes me. Maybe I have a tin ear for words that seem false for the time period. The novelist Bob Mayer, for instance, called out my use of the word “comet.” I looked up the word’s root, and sure enough, Aristotle derived the name from “long hair” to describe the comet’s tail. Now I use “long-hair star” for “comet.” So feedback definitely helps.

Here I list ten examples of words, in brief context, that my writers’ group has called out. Please take the poll at the end to give me your opinions. Additional comments are always welcome. I greatly appreciate your thoughts.

  1. Grandfather’s circle of stones had recorded the heavenly movements of five or six decades. (Note: Used in Tuwa’s thoughts, but not his dialog.)
  2. He outlined his plan. (Narrator’s description of Tuwa’s action.)
  3. “There are fifteen farming villages within a day’s run for a young person,” said Grandmother Sweet Lady. (Critique: She would say, “villages where they grow corn, not farming villages.”)
  4. “Are you okay?” she asked. (Critique: “Okay is too modern a word for them to use.”)
  5. Chumana heard the first sound of a man speaking loudly in the courtyard as if telling a story or preaching a sermon. (Critique: “Sermon pulled me out of the moment because it doesn’t sound like a word they’d use in that time period.”)
  6. The boys led them into dark passageways and through doorways Chumana could not see. (Critique: “Doorways sounds like a word we’d use for modern houses, not ancient dwellings.”)
  7. “You must be a witch or something.” (Critique: “The or something sounds like modern juvenile slang.”)
  8. Grandfather laughed harder until he had a coughing fit from aspirating some of his saliva. (Critique: “Aspirating just seems too clinical here, and out of the period.”)
  9. Koko prepared the tobacco and smoking paraphernalia to pass among the elders. (Critique: “They wouldn’t have called it tobacco. They would’ve said ‘smoke weed,’ or something like that.”)
  10. Tuwa recognized Grandfather’s smooth globe of obsidian, deeply black and cool to the touch. (Critique: “Obsidian bothered me, it’s too 20th century, they’d call it ‘glass rock’ or something.”)

Thanks, and now for the poll:


Filed under Anasazi

14 responses to “Words out of Time?

  1. Jeff, it’s an interesting challenge: it almost dares you NOT to use neologisms, since so many
    modern words and phrases would be out of place in the mouth (or mind) of a primitive character.

    At Plymouth Plantation they have actors portraying the actual members of the Mayflower colony. As they go about living their lives, you can mingle with them, chat with them (I found an “ancestor”–that was weird). But if you mention something like “the radio,” they are quick to say, “what is that? I don’t know what that is.” They’re well-schooled and don’t break character.

    Do you think that might be a good test? In your mind, ask an Anasazi character if he/she knows what “a decade” is. If you can imagine them saying no, then you keep looking.

    This interests me a lot, by the way. I’m always seeing neologisms and wishing I could call up the writer. Usually it’s something like a character on Madmen saying, “wow, what a bummer.” That kind of thing. I’ve never written fiction that reached back any farther than the 1920’s, have always been awed by the challenge of taking on a primitive world.

    • Anasazi Stories by Jeff Posey


      You’ve nailed the problem. I’m using a language (English) that is 100% neologism to the Anasazi. So that’s not really the question. It becomes more one of almost cosmetics — what makes the reader think or feel that a word is neologistic (forgive me for the construct)?

      One of my prime goals is to portray the Anasazi and not being primitive. They detected and devised a way to measure, for instance, an obscure moon cycle of 18.6 years.

      I like your Plymouth Plantation challenge (I’ve not been there, but I have been to Sturbridge Village, which is similar).

      The problem for me is one of concepts. Of course they had concepts for longer periods of time similar to “decades.” Our modern concept of “decades” conveys that, even if it’s not what they actually used. So by my contorted logical thinking, it’s okay to say “decades.” But people sure do react negatively to that. So I’m going to have to rely on the kindness of readers to help me get all this worked out in revision.

      Thanks for you comment. And, by the way, I perused your site. Good stuff. I’ll pay more attention to it now.


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  3. I think the nouns are generally OK, the verbs a bit questionable, and the turns of phrase problematic. They would have to call “shiny black rock” by some kind of name, and obsidian is as good as any other word for the transliteration. Same for decade, farming village. If they used doors, they would know what a doorway is; if not, it would be an entrance or a house portal, etc. “Okay” and “or something” do sound too modern in construction, and “aspirate” is pretty clinical. “Choke” might be more appropriate for the culture and technology level.

    Interesting technical points to consider, though. Anything that jars the reader out of the world of the story would be a problem.

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  5. Deanna Schrayer

    I am so glad I don’t write historical fiction. The research alone would do me in. 🙂
    That said, I do read enough to know modern slang would throw me off, such as “okay” and “or something”.
    I agree with Laura about whether you’re using the language in narrative or dialogue. That makes a big difference.
    I haven’t said much, but I hope this bit helps.

    • Anasazi Stories by Jeff Posey

      So if the Anasazi had their own slang — and surely they did — and it could accurately be translated as “okay” or “or something,” I take it that still wouldn’t sit well with you. Or Laura.

      That’s very good for me to know. I’ve been intentionally using that to give my characters a cozy, “I’m just like you” kind of feeling for readers, rather than “I’m exotic and different.”

      But so far, these slang terms in dialogue are the ones that bother people the most. If I want my characters to use slang, then I need them to develop their own version that doesn’t sound so modern.

      I got lots of search-and-replacing to do.

      Thanks, Deanna — and everybody else. I’m not going to comment on each one. That gets tedious.


  6. The problem with trying to age your words is that so often the results end up sounding more awkward than the word you are trying to avoid. It’s not easy to do. I loved your solution for comet, for example. Long haired star sounds very authentic. Some of the other suggested alternatives sound very contrived.

    Others would sound wrong in dialog, but would not bother me in exposition. Aspirating is an example of such. I would have a hard time accepting one of your characters saying that word, but don’t think it would bother me in exposition. The ones that I think you should really stay away from are modern dialog slang.

  7. Most of what I write takes place in the modern day, so this was a whole new thought for me – thanks for stretching my brain! I’m not sure I would have thought twice about most of these words or phrases, with the exception of “okay” “or something.” And I think you’re right about avoiding Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans — I think I’d actually be halted more in my reading by something like “smoke weed” than I would by tobacco.

    I grew up in a family that studied the Anasazi with a passion – and spent some time out in Colorado learning about them. I’m looking forward to reading your work!

  8. I’m not a huge period piece reader, although I like fantasy, which is often set in a medieval-like period. Some of them did sort of stand out to me (Okay, sermon, and aspirating), but the rest, although the critiquer’s reasons are probably valid, didn’t shake me as much.

    For example, “farming villages”. I think the reader will get what you’re trying to say whether you describe it in the longer form, or leave it as is, and it seems too small of a thing to worry about. Granted, the word the Grandmother might have used might not be “farming”, but it would have been her equivalent of the time, and the desired meaning is there. Same with “decades”.

    Some people get shaken out of period pieces by words that feel too modern, and I think those are the worst culprits, rather than being absolutely correct on how words are used. I think the use of words depends on the feeling you’re trying to convey – “decades” has a different feeling to it than “moons”, which feels a little more romantic in prose.

    Just my two cents!

  9. I checked them all, but with reluctance on some. I think that none of them would be appropriate in dialogue, but some would be all right in narrative. After all, if you were translating a written piece, wouldn’t you translate into today’s language? (for instance, doorway)
    The slang ( ok, or something) wouldn’t belong at all.

  10. Linda Herrick

    In addition….(oh yes I’m a writer and have lots to say :)) I think you have to be careful about stereotype. Why would ‘corn villages’ be any more correct than ‘farming villages?’ sure the Anasazi had a word for their agricultural endeavors and grew a variety of crops (I assume beans & squash too) Ok (modern) that’s all.

  11. Linda Herrick

    I am writing a novel with a large Hohokam component. I struggle with word choice for the time period. As narrator I don’t think it’s as critical to avoid words like ‘obsidian,’ ‘aspirating,’ ‘tobacco.’ But I do think it’s important to use verbiage relevant to the historical period when a character is speaking. I find this difficult because, of course, there was no written language to our knowledge for the Hohokam, or the Anasazi. I am even struggling with appropriate names and have resorted to using Hopi and some Tohono O’odham because of a loose argument of cultural diffusion.

    • Anasazi Stories by Jeff Posey

      Linda: I’m not alone! Thank you.

      It is indeed a struggle. Any English word is technically incorrect and out of the time period for the Hohokam or Anasazi. Dialogue is the most difficult. I refuse to write dialogue that sounds stilted or like Hollywood stereotypical American Indian. There’s a zone somewhere between a young Anasazi saying, “Okay, you’re stupid, then,” and “You man with no sense.” I’d far rather err toward the former than the latter, even if I catch grief from readers who think it’s too “modern.”

      I, too, derive people and place names from Hopi Third Mesa dialect.

      Thanks for your thoughts.


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