Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Measures thou see art but trifles

Thanks to Ian Sales I have just caught up with the controversy regarding Liz Bourke's review of Michael J. Sullivan's novel Theft of Swords. For those who want to read the full debate, which has spilled far beyond the review's original publication on Strange Horizons, Bourke herself has helpfully listed all the links she could find here. I am impressed by Bourke and baffled (and slightly worried) by some of her critics.

I want to pick up one of her arguments in particular, because I think it's important. Bourke takes issue with one particularly purple paragraph of the book which begins with the immortal sentence "Measures thou see art but trifles." She says,
If you're going to write in a dialect with which you're not familiar, whether archaic or foreign, it behoves you to become familiar with it. If you're writing in Early Modern English (a language still read and performed, and not just by Shakespeare buffs), it behoves you—and your editor, and your copyeditor—to get the basic grammatical structures right. Early Modern English does have a grammar. And if you don't know the grammar offhand, the internet does.
As she points out, the sentence should have been "The measures thou see'st be [or are] but trifles." A couple of Sullivan's defenders jumped on this point:
This is a FANTASY BOOK. He can make up whatever f*ing language he pleases quite frankly.

The language isn't real. The world isn't real. Guess what, magic isn't real. Sullivan can make up whatever phrasing he wants in this world.
As another commenter and I have pointed out, they are objectively wrong on this point, and Bourke is objectively right.

Perhaps I can help with an analogy. If we were talking about an sf novel where astronauts landed on the surface of Jupiter and walked around, that would simply be wrong. The argument can be made that the author is free to make up what he or she likes about the surface of a planet that nobody has visited ("It's a made-up Jupiter!"). But in fact we know enough about the conditions of Jupiter to be sure that it will never be possible for human beings to land on it and walk around. The visible parts of Jupiter are cloud and would not support an astronaut's weight; the solid surface is so far down that it is subject to colossal pressure which would squash any traveller. It doesn't matter how well such a book is written in other ways; anyone who knows anything about Jupiter will find that their appreciation of the book is very negatively affected by the author including such a scene.

So it is for the use of Early Modern English. It's not a made-up language; it's a real language, just as Jupiter is a real planet. There are rules about how you can use the word "thou" - for instance, it changes the verb "see" to "see'st". There is a rule about how you use the word "art" as a part of the verb "to be" - it goes with second person singular "thou", not with third person plural "measures". If the author breaks those rules, it is impossible for anyone who knows Early Modern English to ignore, as bad as describing your characters walking around on the surface of Jupiter.

And if the author has broken those rules, the copy-editors and the rest of the editorial team have a duty to spot and correct it, a duty which was clearly not discharged in this case.
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