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I'm Patricia, from Brazil, and I'm translating my fantasy novel into English. I find it quite hard to express different levels of formality in this language. One of my characters is a mystical entity, so the formality of her speech is supposed to be greater than the rest. Therefore, I thought about using Early Modern English for her. I don't really know if it's correct or even common, but I have no other idea.

I've been studying as much as I can to quickly absorb EME grammar, but I can't seem to find any explanations on the imperative forms of verbs. Should I use -eth or -est on these? I've found some "cometh" around the internet, but I'm confused with whether or not to use -eth in all other imperative verbs. (Honestly, I'm not even sure if "cometh" is imperative or present - or both) Thank you for your attention!

EDIT: Thank you all for your answers, they helped a lot! I'll try my best to follow your suggestions. I'm new to this site and I thought it'd take a long time to be answered. I'm really surprised and super grateful!

  • Welcome to Writing.SE, Patricia! Please take a look at our tour and help center pages, they should give you some information about how Stack Exchange works, and about our scope. Your question is a better fit for English Language & Usage than for us, I believe. I am marking it for migration. Basically, they deal with language usage (words, grammar, etc.) while we deal more with tropes, style, publishing... – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 19 at 21:58
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    I have mixed feelings but ultimately, I agree with @Galastel. That being said, questions you have about translation of a novel are on topic here. For example, the underlying question of if using an earlier version of English is an appropriate way to mark formality in speech (spoiler: it's not). Or ways you might create that impression. – Cyn Jul 19 at 22:09
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    I'd encourage you to keep things simple (ditching the EME, for starters). Formal language: don't use contractions; don't use slang; don't use down-to-earth terms like "ditch." Leave emotions out of the formal person's speech as much as possible. If you have a choice of two words that mean almost the same thing, don't avoid using the "fancy" word (as long as you use it correctly). Make sure the character is unfailingly polite at all times and never interrupts or shows impatience. – aparente001 Jul 22 at 4:41
  • Yes, having your entity speak in the English of Shakespeare's time would. indeed, be a good choice. Saying "thee" and "thou" instead of "you", endings of verbs like "runnest, runneth". But this is probably not easy for you, a non-native, so do. – GEdgar Jul 22 at 12:25
  • Can you clarify? The title question seems to be about how to be formal in English, but the content of your question seems to be about how to do imperatives in EME. Which one is it (or both)? – Mitch Jul 22 at 12:34
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(Edit: this was a response to a discussion in the Writing SE. I tackled the non-grammatical elements for that SE by addressing a modified version of the question to aid translation, "How should one approach creating formal speech for a fantasy novel in English?" It's clearly not as relevant in the English Language & Usage SE, but I'm not going to delete a pertinent and useful answer only because the question was migrated.)

Formality in English

As Cyn hinted in their comment, older speech patterns are not necessarily more formal, as people have always used different registers reflecting their education and social status. Generally in the English-speaking world (and, I imagine, always and everywhere) the nobility and upper classes have been held to higher standards of grammar, rhetoric, and diplomacy, and this dictates what is "formal" at any given point in time. In the UK there's even a deliberately-cultivated upper-class accent (Received Pronunciation, or the Queen's English). Sometimes formality does include antiquated language because there will be preserved, formulaic structures that are retained for the sake of tradition, such as you might find in legal declarations ("Whereas, ... I do hereby declare") or religious ceremonies (wedding vows), but that isn't typical of unscripted speech. Typically as well, there is some conflation of formality with politeness in speech. Note that that doesn't necessarily mean respectful or obsequious speech; it's just that insults and demands are not expressed as directly. (For extreme examples, 19th century social dramas capture this perfectly.)

Mixing English from different time periods

Using EME for one character but contemporary American English (e.g.) for the rest would not convey a different level of formality as much as it would say "this character is 450 years old and from another place". Maybe that works for your character, but you would probably still want to hit that upper-class register in EME.

World-building through dialect choice

One way to help your voicing is to draw a cultural or linguistic analogy from your fantasy world to the English-speaking one. Having a baseline will help you find the right registers for your characters. Decide if it makes sense to use contemporary speech patterns in your world (it's easiest for the readers to understand but harder to shake the cultural baggage), and if not, choose a rough date and region from which to draw your speech patterns, e.g., Victorian England. Your mystical entity can be the only one who sounds like Queen Victoria, and everyone else can sound a bit like Charles Dickens or his characters, depending on their social class or place of origin.

Because dialect and slang can be such immediate tags for culture, many fantasy novels try to create a sense of timelessness by avoiding slang and idiom. Sometimes, to be more true to the way languages work, authors will inject their own slang into the piece as linguistic worldbuilding. Either way you want to do it, less slang is more formal in English.


SE prompted me to edit this answer instead of submitting another one, but here's some info more directly related to handling the grammar:

There's a similar question that popped up asking how to handle writing passages in some form of archaic English (in this case, without doing all the research necessary to get it): Believable but easy archaic English?. The answers include many links to additional resources about how and why to use and fake older versions of English, including pitfalls to avoid. I think these could be helpful to you. My advice: don't try to pass off unresearched superficial differences as authentic; many readers will know it's wrong immediately, particularly if you botch the pronoun cases and verb conjugation.

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Imitating some of the styles of Early Modern English is a good way of giving a fantasy feel to a piece of writing.

You don't want imperative verbs – those are what you'd use to give command. In Early Modern English, you'd use the base form of the verb, as we do today. "Come!" "Halt!" "Get thee hence." There's no need for any "-eths" or "-ests".

In Early Modern English, you MIGHT use the "-est" ending for verbs with thou, and "-eth" for verbs with he, she or it. Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English, but you won't see many of these endings there – they were disappearing by his time. But dropping a few in can add a touch of formal fantasy. "Thou" is used when talking to a single person ("you" was used for a group, like the distinction in French between tu and vous). Thou is used with -est endings.

"Thou wouldst go?" "I would." "And you, bold knights, you too would go?" "We would."

The -eth ending is used for verbs in third person - he, she, it.

"Sir Robert cometh!" "He hath ridden far this day."

The use is almost exactly the same as the -s ending we use today. It's like an -s with a lisp.

People imitating this kind of language will often confuse -eth and -est, but the rules are simple. -eth for he/she/it, -est for thou.

Don't overdo it, or your writing will be hard to read. As with dialect, a little goes a long way.

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    By the time that "thou" was dropping out of favor, it's worth noting that deliberate use of "thou" was usually reserved for addressing one's inferiors only, as "you" would have been the polite way of addressing everyone else. A great discussion of its importance in English: Merriam Webster, "Why did we stop using 'thou?'" – wordsworth Jul 20 at 19:35
  • The OP was looking for a way to increase -formality-, not the fantasy feel of things. I agree that EME would sound more fantastical, which would distract from any feeling of formality it might give. It is only my opinion, but I think EME grammatical constructs (like 'thou' and 'wouldst' and such) have been done so poorly that it should be avoided even if done accurately. – Mitch Jul 22 at 12:31

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