Reading old novels leaves you sounding "archaic"?

I’d love the opinion of anyone who wants to jump in on this, especially if you like classic novels as much as I do.


I’ve had this debate with a number of people who criticize or compliment my English (native language, mind you) for its occasional archaic constructions and word usages. I’ve picked these up over the years from all of the old novels I’ve read. (I don’t usually read anything written after 1900 – not out of snobbery, but out of simple preference.)

Now that I’m getting back into French and re-reading my favorite old English novels in their French translations, I’m slightly worried about unknowingly integrating archaic words and phrases into my vocabulary.

In English, you see, I know these when I see them, and I can pick and choose what I like to add to my own speech. In French, I have no point of reference, and a tutor this morning pointed out that I’m not quite “au courant” in my word choices.

Now, my question: Is this a valid fear? My main goal in French is to communicate in as clear a manner as possible, but most contemporary French materials lack interest for me. How do you suggest I reconcile these two facts, if indeed I can?

Many thanks. :slight_smile:

Charlotte, hi!!!
I like to read classics, too! Recently I began to re-read " the American tragedy " in English. I think that your fear is unfounded. Continue to read the classical literature in French. You will have to choose the right words for your vocabulary!

As a guy who speak a somewhat archaic form of French, I would say: don’t worry about that! Most French Canadian living in rural area speak in a way that sounds a bit archaic to people in France (when they don’t tell us that it is totally un-understandable). If you ever make a trip to Nova-Scotia, you will find that people there speak exactly like Molière, and this is not a joke!
It also reminds me of one of my teachers. He was from Algeria, and, for him, the French of France was difficult to understand compared to the one spoken in Abitibi which is a very rural area of the Province of Quebec.

Speaking a somewhat archaic French might just make you more understandable for some people.


This is not a valid fear. I love “archaic” novels in Russian, French, Italian, Spanish and German. I do not find that it influences my language use. I get enough of all kinds of language input anyway. For some reason I find Balzac and Tolstoy, or even Manzoni not archaic at all. Because it is my own language I find Dickens or other 19th century writers more archaic. In any case, I am sure using these terms just adds a little class to your language, if it influences at all. Just enjoy what you like is my motto.

Thanks all for your enthusiastic responses. There are worse things I could think of than sounding like Tolstoy or Molière or Schiller anyhow – even if the fears were grounded. :slight_smile:

Sigma, I am very interested in what you say about Canadian French retaining some of the more archaic features of the French language. I’ve read often that American English also preserves older elements of English than what’s commonly spoken in England. I wonder why that is! Do we on this continent simply want to sound more erudite by sounding like the old masters (wink), or is there another reason for our conservatism?

Hmm… interesting things to ponder.

I don’t know for English, but I know that the French spoken in France change rather rapidly after the French Revolution whereas it stayed more or less the same elsewhere, at least from a lexical point of view.
But still, every dialect has change in its own way over time. Like in Quebec (informal) French, for example, you will find the “-tu” particle used to ask question. And I don’t think you can find it in any other variety of French.
I wouldn’t say that we are more conservative, but that our respective dialects change in their own way, and some feature were simply not preserved in the formal language whereas informal dialect wouldn’t have kept some feature if they were not part of the formal language.

my two cents…

In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary , and perhaps in some of Maupassant, you will see peasants in Normandy talking in a way that is similar to seome forms of Quebecois. e.g. " c’est-y vrai?"

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person who has read a lot of old books must sound very clever.

Come on Yutaka, you must recognise that one :wink:

Such of the people as think reading old novels leaves you sound archaic would see Miss Austin is waiting in the wings. (Is this sentence all right?)

Miss Austin would not find fault with it.

I heard one novelist/screenplay writer say that when he writes a book he avoids reading anything, because if he does, it inevitably affects the voice of his narrative.

Food for thought.

why I’d never! I do declare that perusing them ole word-buckets, as we used to call em back in the day will not lamentably affect my jibber-jabber.

Hehe… well said, grandpaw Yuriy.

I am not a fan of the modern literature, so I prefer to read the ‘classics’. Can it influence on our language? perhaps, yes. But I don’t think it is a bad influence. It enriches our language.
Moreover, I know even from my own experience that a lot of modern slang words will disapear in 10 years, only a few will be kept in the main body of language. It was, it is and it will be always so.
But the wisest way is,of course, to combine the vocabulary of reliable classic works with a modern language of TV, mouvies and newspapers.

I agree with Evgueny40 that classic literature has good influence under learning language.

If we are talking about classics, let me ask the opinion of books which are more simple (without difficult idiomatic sentences) and interesting classic novels in English.

@Ks I can recommend you stories by Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, O. Henry, F. S. Fitzgerald, E. Hemingway, Charlotte Brontё and J. London.

Agree wholeheartedly with Evgueny on the Charlotte Brontё recommendation. Her book Jane Eyre has been one of my favorites for years.

I’m also a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell (often overlooked in preference to her more famous friend, Miss Brontё), Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and – though she’s more contemporary – Agatha Christie.

Thanks and thanks Evgueny and Charlotte!!!
I definitely try to read these books definitely!

In my opinion classic literature are absolutely essential both in my mother tongue and foreign languages. Modern literature is necessary as well, though. Isn’t current modern literature the classic from tomorrow and hasn’t been today classics the modern literature from yesterday? A reasonable mix is the best way, isn’t it? We have very good literature today.

Perhaps there is good literature in Germany (and please let me know some of your favorite authors, so I can look into them), but unfortunately the vast majority of stuff I see published in English either concerns middle aged women who really hate their lives or men who really hated their childhoods.

I worked for a while as a manuscript reader in a literary agency. (A literary agency represents authors and helps them find publishers for their books.) In the 6 months that I worked as a manuscript reader, I came across one book that I truly enjoyed. This novel was extremely gory (which I hate), but very well-written and actually included Hemingway as a minor character. My boss said it would never get published.

Sure, it’s common for everyone to complain about the dumbing down of [insert country here] and the state of education in [insert country here]. It has been a national pastime for 5,000 years. Still, if given a choice between Augusten Burroughs, Chuck Palahniuk and Elizabeth Gilbert on one hand and Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Flaubert on the other… heh. Well, I’ll take Tolstoy, et al.

Just my opinion, of course. :slight_smile: