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I find the writing style of the show Merlin to be very good, and much better than current/modern English usage. Details about the show can be found at IMDB's Merlin page, and Wikipedia's entry about the Merlin TV series.

Can someone tell me what this type/style of English is called, and from what time period it is from? Does anyone have any references, links etc. which will give details on this style of writing?

Update 1:

Here's one sample dialogue:

Uther: Let this serve as a lesson to all. This man, Thomas James Collins, is adjudged guilty of conspiring to use enchantments and magic and- pursuiant to the laws of Camelot- I, Uther Pendragon, have decreed that such practices are banned on penalty of death. I pride myself as a fair and just king, but for the crime of sorcery there is but one sentence I can pass. (Uther raises his hand and Thomas is executed) When I came to this land, this kingdom was mired in chaos but, with the people's help, magic was driven from the realm. So I declare a festival to celebrate twenty years since the Great Dragon was captured and Camelot freed from the evil of sorcery. Let the celebrations begin!

More example dialogue can be found at Wikiquote's Merlin page.

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At English Stack Exchange site, I got a hint that this is Shakespearean style of writing. –  Abhijeet Pathak Nov 9 '11 at 7:00
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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Nov 8 '11 at 17:46

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

3 Answers

The problem with trying to emulate a particular writing style like this is that it isn't really based on any true historical language. The period is intended to represent the early Middle Ages, but realistically they didn't speak any language we would readily identify today as English. What you have here is a contrived language style that is intended to make the listener believe they are in a different time.

If you look back at this particular example, one of the things you will notice is the lack of apostrophes. When writing fantasy novels, I almost never use them in my dialog. So rather than say "I can't condone sorcery" it would be written as "I can not condone sorcery". The idea is to try to make it seem more formal and more distinct than what we commonly hear on a day to day basis.

There are other things that are being done to help make the listener (reader) feel as if they are in a different time period, and it is up to you as the writer to get this across. Just the mention of sorcery or dragons is a step in the right direction!

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In The Once and Future King, T.H. White referred to that style as "the High Language", something that his knightly characters would put on like a uniform when speaking to their peers or about their Quest. And, linguistically speaking, it is a High Language (or H dialect, since the term "High Language" carries a value implication relative to the L or M dialects used colloquially or semi-formally). The H dialect of a language is the version of the language one uses when writing formally or giving a formal speech (although the H version of English is eroding lately, being reserved primarily for academic and diplomatic purposes these days). H is, in a lot of ways, a relic of the past, the way people may have spoken two or three generations ago. It has ever been thus -- the King James Bible of 1611, for instance, was deliberately written in a style that would have been current around 1500-1550 so that it would have a ring of antiquity and authority.

The example you cited is similar to early modern English as it was written (not necessarily as it was spoken), but with modern forms of the words. Particularly, the verbs are not conjugated in the 16th- and early 17th-century style (there's nary an est or an eth to be seen), and the pronouns are today's pronouns (thou, thee, thy, thine and ye are not used). The result is an exaggeration of the H dialect of current English. H generally avoids contractions, and the sentence structure is often more complex, with more inversions (Yoda-like constructions) and greater topic prominence (the subject of the sentence is visited twice, once as a noun and again as a pronoun, as in "I, Uther Pendragon, ...").

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This is a speech. Uther, whatever his other faults, does give good speech, but so do many modern English speakers.

If you want all your characters to speak in speechese — long-winded, complex, winding sentences; occasionally inverted grammar; archaic phrasing; drums and trumpets under every applause line — it will read very prettily, but it won't sound realistic. It's up to you if that's the effect you want.

Read through a few Tolkien books. If they sound like ear candy, go for it. If it takes you three or four tries to get through a sentence... leave the speechese for the speeches, and have your dialogue sound more like people talking than people orating.

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The sample that I've given is a speech. But if you watch the TV series almost all the dialogues are in such Shakespearean style. And believe me, (at least) I find it very good to listen to when the character speak. –  Abhijeet Pathak Nov 9 '11 at 6:58
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@Abhijeet Pathak, dialogue that sounds cool while listening may not be so attractive when reading. Remember, on TV you have the personality of the actors to carry the speech, while in a book, it is just one complicated line after another. –  Shantnu Tiwari Nov 9 '11 at 9:44
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