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What Is Archaic Diction?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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Archaic diction is also known as archaism. When a person uses this method of speech, he or she is using words that are old-fashioned and belong in an older era. Poetry is the primary area where archaic words find uses, but plays and books can also contain them. One example is the presence of the word steed in place of a more modern word like horse or stallion.

Language evolves and changes over time. The English that William Shakespeare spoke and wrote in is very different, for example, to the English that Americans and British people speak today. Even in Shakespeare's day, there were words that were out of fashion and belonged to a previous era.

Poetry is an art form that necessitates the use of descriptive and evocative words. Therefore, a poet may prefer to use an archaic word instead of its modern counterpart. The sound of the older word may suit the poem better in terms of rhyme, assonance, or alliteration. It may suit the meter of the poem better than a newer word with a different number of syllables.

The intrinsic fact of a term being archaic, and therefore less common, may give the poem more mystery than a more easily recognizable word. As well as poets, people who write plays and those who write books may use archaism for some of the same reasons. When a writer sets a story in a particular era, he or she may also use archaic diction to make the story more realistic.

Use of old fashioned terminology is not restricted to modern poetry. Certain historical eras of poetry featured the use of archaism. Samuel Coleridge, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson all wrote poems in older languages than the usual 19th-century English. Most poets and writers, though, write in the language they speak, and the contemporary audience can understand all the words in the resultant works.

A problem with writing in archaic diction is that many people do not understand the old wordings for familiar concepts. While archaism is always present in old writings and poetry, they typically require translation into modern language for readers to understand. A poet who deliberately adds archaism to his or her poetry could alienate a large part of the audience who do not wish to spend time interpreting the unfamiliar words. Many archaic words, however, such as steed, are commonly understood, although people generally reserve the use of such words for special situations, such as humor.

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Discussion Comments

By Misscoco — On Sep 12, 2011

I hope that our middle school and high school students are still being exposed to some of the great works of poets and playwrights from the middle ages.

I'll be the first to say that I had a hard time understanding and getting interested in poems with plays that were written in archaic language.

But I don't think there would be a problem if these old classics were supported by lots of modern day language. I mean the students could be given a complete synopsis in modern English so they would know the gist of the story or poem. Then combine the study of the original work, with a study of the word meanings, and the difference in word order etc. A bit of history and culture of the era could be added.

From my experience, the first hurtle was trying to figure out what on earth was going on.

By BabaB — On Sep 12, 2011

Archaic diction has its place even in these modern days. But in everyday conversation and writing, if you want to be understood, you need to use clear and understandable American English.

Archaic language from the time of Shakespeare is difficult to understand - some of the words we have never heard of and can only guess at the meaning. The punctuation, and word order are different. But, actually some of the commonly used words like, art is close to are, oft for often, and thou for you, are readily understood.

Another reason that we shouldn't pack all the archaic language up in a box, is because some of it is part of our common cultural literacy. Generations pass along meaningful passages that become recognizable to most of us. For example, from Romeo and Juliet, "O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou, Romeo?"... and "What's in a name? that which we call a rose..., are known by many Americans.

By StarJo — On Sep 12, 2011

When I first started writing poetry, I tried to incorporate archaic words into my poems. I found this to be too limiting. Though some of them flowed beautifully, I was having trouble expressing my raw emotions with a limited vocabulary. I abandoned the old words in favor of words I would use in my thoughts today.

Some people can write better poetry with archaic diction. A student in my poetry class had the mind for it. He was a big fan of medieval times, and he lived there in his head. So, it was fitting that he would use these words to express himself.

By cloudel — On Sep 11, 2011

I was a young child when my sister was in high school, and she had to memorize an entire poem written mostly in an archaic language. She would have to recite it in front of the class, which added to the stress.

It was so weird walking by her room and hearing her use all these words I didn’t know. She had to speak along with a recording of the poem to get the pronunciation right. To me, it sounded like she was chanting a spell.

Once she learned it, it stuck with her for years. I imagine I could ask her to recite it today and she would be able to speak most of it. Using an unfamiliar language is like learning a song. Rather than just the meaning, you focus on the syllables and the sound of it, and that’s what you commit to memory.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 10, 2011

I recently read a series of books set back in medieval times. The author uses a lot of archaic words, both in conversation between characters and in his descriptions.

He had a wonderful idea. He included a dictionary at the back of the book that gives a definition for every archaic word used. There were around thirty words that required an explanation. I found this very helpful.

Some people may find it annoying to flip back and forth, but to me, it was an educational process. I didn’t mind at all. It was like uncovering a mystery and learning pieces of a new language.

By seag47 — On Sep 10, 2011

Some people write or sing songs in an archaic language for effect. Two of my favorite Irish bands have a couple of songs on their albums that are sung entirely in Gaelic, an archaic language.

I can’t understand any of the words. The lyrics are written in the CD leaflet, and the Gaelic words look nothing like they sound in most instances. It’s still a beautiful language.

I don’t understand their pronunciation method. It’s not like Spanish or English, which are easier to grasp. It appears that there’s not much relation between the spelling and the pronunciation.

Thankfully, they also included an English translation of the lyrics. It’s so funny, because this beautifully dramatic song turned out to be about an old shoe. I thought it must have been something deep and heartfelt!

By jennythelib — On Sep 09, 2011

@MissDaphne - I had to read that, too! Oh my gosh, was it a painful experience. It's hard enough to read something from that far in the past; they just wrote from such a different place/experience. We'll never be able to laugh at Shakespeare the way his audience did. But to read something that was deliberately difficult for the time... well, that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

By MissDaphne — On Sep 09, 2011

I think the last sentence is right-on. I like to drop archaic (or just plain) big words into my speech sometimes, but I do it when I'm being ironic about something.

I think using archaic words poetically was done more in the past. One really good example is Spencer's "The Faerie Queen." It is more or less contemporaneous with Shakespeare, but it's much harder to read.

For one thing, Shakespeare is nearly always printed today with standardized spelling (used to be, people spelled words all kinds of different ways, and a lot of them were very different from the modern way). But "The Faerie Queen" is printed with its spelling intact because it was written in an archaic style - archaic for Elizabethan England!

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