“The language of stamps:” a cautionary tale for steampunk writers.

a guide to the language of steamps

Fascinating blog post here about the many ways in which the positioning of stamps on mail in the 19th century held a message for the recipient.

What’s really striking about this to me is that it’s such a wonderful example of something writers of anything historical–like steampunk, for example–need to remember but usually don’t: that we communicate with other people in a number of languages, only one of which is spoken. We communicate with expressions and body language, with our choice of vocabulary and grammar and rhetoric, with our use of emoticons or lack of same, with variations in vocal tone, with length or shortness of paragraphs, with the kind of manners we choose to employ…humans are radio stations, broadcasting and picking up messages across a very wide spectrum. To assume that the spoken language is not only the primary language but the only one is to make a major mistake.

But that’s what a lot of steampunk writers (it seems to me, obviously) choose to do. People forget that the Victorians communicated in more ways than just spoken language. The Victorians communicated with each other in all the ways I listed above, and many more. We, all of us, see the similarities with the Victorians–the English they used is the same we use, their social structures are much like ours, and so on–and forget that, as L.P. Hartley said, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” We have some things in common with the Victorians (and of course this applies to all peoples of the past, but I’m writing about steampunk in particular now), but that just means that the differences between us become that much larger and more stark.

The Victorians were different. They used the language of the stamps (and for that matter the language of flowers) to send messages. They communicated with each other in ways that we have completely forgotten about. They spoke languages that are long-dead and obscure to us. Steampunk writers, remember that. When writing Victorians, don’t assume that you can put someone from the 21st century in late 19th century clothing and e voila you have a legitimately 19th century character. Do your research first. The past is another country. Its inhabitants are foreign in ways that we do not know. Find out what those ways are before you try to create those inhabitants.

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