Pardner, I am hopeful that you are fixing to answer my question.
May 9, 2012 7:52 AM   Subscribe

When did the use of contractions become common in American English and/or when did the absence of contractions become an (accurate or not) shorthand for outdated diction?

I am thinking in particular of any number of (mostly recent) depictions of the American Old West (e.g., the Red Dead Redemption video game, There Will Be Blood, True Grit)--though I don't think I've heard it in spaghetti westerns (Fistful of Dollars, G/B/U, For a Few Dollars More, etc.).

Part of this is surely confirmation bias, and I don't think those media are exclusively without contractions. But there is a particular nuance in something like "I do not reckon that I am able to help you, stranger" (or whatever, and obviously, we don't "reckon" much these days).

Is this absence of contractions a recent invention to represent the Old West? When did contractions become commonplace in American English? Did some contractions enter at a different time than others ("I'm" versus "Don't", for example)?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I can't answer the first part, but as far as contractions being indicative of outdated diction—I do not believe that is accurate. I have heard in finishing schools and upper-class education, people are taught not to use contractions in their speech because it is considered a sign of less-educated diction. Not being upper-class, I am not entirely sure if this is a universal thing or if it holds true, but at the very least I think it indicates that not using contractions is not outdated.
posted by Eicats at 7:58 AM on May 9, 2012

I'm far from a language expert, but I was under the impression that contractions have been around in English since... well, since English existed (google Old English contractions). But as to the Wild West contractions, here's a pretty good study on the linguistics of the True Grit remake and novel versus the language spoken at the time.
posted by specialagentwebb at 8:12 AM on May 9, 2012

To answer your first question, contractions such as can't, won't, isn't, have probably always been in American speech to some degree. The earliest appears in writing by the the mid 1600s, and most are found by the beginning of the 1700s. The likelihood is that people were speaking like that much earlier, as writing usually lags behind speech, moreso back then. How common they were I don't know, but it was almost certainly in the speech brought over with the earliest settlers
posted by Jehan at 8:13 AM on May 9, 2012

To take another tack, screenwriters aren't aiming for historical accuracy in their dialogue, they just want to sell the idea of a certain setting. Using blatant dialect ("you'uns kin fetch water from that thar crick") is frowned upon, so you want to find a way to use standard English to get the idea across. You also want to express this in a way that moviegoers will understand, which isn't the same thing as period accuracy. See also all the people speaking with modern-day British accents in films that take place in Elizabethan England.

At some point in the 80's or 90's that "I do not aim to shoot innocent folks" sort of Western-speak became the fashion for 19th century American film dialogue, for whatever reason. My guess is that it originated with Tombstone or Dances With Wolves. Maybe it's worth tracking down those screenplays to see how their dialogue differs from the old John Wayne classics? There's a Film Studies thesis in there, somewhere.
posted by Sara C. at 8:47 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Language Log's post on the use of contractions in True Grit may be useful. It would indicate that both the novel and the film use contractions in a particularly stylized way that doesn't reflect how people actually talked in that time period.
posted by Jeanne at 8:54 AM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

They were used by Chaucer in the late 1300's, so the basic answer is: they probably predate English itself.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:26 PM on May 9, 2012

Characters in Damon Runyon's work also typically avoid contractions. Find a youtube clip of Guys and Dolls to get a sense of this style.
posted by tractorfeed at 7:48 AM on May 10, 2012

I think the Language Log post noted by Specialagentwebb (and then again by Jeanne) has everything I need. I actually just threw True Grit into my list at the last minute based on dim memories of the movie; I didn't realize the key role it played in this mystery!

I thank you kindly.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:24 AM on May 17, 2012

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