Language in the 18th and 19th century.
January 18, 2004 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Did people really speak in such formal, flowery language in the 18th and 19th century? (more inside)

For example, Benedict Arnold challeges someone to a duel in a recent TV movie thusly: "If your great umbrage would care to meet my high dudgeon at 12 paces, I would be happy to entertain you at dawn." Did people really talk this way, or is this just how they wrote, and we're extrapolating because we (obviously) have no recordings of casual, everyday conversation?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders to Writing & Language (11 answers total)
The The Diary of Samuel Pepys would seem to indicate that, yes, at least in the upper-class parts of 17th century London, language was flowery.
posted by tomharpel at 9:50 AM on January 18, 2004

Here's a passage from Joyce (written in the 20th century but taking place in the 19th)...

-Yes, father?
-Is your lazy bitch of a brother gone out yet?
-Yes, father.
-Yes, father.
The girl came back making signs to him to be quick and go out quietly by the back. Stephen laughed and said:
-He has a curious idea of genders if he thinks a bitch is masculine.

Which is certainly more natural and contemporary sounding than a lot of writing at the time, so I doubt regular people spoke with that flowery language, it's just that writing like people actually spoke is more of a 20th century thing.
posted by bobo123 at 9:54 AM on January 18, 2004

a late 20th century, western thing? i can remember when government forms were still written in bureaucratese, and in latin culture (what i know of it) a formal written style is still the norm in many cases (not novels, but letters, cards - even my email style has been criticised).
posted by andrew cooke at 10:46 AM on January 18, 2004

If you're really curious about this sort of thing, I'd check out public records and deposition transcripts of the time. James M. Cain got a lot of hell for Past All Dishonor, which was set in the Civil War but featured the tough guy panache of his contemporary novels. But here's the great irony: Cain did extraordinary research to get the language right and found that the intonations were roughly the same and recorded it all in his novel accordingly.
posted by ed at 10:46 AM on January 18, 2004

Some of this has to do with the history of English. For a long, long time, written English took a back seat to French or Latin. Even when English began to be used in a range of works, say, in the 1500s and 1600s, authors still felt a little insecure about using it, and so the language got fussed up with lots of "aureate" terms, usually borrowings directly from Latin. Some of that vocabulary--I think including the word "vocabulary"--has survived into today's usage, a bunch of the rest fell away, being too flowery even for the fops of the day.

Did people ever speak that way? In the general sense, maybe they did, at least in "polite" company. I think the general tendency was still to think that cultured people spoke French and educated people spoke Latin, and that English was a second-rate language that needed to be "dressed up" to sound proper.

In many places and times, there has been a disconnect between everyday language and polite speech, everything from "tu" and "usted" to the krama/madya/ngoko levels of Javanese. Following bobo123 here, the closeness between our written and spoken language today may be more the exception than the rule. And I wonder, following your own question, whether our ability to record spoken language exactly has made our written language tend to follow it even more closely.

Through the 1800s, of course, you have a variety of authors breaking down that notion, often by making their written English match the spoken vernacular more closely. Romantic-era poets did that--Wordsworth comes to my mind. Decades later Mark Twain had a very successful career in writing English that matched how he heard it from regular folks.

Changing social norms meant that people became less formal in language alongside with becoming less formal in dress. And with Britain becoming a world power and America rising, other people began to learn English as a major language. And if "common English" was good enough for Mr. Wordsworth, it was good enough for Lady So-and-so.
posted by gimonca at 10:58 AM on January 18, 2004

My hypothesis is yes, they did speak this way on occasion. Without access to prerecorded entertainment, people then had plenty of time to write monologues and probably even entire scripts for upcoming events.
posted by mischief at 12:05 PM on January 18, 2004

It's doubtless true that written language diverged considerably from spoken, but it's also true that spoken language in all but the most informal situations ("You're wrong!" "No, you're wrong!") tended to be more elaborate than we're used to. Remember, in olden times people were regularly exposed to much more high-falutin' language than we are, especially in church and from orators, and absorbed it; if you read letters written by 19th-century Americans, you'll find a much higher level of linguistic variety, whether for solemn or comic purposes, than is evident today, and it seems likely that they used the same effects in conversation (read Twain, for example, as recommended in gimonca's excellent comment). It makes a difference whether you grow up listening to the King James Bible or "See Spot run."
posted by languagehat at 12:34 PM on January 18, 2004

In many western cultures, written language has historically been deemed worthy of more attention to style, vocabulary, and expression than has common spoken language.

The notion of "plain, everyday" writing is a fairly recent one. The sorts of writing we consider normal now would have once been considered sloppy.

I suspect that the "flowery" language we often associate with the past wasn't a normal mode of everyday conversation, but instead that it was a normal mode of writing at the time.
posted by oissubke at 12:53 PM on January 18, 2004

Don't forget that the average adult in this country is reputed to have a 4th-6th grade vocabulary. That kind of creates a self-fulfilling prophecy with regard to how people speak now. Characters in books written/set in previous centuries are often from the upper social echelons and therefore represent the high end of the scale. Peasants, one can reasonably presume, would have been more linguistically limited.
posted by rushmc at 3:09 PM on January 18, 2004

Mark Twain's travel essay, Life on the Mississippi, provides examples of varying speech patterns which existed in the 1800's. The more florid dialogue was a sign of status for a number of individuals, often due to upbringing, rigid formality and the level of education a person may have attained throughout their lifetime. Dickens, Shakespeare, and ol' Geoffrey have observed similar patterns of conversation, and based their written dialogue accordingly.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:12 PM on January 18, 2004

Another little factoid to throw into the mix: many taboo words like "fuck" or "shit" have a pedigree that takes them back thousands of years to the early Indo-Europeans living in the bogs of the Ukraine. So somebody was certainly saying those words, even if they rarely got written down.
posted by gimonca at 3:16 PM on January 18, 2004

« Older Shut Down!   |   Fleas-B-Gone! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.