Tuesday, May 22, 2012
As I described in my last post, I've been thinking about contractions in nineteenth century speech recently, out of concern that the characters in a series of historical stories I've written not sound too "contemporary." Is it really true that our 21st century speech is so much less formal than the speech of two or three centuries ago? Are contractions really a characteristically modern habit? After all, isn't it a timeless human instinct to try to do anything as quickly as possible, including constructing words and phrases? And don't other languages--French, for instance--have contractions built into the formal fabric of their tongues? (Yes, they do.) I figured--just two days ago, in fact--that instead of guessing around, I ought to do a little actual research on this subject. And what better way to determine if contractions are right for my nineteenth century fictional characters than to look at nineteenth century fiction? Thus I turned to one of my favorite nineteenth century authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne. I grabbed The Marble Faun off my bookshelf, pulled it open and skimmed Hawthorne's characters' conversations. (I didn't select the more famous Scarlet Letter because Hawthorne consciously set that novel in a much earlier time period.) A page or two--twenty pages--a third of the book. Nothing doing. No contractions. Okay, I thought, so maybe there's something to this anti-contraction bias.
But not so fast. In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne's characters are Italians and Americans travelling in Italy. Might they not speak a more formalized English as a result? Perhaps. So I tried another book. The House of the Seven Gables, a Penguin Classics edition printed in the mid-80s. A page or two--twenty pages--thirty--Shoot, I might as well give--Wait! There it is! On p. 103! Phebe is speaking to Hepzibah, and she uses the word "don't"! Eureka! Then I started noticing other "don't"s scattered throughout the book. But, wait a minute, I saw only "don't"s. I didn't see an "I've" or an "I'm" anywhere. I started to develop an elaborate private theory that "don't" entered American speech habits earlier than any other contraction. But no! I found it! On p. 82! Uncle Venner speaking to Hepzibah. Not only does he use "I'm," but "I've" and "Here's." Proof! Proof I say to ye! Americans have long spoken in contractions! (In fact, printed texts, because of their inherently more formal nature, are flawed as a means to detect spoken speech patterns, anyway. In other words, if Hawthorne could deign to use contractions in The House of the Seven Gables, the American speech used on the streets outside that house was probably rife with contractions--and a whole lot else.)
I followed up with some quick internet researching and discovered that indeed the anti-contraction notion might be nothing more than a modern nostalgic fantasy. Some commentators have noted that in the Coen brothers 2010 remake of True Grit, the tough western characters speak very formally. The Coen brothers were apparently told that such speech habits were indeed characteristic of the old west. You're right in thinking this is rather counterintuitive. You're also right if you suspect that the Coens got it wrong. It's true that Charles Portis's 1968 novel does evidence uncontracted speech, but it also evidences contracted speech. Commentator Mark Liberman considers the case of Portis's novel on his blog Language Log and argues that when Portis uses uncontracted speech he probably uses it not for historical verisimilitude but to convey character. Meanwhile, Liberman reports, the use of contractions in Modern English can be witnessed almost from its beginning. Even Old English evidences contractions! Liberman goes on to quote from a 1989 article by linguist Barron Brainerd, who charts contractions of the word not "from its first explicit appearance at the beginning of the seventeenth century in monosyllabic forms through its linguistically productive phase in the eighteenth to its general acceptance in the nineteenth." Accepted in the nineteenth! Ah hah! I know I sound like I'm gloating, dear reader, but it's nice to find yourself validated. (By the way, Liberman also compares Twain's 1876 Tom Sawyer with James Lee Burke's 2008 Swan Peak and finds a higher frequency of contraction in the former work.) Most of all, it's nice to know that I don't need to savage my historical fictions by rooting out all contractions. Some maybe. Some. But in deciding when and when not to remove contractions, the question of characerization can indeed take precedence over anything else. And that's exactly how it should be.