Do You Speak 1850s English?

Then this is the book for you!

Yup! 1850s English was a very different language from today’s conversational English.

Maybe it is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ but I wrote my character’s dialogue as they would truly have spoken in 1850-slowly, deliberately and eloquently!  It has become a truism, but the fact can’t be overstated: the world moved more slowly over a hundred and fifty years ago. People moved slowly. They were more patient — they had to be! Transportation, cooking, dressing (women were still sewn into their clothes) cleaning— life! it all took a lot longer! Speech was flowery, oration and elocution were prized skills. One took one’s time in conversation, and used poetic images and ornamental, embellished, extravagant words.

Yeah. Big words. Always.

There was no ‘dumbing down’ of the language. We can tell that by reading or listening to famous speeches.” Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers…. Why the hell didn’t Lincoln just say “eighty-seven years ago” or even begin the Gettysburg Address with, “Back in 1776…”? Dialogue and speeches were filled with brain stimulating concepts and vocabulary, not weak verbs with dangling prepositions. They didn’t say ‘back up’ they said ‘retreat’, or ‘reverse’, utilizing the albeit subtle difference in each word’s meaning.

The written word was even more descriptive and precise than the words employed in the art of conversation. I was flabbergasted when my research for my second book, Pioneer Passage, led me to a New York Times front page article about a steamboat disaster, in which the headline sentence read:

The scene of the melancholy disaster to the steamer Henry Clay was visited at an early hour, yesterday, by an immense concourse of persons, anxious to recognize the lost, to reclaim the bodies which were recovered, or to gaze upon the wreck which told so eloquently of the folly and rashness that has shrouded many families in the deepest grief….” –New York Daily Times, July 30, 1852

A 21st century reader would give up at the words –immense concourse of persons–! There is still plenty of “folly and rashness” to report nowadays, but I swear I haven’t read those specific words used in combination in a news article in a long time!

In my books I write the narration in current 21st century English and the dialogue in 19th century English. There is a big difference, not only in the vocabulary, but the tense, the cadence and the pacing. It’s hard to do!  I write in this style for multiple reasons: 1. to be historically accurate 2. to distinguish my voice as the narrator from that of the characters and their thoughts 3. to place the reader in the mindset and ambiance of the time. and ok –admittedly 4. to use some of our great English vocabulary! We all had to ‘enrich our vocabulary’ (actual name of my textbook!) and memorize definitions in school, yet for many reasons (texting) words keep falling by the wayside!

A few of my readers did not like the flowery dialogue aspect of the book. I was accused of using a thesaurus to write! But I didn’t. (Not that there is anything wrong with that!) I learned these words a long time ago, and I like to take them out, air them, and run them around the block once in awhile. Because if I don’t use them, I forget them. And my writing becomes less specific–details blur, attributable to imprecise words, resulting in bland and uninteresting dialogue.

I was heartened to hear that another historical fiction author also writes her dialogue from the 19th century in the language of the time. In an interview at the end of the audio version of The Fortune Hunter, Daisy Goodwin said that she listens to Jane Austin books when writing, in order to get the rhythm of the language at that time and hone her dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not the brainiest, and I am certainly not a literary snob. I enjoy a good story no matter what words are used, as long as it is told well. In fact I used to amaze my sister-in-law by quoting the erudite Agent 86 from Get Smart, ‘Would you believe…two cops in a row boat?’ Or asking if we needed the ‘cone of silence’ when discussing something important. I’d even slip into actor Don Adams’ voice as the cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo, “That’s right Chumley!” Probably right after I quoted Shakespeare. They each were geniuses in their own right.

So give my book a chance! While you may not like the 1850’s speak so much that you break into “Ah, the mystical beauty of the thinly diffused vapors of westward sunshine” the next time you see a sunset, at least give it a try, and let me know what you think.

© Jane F. Collen August 2, 2019™ using big words….‘and loving it’!

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