Did people in the 19th century really speak this way?

I was watching True Grit and a lot of the dialogue sounded unusual. Characters spoke in what seems to modern ears to be an overly formal and stilted manner. Now I understand that this was accurate as far as writing language went - people actually did write in what seems today to be a formal style.

But was this also true about spoken language? What sources of reliable information do we have about the way people spoke as opposed to the way they wrote?

On a separate note, my spell checker insists dialogue should be spelled dialog. Interesting how that comes up in a post about the increase of informality in language.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as the final resting place of those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Yeah, that’s weird; he should have opened with: " 'Sup, braaaa?"

I asked the same question about True Grit, but got no real satisfaction.

Ethan Coen, in this interview about the movie

The people posting to Language Log (a blog with contributors who are mostly professors of linguistics) say that True Grit is not a realistic depiction of nineteenth century American English:


My point is that, even in modern times with our exposure to various broadcast media like radio, television, and motion pictures, people will often still write in a manner that is imitative of what they have read in written works, using an extended vocabulary and subordinate clauses to fully elaborate the point they are making.

But they talk like this.

One thing striking to me about the True Grit dialogue (which Mr Downtown mentioned in his linked post) was the total lack of contractions. This may be a large part of why it sounded “overly formal and stilted.” Which raises (not “begs”!) the question of how commonly people used contractions in their speech in the 19th century.

If the girl’s family was related to the town schoolteacher, or the town minister, then she might talk that way. I have several aunts (all retired teachers) who talk almost that formally. They are from a generation or two after the time of True Grit.

Whenever a new township was organized, the first thing they did was to designate a plot of land for the schoolhouse. Education was valued. It was just that most farmers and ranchers had other demands on their time.

And every town has its self-appointed aristocrats.

A prepared political address is not going to be indicitave of the sort of spontaneous speech the OP is talking about. Lincoln, or whoever devised that speech, almost certainly wrote it down in advance, but even if he didn’t, the sort of vocabulary, grammar, and stylistic patterns one employs in a formal monologue are quite different from the speech patterns one uses in day-to-day conversations with businessmen, law enforcement officers, etc.

::sigh:: Look, I tried. I told him, Abie Babie Sweeeetheart, why can’t you just say “87 years ago”? It did great with the focus groups, the 18-35 demographic didn’t get confused, and ta da, everybody’s happy!

Did you know one yuppie from suburban Gettysburg actually muttered “Oh, man, MATH…” and left right after that first line?

But you know Ol’ Stovepipe, he just did it his way. And that was the end of our PR firm’s hefty retainer …

^I see that someone is channeling Bob Newhart.

What made it so appealing and “formal” to me wasn’t the lack of contractions but the overall richness of the vocabulary.

In the movie the characters had such innovative ways to use words, and so many words to describe actions, movement, thoughts, etc.

No one I know could hold a candle to the vibrant vocabulary of the girl in True Grit.

Again, read the link that I posted. The lack of contractions in True Grit is not typical of nineteenth century American English.

I read an article about Charles Portis, the author of the novel, and it emphasized that every one of his novels is written in an idiosyncratic and highly stylized voice, each different from the last.

If the movie is faithful to the novel* then you can’t make any judgments about reality from it whatsoever. All you can say is that you approve of the author being authorly. Which may be greatness, but greatness is almost never true to life.

*Never read the novel or saw either movie version.

Thanks! I was wondering who I was plagiarizing… :~}
I would’ve guessed someone more contemporary. Man, those old guys were funnnny.
Didn’t he include telling Abe to lose the typewriter and write it on an envelope?

The novel was never intended to be an accurate portrayal of the speech of the period. It was written at a time when “accuracy” wasn’t a fetish like it is today. Basically, Portis was creating a character in Mattie and her speech was designed to be part of her character.

What? Nobody’s ever used realistic diction in fiction, and nobody ever will. Even the pointless meanderings of Tarantino characters are just as stylized as (albeit better than) the words Lucas stuffs into the mouths of his characters.

Realistic diction is full of pauses, false starts, and all of the many noises you make to ensure you don’t lose your turn to speak even though you haven’t thought of anything to say yet. If a newspaper insisted on publishing what interview subjects actually said, it would be sued for the defamatory implication that all its subjects were morons. The artifices authors use to disguise this essential fact change with the current literary fashion.

In short, authors don’t fetishize accurate representations of how people talk. They fetishize newer artifices that signal authenticity to their audience.

So how would have Huck Finn talked?

Was William Faulkner’s work I never liked unrealistic?

I haven’t read To Kill a Mocking Bird for some time, but I think I remember distinctly different diction.

Read the link in post #5 for contractions in Huck Finn.

Are you seriously claiming that someone other than Lincoln wrote that speech? I have never heard anybody suggest that. All the drafts of the speech are in his own handwriting, including various changes he made to the speech.

And of course he wrote it in advance.
In the first draft, the first page is written on White House stationary, the second page is on lined paper, probably written on the way to Gettysburg. The second draft is likely to have been rewritten at his hotel, on the morning before the speech was given. There are also 3 copies written out by Lincoln after the fact.

(Interestingly, all 5 versions in his handwriting differ from each other, and from the newspaper accounts of what the speech said.)