Contractions are historical, y’all

One of my pet peeves in historical novels is when authors try to make dialogue sound authentic by removing all the contractions. A natural-sounding phrase like, “I’m sure you’ll do well,” becomes the awkward and kind of comical, “I am sure you will do well.”

Please don’t do this to your readers or your manuscript. Some characters will speak more formally than others, but here’s the thing: English is a lazy language full of contractions and short cuts, and that hasn’t changed over the years. On the other hand, using contractions that are too modern in historical pieces ruins the flavor, like putting mint in your orange juice, so you have to pick the right historical contractions.

The types of contractions people use have evolved, but there are plenty of authentic historical contractions writers can use to make their dialogue sounds more natural and still understandable to the modern reader. Look at Shakespeare. His works mark the beginning of modern English, and he uses tons of contractions – and not just when he’s trying to make words fit the rhythm.

So, here’s a brief look at the history of modern English contractions.

First, the “it” contractions: ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, ‘twould. These are pretty common in Elizabethan (1500s) writings, and don’t sound incomprehensible to modern readers. ‘Tis replaces “it’s,” and ‘twould would replace “it’d” if anyone is inclined to use that modern contraction. Google n-gram viewer, which measures how often words appear in print, shows “’tis” peaking around 1700 then falling off sharply, so that by 1800 it’s not very common, and probably old-fashioned.

Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writings provide ample evidence for contractions with “is” and “will,” like: she’ll, we’ll, there’s, and he’s. Shakespeare also uses “I’m,” so all of those are perfectly historical.

“Have” and “had” are apparently more controversial. The OED says the contractions -‘ve and -‘d are post-Elizabethan, but other scholars, like E.A.J. Honigmann in The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, disagree. They find evidence of contractions like “they’ve” and “she’d” in period texts and suggest these contractions might be just coming into use in writing during this time (they could have been used orally for some time before). So, you’re probably safe with those too in most English historical fiction.

I’ve been reading letters written right around 1650 (and anyone writing in this time period is going to be middle or upper class and well-educated), and they use plenty of contractions: I’m, I’ll, we’ll, you’ll, ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, on’t (of it), t’other (the other), in’t (in it), and with’t (with it). Don’t also makes an appearance.

Most of the “not” contractions come into English a bit late. My old friend the Online Etymology Dictionary gives these dates for when some of them came into use (this would be when they’re found in print – they may have been used verbally for a few years before):

  • don’t – 1630
  • won’t – 1660
  • couldn’t – 1670
  • hadn’t – 1705
  • can’t – 1706
  • ain’t – 1706 (considered correct English until the early Victorian period [1800s] when it came to be seen as lower class – this was when contractions in general got a bad rap in formal writing)
  • aren’t – 1709 (sometimes spelled are’n’t)
  • didn’t – 1775

And then there’s y’all. It’s an early-1800s Americanism from the South and later the West. It was probably adopted into white speech from African-American speech. As a contraction for “you all,” “y’all” is generally meant to be plural. If you’re saying it to one person, it implies they’re part of a group. So, “Y’all stay off our property,” means “you and all your folks.” You-uns or yins was also used in the early 1800s in the American Old Northwest (i.e. Ohio and Pennsylvania).

Jane Austen gives us an idea of which contractions are in use in England in the early 1800s. She’s much more sparing with them than my earlier samples, but in Pride and Prejudice, we find: I’m, don’t, can’t, shan’t, won’t, you’ll, and ’tis. Lydia and Mrs Bennet use the most contractions, but the less silly characters use them occasionally too.

In 1837, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist gives us: don’t, you’ll, he’s, who’s, I’ll, warn’t (were not), can’t, hasn’t, it’s, wouldn’t, mustn’t, haven’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, mightn’t, needn’t, ain’t, mayn’t, it’ll, there’s, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, that’s, where’s, there’ll, you’d, he’d, shan’t, daren’t (dare not), and a variety of other slang-y historical contractions, used liberally throughout the dialogue.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, published in 1855 and incorporating a wider variety of social classes, uses: don’t, shan’t, can’t, won’t, an’t (and it), mayn’t, didn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, doesn’t, it’s, I’ll, that’s, we’ve, they’d, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve, they’re, you’re, they’ll, she’d, she’s, aren’t, I’d, and some others – a pretty full complement. The laborers use many more contractions than the upper class characters, but even well-bred Margaret uses don’t, you’ll, I’ll, you’ve, I’m, and others fairly often. At this point, as in Dickens, “’tis” is gone, even from old fashioned or upper class language.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, uses most of the contractions that Gaskell used (though not “shan’t” or “an’t”), plus ain’t.

So, it from the Victorian period onward, in England and America, writers have a pretty complete palette of contractions to choose from, and in any historical time period, people of all social classes used contractions.

And there it is: a quick look at historical contractions for fun and profit (but mostly for fun đŸ˜‰ ).

Whitney Award finalist Born to Treason

I’m excited to share that Born to Treason was selected as a Whitney Award finalist for historical fiction! The Whitney Awards were founded in 2007 to recognize and encourage the best in LDS fiction, and I’m honored to have my book on a list that’s included some of my favorite authors, like Martine Leavitt, Janette Rallison, Anne Perry, and Jamie Ford, and to be recognized this year along with historical fiction authors H.B. Moore, Jennifer Moore, and Amy Harmon, and my publishing house sister Sarah Beard.

Though I know you’re supposed to love all of your “babies” the same, Born to Treason was truly a labor of love – I did my master’s thesis on how Welsh Catholics navigated the Protestant Reformation, and I came to admire the courage and ingenuity of these pioneers of religious tolerance and (usually) passive resistance. It was a pleasure to share their story.

You can see all of this year’s finalists here (for some great book to add to your to-read list), and Born to Treason’s finalist spotlight here.

born-to-treason-promo

Suffering from “the spleen”

My blogosphere silence lately has been due to the extreme busy-ness of conferences, Pitch Wars, and my own editing, but I found this interesting tidbit while researching Renaissance life and health, and I had to post about it. I’m reading the letters of a seventeenth century woman who complains of suffering from “the spleen.” Her symptoms sound like depression and/or general anxiety disorder, so I did a bit of research and, sure enough, “the spleen” was the sixteenth century catch-all term for those and related mental health problems.

This was interesting to me because of the similarities and differences between mental health then and now. The symptoms were recognizable: moodiness, withdrawal, long-lasting “blue” feelings, irritability, trouble sleeping and/or oversleeping, and general nervousness or worry. Mental illness is not a phenomenon belonging only to the modern world.

One thing that was refreshing was the general Renaissance medical consensus that mental illness had a physical component: it was called “the spleen” because Renaissance doctors believed the symptoms were caused by an imbalance of the “four humors” that made up the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) caused, in this instance, by trouble in the spleen. With some modern folks claiming that mental illness and other hard-to-quantify health problems are just in the sufferers’ imaginations, it’s good to remember that it was recognized centuries ago as a real, physical health issue resulting from chemical imbalances in the body (even if early physicians weren’t clear on what those chemicals were).

On the disappointing side, there was a stigma even then against “the spleen” as being a woman’s illness. Though my seventeenth-century letter writer recognized some of the symptoms in the man she was writing to, she hesitated to “accuse” him of suffering from a “feminine” disease. This attitude persists today, making men less likely to seek help for their mental health issues. I also suspect it’s why mental illness came to be taken less seriously as a medical issue–as later generations focused on women’s perceived weaknesses, they began more and more to see mental illness as just a sign that women can’t handle much of anything (studying serious topics, thinking about politics, eating meat…), leaving countless men and women to suffer in silence (or in horrendous institutions for hiding away the mentally ill) until the recent push for reconsidering our understanding of mental illness.

I think mental illness is a topic we should shed more light on and continue to de-stigmatize, and I’m looking forward to exploring it in my upcoming NaNoWriMo writing project.

portrait_of_a_patient_from_surrey_county_asylum_no-_13_8408235032
A Victorian woman institutionalized for mental illness. A better understanding of mental health might have freed her from her prison-like existence. From the UK National Media Museum.

 

Cover Reveal for Born to Treason

Born to Treason comes out May of 2016, but I’m excited to already have its gorgeous cover!

BornToTreasonCover

About the book:

Smuggling pages from a forbidden book is a small act of defiance against Queen Elizabeth I, but it entangles Joan Pryce in a plot that may cost her both her heart and her life.

Joan is not only Catholic—her beliefs outlawed by the queen—but also Welsh, a people long oppressed by the English. When Joan’s father dies, she is cast out from her home. Nicholas, the childhood friend she was supposed to marry, is a cold stranger, disfigured by an accident no one talks about. Smuggling religious books gives Joan a chance to do something about the injustices around her, but draws her into a world where everyone has a secret. An agent of the queen is closing in on her, and she must choose between her loyalty to her faith, her country, and her heart. One misstep will land her at the gallows.

Sink or swim: Elizabethan style

I have a scene in my Elizabethan work-in-progress that requires several of the characters to jump into the water, and one of my critique partners asked, “Would they know how to swim?”

That’s an important question. It would be awkward to have the book end with all the main characters drowning (or worse, miraculously developing a skill they shouldn’t have), and Elizabethans were generally wary of water. I was pretty sure I’d read that Elizabethan men sometimes swam for fun (they “bathed” in rivers and ponds anyway, at least during the summer), and I assume people who worked in and around the water could at least dog paddle, but I thought I’d better make sure. Luckily, I found a charming work by Everard Digby, “De Arte Natandi,” a swimming manual written in Latin and published in 1587 (overlapping with when my book takes place).

The fact that it’s a how-to guide and in Latin indicates that swimming was probably not, in fact, a very popular sport among Elizabethans (at least not the upper crust ones–maybe those who didn’t know Latin did know how to take advantage of free outdoor recreation). Considering it was done outside and in the nude, it was also a decidedly male pastime. Still, I feel that I can justify my characters surviving their dunking. Everard Digby also gets bonus points for having a pretty cool name and for being a crypto-Catholic like some of my characters (remaining Catholic despite its being illegal and being fiercely persecuted at times, especially in the 1580s).

For your entertainment, here’s one of the illustrations from his book. I’d love to hear a modern swimmer’s take on the technique. đŸ™‚

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Did Lady Macbeth have a first name? Shakespearean name etiquette

I’m working on an Elizabethan historical fiction, and I’ve been struggling to find out what a male and female character who are lifelong friends would call each other in the sixteenth century. I wrote about it here, but I turned to Shakespeare for more research, and I feel a little more confident about my answers now.

First, the question of Lady Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s play, she has no name of her own. She is simply the wife or lady of Macbeth. That’s her entire identity. Though some of that is dramatic convention, there’s also a lot of historical weight behind it. Elizabethan men and women were defined to a large extent by their social and political roles. Women had no legal standing outside of their family role (though they did sometimes have their own jobs and could hold some positions in the parish or community).

**My site statistics tell me a lot of visitors come to this page searching for Lady Macbeth’s first name, and I don’t want to disappoint. The Shakespearian character Lady Macbeth is based on a medieval Scottish queen named Gruoch, daughter of Boite, and granddaughter of Cinaed (Kenneth III, King of Scotland). Macbeth was Gruoch’s second husband, and while I’m not familiar with medieval Scottish naming conventions, I’ll bet that she was not called Lady Macbeth in her own days.**

A lot of Shakespeare’s characters are known only by their surname or role, but not all of them. Romeo and Juliet, of course, have first names and use them to address each other, as do Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest, and the characters in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of Shakespeare’s plays have foreign or fantastical settings, though, so the characters may not be following Elizabethan conventions.

The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place in an England that would have felt contemporary to Shakespeare’s audiences, so it may be more accurate in showing English customs. This is the play, then, I’m trusting the most to help me get my name usage right.

The men usually use “Master So-and-so” when speaking to each other, and sometimes just call each other by their last names, especially when speaking to someone lower down the social ladder. Knights and priests are given the title “Sir” along with their first name. The men also address each other by roles or relationships, such as “cousin.”

The women, likewise, address each other as “Mistress So-and-so,” even when they’re close friends. In families, people use first names, including wives speaking to their husbands. Women call servants by their first or last names (gender doesn’t seem to influence which they use).

The character who interests me the most for my purposes is young Anne Page, who’s being courted by several men in the play. All the men–whether courting her or not–generally refer to her as Anne Page or Mistress Anne, and when speaking to her, most call her Mistress Anne. The exception is her favorite beau, who calls her Anne or Sweet Nan. She calls him Master Fenton (Fenton is probably his surname).

So, “Master” or “Mistress” was generally used as a sign of respect, often with last names, but sometimes with first names when the people knew each other well and/or one of them was much younger (I don’t think married women were ever addressed as “Mistress First-name,” and I’m getting the assumption that young men would use “Master First-name” with each other from Much Ado About Nothing).

First names might be used alone between single men and women, but this was probably more common when the couple was courting or at least had a romantic interest–friends would probably still use Master/Mistress. Unlike the Victorians, however, using first names does not seem to have been an indication of betrothal. Also, the use of first names alone seems to have been reserved for private moments. In public, more formal address was probably considered proper.

This all applies to middle class Elizabethans. Members of the nobility would have had titles to complicate matters. Servants seem to have been more relaxed in their name etiquette, and might call each other by just surnames or even first names regardless of gender.

What’s in a name?

I need to know what my Elizabethan characters should call each other.

I feel pretty well-versed in Regency and Victorian name etiquette. For the most part, with Victorian forms of address, someone was Mr., Mrs., or Miss to the opposite sex unless the speaker was closely related or engaged to them. Men almost never used first names with one another (unless they were a “Sir,” and then it was “Sir John” or “Sir Walter”–isn’t that odd?). Mr. Smith and Mr. Wallace became Smith and Wallace if they were good friends. Female friends might “propose” to one another, declaring themselves close enough friends to use first (“Christian”) names. Otherwise they were Miss [Surname] or sometimes, in the case of younger sisters, Miss [First Name]. Male servants were often called by their last names, female servants by their first unless they were older or high up in the servant ranking. Sometimes the mistress of a house would “rename” a servant, so Augustine might be called James and Georgette could become Jane if it fit the mistress’s whim or sense of propriety (not wanting servants to get “above themselves”).

That’s not too hard, right?

The trouble I’m running into is figuring out Elizabethan name etiquette. I’m not interested in Elizabethan forms of address for courtiers at the moment–they’re a whole different matter. But when did your average, relatively well-to-do Elizabethan man or woman call people by their first names? I have an MA in this period of British history, and I’ve never come across an explanation of the social rules of Elizabethan names. I read a stack of “Life in Elizabethan England” type books, and none of them offer the details I’m looking for, so I turned to primary sources–poems and plays from Renaissance England–to see what I could glean.

Men and women were generally called “Master [Surname]” or “Mistress [Surname].” Sometimes a women might be called “Mistress [First name]”, maybe especially by men who were close to her or to her family. I’m still trying to work out the details of when that was acceptable.

Family members used first names with each other, though men often called their wives “wife,” “lady,” or (less kindly) “wench.” The wives commonly called their husbands “sir.” This is an interesting insight into how important ranking was to the Elizabethan mind–the husband was (in theory) firmly ensconced as the head of the house, the wife likewise just below him in her role as mistress of the house, overseeing servants and daily work. Rank and role were central to identity, maybe more so than given names.

Elizabethans usually used “Master” and “sir” (or “Mistress”) toward their social superiors who didn’t have formal titles, used surnames and occasionally first names with their friends and equals of the same sex, and used first names or even pet names when addressing servants. Servants, however, seemed to use first names among themselves, regardless of gender. Maybe because they shared a similar social sphere (though of course there were ranks even among servants).

Does this mean a man and woman who are courting might call each other by their first names? What if they’re lifelong friends of equal social standing? Does using first names imply betrothal as it did with Victorians? The courting couples in the contemporary Renaissance plays I’ve read so far don’t use names much when they speak to each other, and the women don’t do a lot of talking. In Thomas Seymour’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, a man and woman carrying on a illicit affair still call each other “Master X” and “Mistress Y”, but that might be a devise to remind the audience that their relationship is adulterous.

If I can’t find a better answer, I’ll err on the side of Victorian-like formality, but I’m a firm believer that these little details set the flavor of the story, and I want to get them right. If anyone out there knows the answer, I’d love to hear it, and if I find one myself, I’ll post an update.