The Lamar Rifles

Immersion Language

A few thoughts on 19th century conversations in immersion experiences

19th Century Conversations. In order to sound like a 19th century American, then, one would have to consider four aspects of everyday conversation: (1) the subject matter; (2) the etiquette of how and when to speak, and to whom; (3) specific period vocabulary/word choice, and slang; as well as period cadence and intonation, and (4) what not to say.

(I) The subject matter of any conversation will mostly concern whatever is going on at the present moment, but should also be based on contemporary culture, religion, local and national politics, music, literature, fashion, commonly shared beliefs or values, gossip or rumors about people or events in one's immediate surroundings (including births, deaths, marriages, local elections, etc.) predictions about the weather, discussions about crops and livestock; asking after the health of family members; and so on. In addition, older folks would have memories of cultural and political events dating back to at least the 1830s. Most Americans were familiar with (and deeply reverential of) Revolutionary War history as well.

Obviously, the scope of this short essay doesn't permit an in-depth discussion of these topics, and the only way to master any of them would be to do some reading in 19th century primary and secondary sources. I can make a few broad remarks about content, though:

Some general observations about literacy and subject matter: Nearly 80% of white Americans in the South, and more than 90% white, and a high (though unknown) percentage of black Americans in the North were literate, so they would have had at least minimum access to popular culture through the print media. We don't have precise data about the literacy of black people in the South. Most educational historians agree that at least 10% of slaves were literate, but some suggest that the number was much higher. (See Lawrence Cremins' multi-volume work on the history of education in America.)

19th century newspapers frequently clipped articles from other papers around the country, so Americans would have had a fairly wide knowledge of important national events within a week or two of their occurrence. Also, 19th century newspapers carried news of foreign events, which appeared within three to four weeks.

Judging from the letters written by women, many women read newspapers and were at least marginally interested in politics, and were able to understand and discuss important events. They would probably not have talked about local politics in great detail, unless their immediate family members were involved, but would have understood the issues and candidates and would have (verbally) supported their husband's parties. However, the only in-depth political discussions I've ever found in women's letters were those written by ladies with strong abolitionist sentiments.

Since most Americans had some schooling, they would have been familiar with passages from such classical sources as Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, and selections from the Columbian Orator. In fact, the average schoolboy or girl who had attained at least a grammar school education would have had to memorize excerpts from those sources, which I believe accounts for the peculiar beauty and cadence found in many 19th century American letters. Americans would have recognized (and used) quotations from Shakespeare and Scripture.

Religion: Devout Americans (and especially women) would have referenced the Bible and religious topics in their speech. By the mid-19th century, most Americans over the age of 20 would have experienced, or at least been acutely aware of the religious revivals sweeping the nation. Religion would have been a vitally important part of many peoples' lives. Even those people (like Abraham Lincoln) who did not belong to a specific church would have been aware of the importance of religion in mainstream culture.

Culture: Excerpts from popular European operas, Shakespeare, and dramatized versions of popular novels would have been well known even on the frontier, since small touring companies presented these entertainments across America--even in tiny hamlets. (See L. Levine's Highbrow Lowbrow, as well as Mark Twain's Huck Finn.) Popular monthly journals carried installments from well-known authors such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mrs. E. Southworth, Sir Walter Scott, Thackeray, etc. These were widely read and discussed. (See Frank Mott's various volumes on 19th century publishing history.) Sheet music was immensely popular, and almost every young woman from a middle-class family would have had rudimentary training in music. (See Nicholas Tawa's High Minded and Low Down: Music in the Lives of Americans, 1800-1861.) As a side note: 19th century Americans often sang, prayed, and read aloud to one another from letters, newspapers, novels, etc.

The landscape: The US Census shows that before 1930, the majority of Americans lived and worked on farms, both in the North and in the South. There's a common myth that the North was heavily industrialized before the war; this simply isn't true until the 1880s. Therefore, it's important to recognize that most people living during the Civil War era saw much more in the landscape than we modern citified folks are able to see. That is, they not only recognized trees, plants, animals, birds, constellations, etc., but were also capable of judging, at a glance, the health, fertility, and future prosperity of the land, forests, and waterways around them. I imagine that talking with people who live on the land is one way to learn this; perhaps studying local trees, plants, birds, etc. might be another way. Judging from American travel narratives (i.e., those written by Americans for other Americans) these folks were fully capable of admiring the beauty and splendor of the landscape, even if they did have a shrewd and unsentimental point of view about exploiting it.

About fashion: From what I've observed, men did comment on women's fashions, though more often in a humorous or slightly disparaging tone. I've seen references to new fashions in soldiers' letters, and recent developments are often noticed in the editorial pages of newspapers. (I don't mean fashion columns--I mean, regular editorial columns.) Women certainly followed the pages of Godey's and Peterson's, and mentioned them in their letters. I saw one 1856 letter by a lady written to her husband, who had agreed to buy a shawl for her in town. She asked him not to purchase one until she had had a chance to consult the latest Godey's.

Gossip, rumors, and humor: 19th century Americans seemed to indulge in a wide variety of paranoid beliefs. Sometimes they formed political parties around such ideas. For example, consider the anti-Mormon groups, the anti-Catholics, and the anti-Masons; as well as the wild speculations and rumors about abolitionists and/or the "Slave Power." Throughout the war there were widespread "atrocity" stories both in the North and in the South, concerning brutalities committed by enemy troops upon civilians or soldiers. (e.g., polishing skulls for drinking cups.)

Gossip: People did share a great deal of information about each other in letters; I imagine it would be entirely appropriate to discuss the important events in neighbors' lives, such as births, deaths, engagements (and broken engagements), marriages, and even scandals. Health was an important topic; other people's illnesses would have been discussed at length. I've noticed that at least a quarter to a third of 19th century personal letters discussed the health of friends, neighbors, and family members.

Humor: 19th century Americans delighted in jokes, riddles, puns, and funny stories. Much of their humor made fun of foreigners, immigrants, black people, unmarried women, lawyers, --indeed, pretty much anyone was fair game, and there was no effort to soften the cruelty of some of their jokes.

Here's an example supplied by Linda Trent:

"'I am glad to find you better,' said John Hunter, the famous surgeon, to Foot the equally famous actor, one morning, 'you followed my prescription of course?'
'Indeed I did not, doctor,' replied Sam, 'for I should have broke my neck!'
'Broke your neck?' exclaimed Hunter in amazement.
'Yes,' said Foote, 'for I threw your prescription out of a three story window.'"

And a few other examples, culled from an 1861 issue of Harper's:

A SCOTCH cattle dealer, at Clones fair, was asked by a countryman to do him a favor. " You see that woman," said he, "on the sidewalk. Well, I've offered her five pound ten for her cow, but she won't sell. Now if you, a stranger, should offer her five pound fifteen, she would sell, but would not sell to me for that. Will you be kind enough to take this half-crown and bind the bargain with it; and I will then pay the money and take the cow." The good-natured cattle dealer effected the purchase as requested, and then turned to find the countryman ; but the latter was gone. He was forced to take the cow himself and pay for her, though she was not worth half the money he had thus bid to oblige the missing countryman. It was afterward ascertained that the woman was the countryman's wife, and they had thus managed to sell their cow to good advantage.

A Frenchman, near the Canada line, in Vermont, sold a horse to his Yankee neighbor, which he recommended as being a very sound, serviceable animal, in spite of his unprepossessing appearance. To every inquiry of the buyer respecting the qualities of the horse the Frenchman gave a favorable reply; but always commenced his commendation with the deprecatory remark, "He's not look ver good." The Yankee, caring little for the looks of the horse, of which he could judge for himself without the seller's assistance, and being fully persuaded, after minute examination, that the beast was worth the moderate sum asked for him, made his purchase and took him. A few days afterward he returned to the seller in high dudgeon, and declared that he had been cheated in the quality of the horse. " Vat is de mattaire ?" said the Frenchman. "Matter!" said the Yankee, "matter enough-the horse can't see! He is as blind as a bat!" "Ah," said the Frenchman, " vat I vas tell you? I vas tell you he vas not look ver good-be gar, I don't know if he look at all !"

"I say, Samba, can you answer dis conunderfum : suppose I gib you a bottle of whisky shut wid a cork; how would you get the whisky out without pullin' de cork or breakin' de bottle?" "I gives dat up." " Why, push de cork in. Yah, yah !"

My first denotes company, My second shuns company, My third assembles company, My whole amuses company.
Co-nun-drum (conundrum).

My first a baby does when you pinch it,
My second a lady says when she does not mean it, My third exists and no one e'er has seen it, My whole contains the world's best half within it.
Cri-no-line (crinoline).

Why are dogs and cats like schoolmasters and their pupils?
Because one is of the canine (caning), and the other of the feline (feeling) species.

If a pig had to build himself a house, how would he do it?
He would tie a knot in his tail, and then he would have a pigsty (pig's-tie).

What is worse than raining cats and dogs?
Hailing cabs and omnibuses.

What is that which goes from New York to Harlem without moving?
The road.

Why is love like a potato?
Because it shoots front the eyes, and grows less by paring (pairing).

At what place in England, and when, was Napoleon jealous of the Empress?
When he sate her in the Bricklayer's Arms (Station).

My first I hope you are, My second I see you are, and my whole you always shall be.
Well-come (welcome).

Why is an old hen walking toward Whitehall like the Gunpowder Plot?
Because it is a foul (fowl) proceeding toward Parliament.

My first the men will sometimes take Entirely for my second's sake,
My whole they vainly all declare Is more than mortal man can bear.
Miss-fortune (misfortune).

Among novelties why is a dog's tail the greatest ?
Did you ever see it before?
Which would you soonest have, a five-pound note or five sovereigns?


(To be read only by lisping young Ladies and Gentlemen.) Some sweet simple spinsters stray'd, scanning some stream (So simple, so sweet, scarcely single should seem). Said Susan-" Sophia! soon some sighing swain Shall sing Sister Sally some sweet-hearting strain, Serenading so sweetly, shall strike some such string, Sister Sally shall skip, Sister Sally shall sing."

He who travels through life in the hope of jumping into the shoes of another mostly goes on a bootless errand.

"Halloo, Sam, so you've got to work again?" "No, Jim-nare a job yet!" replied Sam. "Then what are you doing filing saws?" "Filing saws, Jim? Why, I ain't been filing any thing!" "What was you doing a minute ago as I come in?" " Nothing, only sitting here and singing." " Singing? Was you singing?" " Yes." "Oh, that's it, then," replied Jim, with an innocent air, "I thought you was filing a saw."

A teacher of music was once instructing Mademoiselle Desmatius in the part of Medea; but the latter sung without expression, and infused into her music little of the emotion it called for. In the third act of the opera occurs a passage where Medea, abandoned by her lover, gives way to the expression of her anguish. After several lessons upon this passage, the teacher said to the scholar, "Give way to your feelings ! Put yourself in the place of the betrayed woman! If you were forsaken by a man whom you loved passionately, what would you do ?" "Why, I should get another lover as soon as possible." "If that is the case, we are both losing our time here," answered the teacher.

There are three kinds of men in this world - the "Wills," the " Wonts," and the "Cants." The former effect every thing, the other oppose every thing, and the latter fail in every thing.

A couple of sailors were recently arrested in Plymouth for throwing buckets of tar over each other. It was a pitch-battle.

King Alcohol falls when his advocates attempt to support him, and they fall when he attempts to support them.
"I'm getting fat," as the thief said when he was stealing lard.

Values and Beliefs: It would be impossible to summarize these in a few paragraphs. In my own research, I've found an astonishingly wide range of political, religious, and social beliefs, and even a fairly surprising level of tolerance where one would least expect it. For example, I've found remarks to the effect that a member of some opposing political, ethnic, or religious group--even a despised group--should be treated in a civil manner or just left alone. While it would be important to have a basic working knowledge of the popular viewpoints of political parties, regions, etc., I believe there is a great deal of room for individual expressions and ideas, and more tolerance for differences of opinion than one might have expected. Hateful rants did exist, of course, and political commitments were profound; but there is room for an individual point of view.

On the other hand, judging from articles I've seen in newspapers, there seems to have been little restraint among people who lounged about in the streets. Such men seemed to have felt quite free to impart their opinions and criticisms to any hapless passers-by, even respectable ladies. I am under the impression that 19th century Americans enjoyed making fun of one another, and weren't always gentle in the expression of their opinions.

19th century Americans lived before Freud, so they did not apply psychological or past-oriented explanations to behavior. Bad behavior was simply a moral, ethical, or personal choice. True, wicked actions might be explained as a form of madness or lunacy, but there was almost always some kind of moral choice implied. E.g., the miscreants' parents might have been drunkards, or there might have been a bad influence, which the ne'er-do-well was too weak to resist.

Similarly, poverty, illness, various forms of behavioral or mental disabilities, etc., would have been considered at best to be a test administered by Divine Providence, and at worst, punishment for some moral shortcoming. Americans usually explained the human condition in religious or ethical terms, not in psychological ones. Still, I've seen a surprising degree of compassion in some letters and diaries, and women were certainly encouraged to sew or cook for the poor or to engage in some other form of charitable work. The idea that bad behavior was a moral choice didn't preclude compassion (there's a famous 19th c. song entitled, "She's more to be pitied than censured.")

Along the same lines, it's very important to remember that these pre-Freudian Americans did not necessarily see sexual motivations, themes or behaviors in everyday activities. It sometimes seems to me that this is one of the most striking differences in our modern, psychologically-oriented world view. Though all-male conversations could certainly become very "blue" (I've seen a couple of astonishingly pornographic letters written by young men) most people took physically affectionate behavior, or metaphoric language, at face value. Our modern post-Freudian tendency to "read" sexual motivations in to every action would have sounded like lunacy to our 19th forebears.

(II) Etiquette. Since many primary sources on etiquette are available, I won't address this subject other than to comment that it would be important to pay attention to traditional age and gender roles in one's conversation. It would be considered very rude to interrupt or contradict someone older, of a higher social status, or a lady (in the case of a gentleman.) A married woman would be unlikely to contradict her husband in public, nor would such behavior be tolerated in children. (Although--having said this--I recall reading several antebellum editorials and travel narratives commenting on the generally spoiled behavior of American children. Abraham Lincoln's sons were absolutely out of control whenever they visited him in his law office.)

A lady would be unlikely to speak first or even assertively in mixed company. There's an interesting 1857 description in Barchester Towers of a woman who declared that she could discuss any subject in public, who was then placed on a small box in a drawing room and told to talk about "flounces." As soon as she stood upon the box, she was struck silent and so lost her bet. I think it's also important to recognize that while a woman might speak quietly to one or two people sitting near her, she would not shout her remarks across a room. (I don't know whether it was proper in America for a lady to speak across a dinner table--in England it was considered crass.)

I've seen several editorials and humorous pieces condemning "loud" women, especially those who were unmarried. Such criticisms were worded in the most brutal and damning language; I believe that any form of loud, shrill, or obvious behavior would have been considered beneath contempt and might even have ruined a woman socially. I am under the impression that unmarried women had much less latitude in their social behavior--especially if they were considered somewhat above marriageable age. A lady should never raise her voice in anger in public, but such things did occur from time to time. For example, Mary Todd Lincoln's obstreperous behavior toward her husband was the subject of comment and gossip in antebellum Springfield. Similarly, there are many descriptions of southern women verbally abusing federal soldiers. In northern accounts these women were viewed with distaste. It should be rememberred that this situation is rather extreme (civilians caught in the path of an invading army) and does not apply to normal everyday behavior.

Many etiquette manuals stress natural, calm, unaffected speech. I saw an 1840s letter from a Michigan father to his teen-aged daughter admonishing her not to talk in a languid, "drawling" voice because he thought it was affected and unbecoming.

I've never seen any references to a tendency to speak too fast. This is interesting, because I've seen many, many antebellum travel accounts that complain about how fast Americans eat--apparently they really wolfed down their dinners and suppers in public! (See Dickens' American Notes, for example.) And although I've seen many period references to regional dialects (usually humorous ones), I've never seen anything that made fun of fast-talking easterners, etc. This may be a 20th century development.

(III) Slang. Again, since so many good slang dictionaries exist, I won't discuss that subject here in depth.

However, I do want to stress that decent women would not have employed slang. Even colloquial speech would have merited reproof. (Jo was scolded for using very mild slang in Little Women.) It was absolutely unthinkable that a respectable lady would have employed the kinds of expressions that would have been heard in a military camp (and I'm not speaking about profanities here.) True, there are folk or regional expressions that might have crept into everyday use, but again, those should be studied in a slang dictionary and used with great care and discretion. Attention should be paid to the social class of the character one is trying to portray. Men must avoid anything that sounds like a profanity or an oath (including all phrases involving spiritual or religious concepts or entities) in respectable company. Such phrases as "by God," or "the devil" etc., would be unacceptable in mixed company. Accidental use must be followed by an apology.

As a side-note: In my research, I have never once come across a single instance of anyone using the expression "O.K." Granted, the expression has existed since at least 1839 or 1840, but the absence in letters and popular fiction leads me to believe that it was not used frequently in everyday conversation. Moreover, the expression would have been used as an emphatic agreement, not as a casual "catch-all" phrase to keep the conversation going, as it is used today. I feel safe in saying that no lady would have used this expression.

(IV) Everyday language. I've seen comments on various chat boards lately that suggest that 19th century American English was not very different from our modern version. While I think it's true that the vocabulary and grammar haven't altered significantly, I'm sure we all agree that there is a difference in the cadence, rhythm, and word choice. This is difficult to quantify, and in fact can only be fully appreciated by reading primary sources. I do have a few suggestions, though:

1. Judging from speeches, letters, diaries, and fiction, mid-19th century Americans seemed to appreciate color and richness of description in their language. They appeared to be less interested in getting through a sentence quickly, than in painting a vivid word-picture for their listeners. I believe that the only way to get the flavor of 19th century language is to steep oneself in a contemporary novel for a few hours before heading into an immersion experience. Another way to "hear" the difference is to read aloud from a 19th century source, and then from a modern source. Here's an example from a short story by Henry James, entitled "The Story of A Year," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1865. Here's a young lady who has just promised to marry a soldier on his way to the front:

"Jack," said she, after a pause, "I wonder how you'll look when you get back."
Ford's soberness gave way to a laugh.
"Uglier than ever. I shall be all incrusted with mud and gore. And then I shall be magnificently sunburnt, and I shall have a beard."
"Oh, you dreadful!" and Lizzie gave a little shout. "Really, Jack, if you have a beard, you'll not look like a gentleman."
"Shall I look like a lady, pray?" says Jack.

You see that they use some words, such as pray, shall instead of will (more on that in a moment) and some grammatical forms (such as "you'll not," instead of "you won't") that are different from ours. In comparison to a modern conversation, this one has a slower rhythm. Also notice that Lizzie uses the adjective "dreadful" as a noun. I've seen this frequently in 19th century fiction: "you pretty, you sweet, you dear," etc.

This is only one very brief example, which reveals several slight differences in usage and word choice. My suggestion would be to read some 19th century fiction aloud (which was a common practice anyway) in order to get a clearer sense of the cadence and rhythm of the speech.

2. While it's now impossible to reconstruct 19th century conversations (since we have no sound recordings) I have never read any descriptions of the meaningless "placeholders" that we now employ so often. For example, little phrases like "you know," "like," "okay," and "I mean," don't seem to exist in 19th century language. I've never seen any references to them in etiquette books, which may suggest that they weren't used. By contrast, I've seen many critical references to such phrases in modern etiquette books. This leads me to believe that such placeholders are an unfortunate mid-20th century innovation.

3. At all costs, avoid "awesome," "amazing," "totally," and "incredible" unless you're using them to mean precisely what they do mean. Similarly, "lifestyle," "empowered," "nice," are 20th century innovations. The word "nice" should be used to mean "fine," not "pleasant" or "agreeable." The sentence, "he is a nice man," would have meant, "he's finicky or a perfectionist." The word "awful" was used both to denote "terrible" and to add emphasis, as in "awful strong," but this was not considered polite or educated usage. The original meaning of "awful" was actually closer to the modern (not slang) use of the word "awesome."

4. I do not believe that 19th century Americans used "yeah" in place of "yes," though I've seen many references to "yessir," "indeed," and the more archaic "aye." According to Chambers' New Dictionary of American Slang, "yep" did exist and was used to close the mouth after "yeah," (before saying a word that began with a vowel.) Wentworth's Dictionary of American Slang (1960 edition) claims that "yep" has existed since 1840. Neither dictionary provides an example. I've never seen either "yep" or "yeah" in my manuscript sources. At this writing I don't recall where I've seen "ayuh" or "ayup" (the Maine version of yep), so I'm inclined to think it wasn't frequently used in spoken conversations. It would not have been used by women, certainly. Better to err on the side of safety and say "yes."

5. In place of "okay," (meaning, agreement) one could say "yes, indeed, certainly, very well, that's so." From what I've been able to observe, I don't believe Americans used "fine" to mean agreement (I've never seen it). "That's so" was a very common expression. I've seen it quite often in 19th century fiction. According to Noah Briggs, "ain't it so" was an expression that denoted something like "no duh." (!) He has documentation for this, but I haven't seen it in my own sources.

6. In addition to "I think," one might also say, "I suppose," "I calculate," "I expect," "I figure," "I believe," and "I reckon." I've seen all of those phrases in letters. In the 1839, Fanny Trollope made fun of American girls for saying "I calculate" too frequently. I've seen the phrase "I suppose" very frequently.

7. I've seen lots of contractions in letters, so they're undoubtedly acceptable in conversations. If a lady needed an exclamation, she might say, "Mercy" (from an 1862 short story) or "my goodness," "my word," "oh, my heavenly lands," "upon my word," "for heaven's sake," or possibly "landsakes," though the last two sound a bit like oaths to me, and should be used with care and discretion. I haven't seen those two expressions in letters, but have come across them in humorous fiction slightly after our period (Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Mary Freeman, Sarah Jewett, etc.)

8. Might, may, shall and will: 19th century Americans were much more conversant with "may" and "might," as well as "shall" and "shan't" than we are today. These words have largely become archaic now, and should be studied and practiced before being used. But they're extremely common in letters and in fiction, so it would be a good idea to learn to use them in 19th century conversation.

May and might refer to permission or a polite request, as in "Might I trouble you for … might I have another piece of cake …" Or a mother would say to her child, "yes, you might," or, "no, you mightn't" in answer to a request. At some siege or other (sorry, I no longer remember the specific occasion) Union soldiers were taunting the enemy about the imminence of their breach on the Confederate defenses, when the rebels shouted back, "Don't you wish you may?" (quoted by Shelby Foote in the PBS Ken Burns series.)

Shall and will are tricky. In the first person, "shall" implies the simple future tense, while "will" implies a decision. In the third person, it's precisely the opposite. If "shall" is used in the third person, it implies a command. "You shall wash the dishes. You shan't go outside today."

For example, someone who was proud of being illiterate and determined to remain so would say this:

"No one shall teach me; I will remain unlettered."

On the other hand, someone who wanted to learn to read, but could find no one to enlighten him, would say this:

"No one will teach me; I shall remain unlettered."

Here's another fictional conversation. This is an excerpt from Rebecca Harding Davis's "John Lamar," a short story that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. This is a conversation between a slave-owner (Lamar) and a federal soldier (Dorr). Notice the rhythm of the sentences, especially in the repetitive "high and sharp and broad," as well as some of the colloquial phrases, such as "puts a false face on it," and "let alone."

[Dorr] "This slave question must be kept out of the war. It puts a false face on it."
"I thought one face was what it needed," said Lamar. "You have too many slogans. Strong government, tariff, Sumter, a bit of bunting, eleven dollars a month. It ought to be a vital truth that would give soul and vim to a body with the differing members of your army. You, with your ideal theory . . . Try human freedom. That's high and sharp and broad."
Ben drew a step closer.
"You are shrewd, Lamar. I am to go below all constitutions or expediency or existing rights, and tell Ben here that he is free? When once the Government accepts that doctrine, you, as a Rebel, must be let alone."

One last example, this one from "Fields of Glory," a short story by an anonymous Union soldier. This story was published in Philadelphia in 1864 in a collection entitled Tales of the Picket-Guard. This incident takes place after the battle of Fredericksburg, where the hero of the story meets a former friend who is now fighting for the Confederacy. The friend is lying wounded on the battle field. Once again, notice the repetitive rhythm, the references to God, and the intimacy between the two men. This would likely be (mistakenly) read as homoerotic now, but in 1864 was simply a description of a close and loving friendship.

"Water! Water!" moaned Richard Withers, in his agony.
I dragged myself closer to him.
"God be praised!" I said with a solemn heart. "Dick, old boy--enemy no longer--God be praised! I am willing and able to help you. Drink and be friends."
It had been growing lighter and lighter … In the first gray glimmer of dawn we looked into each other's ghastly faces for a moment, and then the canteen was at Richard's mouth, and he drank as only the fevered can drink. I watched him with moist eyes … Blood-stained and pallid as it was, his face was ingenuous and beautiful as a child's.

In conclusion, I'd like to address what I consider to be the most important aspect of attaining 19th century conversational fluency --and probably the first skill that ought to be practiced. In our modern every day speech we use so many unsconcious verbal clues, expressions, "placeholders," that sound wrong in a 19th century context. We seem to interrupt a great deal, talk over and across one another, etc., all of which would have been considered bad manners in the 19th century. My only suggestion would be to practice and read, and to be somewhat careful before speaking (probably a good idea in most situations.) I suppose this will become easier with practice.

9. What not to say: It's virtually impossible to list all the neologisms and modern expressions that could inadvertently creep into a living historian's language; but care should be taken not to use phrases culled from modern popular culture or technology. Some random examples might be: Awesome, "bent out of shape," blow a fuse, give me a break, easy as pie, call someone up, going bonkers, no way, oh come on (I'm referring to "come on" in an exasperated tone here. The phrase "come on" was frequently used to ask someone to follow), flashback, glitch, oh God (an oath; though I've seen it uttered legitimately as a brief prayer) gee or geez (profanities), make-over, so what, yeah right (skeptically), double-dipping, etc.

For more examples, see the following list:

If you're not sure about the date of the origin of a particular word of phrase, check this site:

For colloquial expressions that we know existed by 1860, see the 1848 online edition of John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms:

For other examples, see popular fiction by authors who deliberately tried to write in an American style. Check the Atlantic Monthly and Godey's for short fiction. Kathleen Diffley, an English Professor at the University of Iowa, has been collecting Civil War short fiction for years; take a look at any of her excellent anthologies. See also, Mark Twain, Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,. 1865, and Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851.

19th Century American Children and what they read: http://www.merrycoz.

"How to speak 19th century"

An excellent resource for all aspects of 19th century language: The writer's guide to everyday life in the 1800s, by Marc McCutcheon, Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1993.

Thanks to Linda Trent and Noah Briggs for their help.

Sources: The following notes are based on my research in mid-19th century primary sources. These include hand written letters and diaries, as well as printed pamphlets, speeches, newspaper editorials, and other ephemera. I've never kept track of how many mid-19th century letters I've read, but the number is probably in the sixth figure. I've read letters from every northern state of the Union, beginning in the early years of the 19th century through 1865, but most dating from the 1840s through 1862 or 63. About 70% of these letters came from the mid-Atlantic and midwestern states. I'd like to emphasize, however, that I've read very few southern letters (i.e., letters from people living south of the border states of MO, MD, DE, and KY) so the observations below may not relate well to the South. Moreover, the sources I've used can't tell us everything about spoken conversations, since it's fairly safe to assume that diary entries and letters were probably written in a somewhat more formal tone. In the absence of sound recordings, however, we're forced to rely on written records.

That said, I did find that many of the letters I've read were dashed off in haste, so it's possible that they approximated a more conversational tone. And some letters were deeply personal--letters between husbands and wives, for example--and seemed much more intimate, and less formal, than business, political, or legal correspondence. My impression is that private letters between close family members, as well as lighthearted or humorous fiction, can probably give us the closest approximation of what "real" people sounded like when they chatted with one another face to face.

In any event, take all this with a grain of salt. My ideas are still speculative. I do have evidence to back up the following statements, though I admit that much of it is in the "dog didn't bark" category. That is, if I've never seen a word used in a particular way, then I am using that "absence" as evidence that the word probably wasn't used that way. In any case, this is my first pass at an attempt to understand 19th century spoken conversations, and there are undoubtedly mistakes and omissions in this essay. I welcome criticism, correction, and additions.

I also checked a couple of slang dictionaries; but I decided not to add any phrases or words that I haven't encountered in my own reading. On a side note, I'd like to add that I am surprised how little scholarly research has been done on this subject. I found almost nothing that I could consult for this essay. I believe that this is an important part of living history, however, and would like to encourage everyone pitch in with further vocabulary, examples, research, etc. One relatively simple way of helping would be to cull 19th century fiction for conversations (see examples below.)




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