few thoughts on 19th century conversations in immersion
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
an example supplied by Linda Trent:
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.'"
a few other examples, culled from an 1861 issue of Harper's:
OF THE DAY.
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 !"
DO YOU GIVE IT UP?
My first denotes company, My second shuns company, My third
assembles company, My whole amuses company.
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.
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
Why is love like a potato?
Because it shoots front the eyes, and grows less by paring
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.
Why is an old hen walking toward Whitehall like the Gunpowder
Because it is a foul (fowl) proceeding toward Parliament.
My first the men will sometimes take Entirely for my second's
My whole they vainly all declare Is more than mortal man
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
AN ARTISAN'S ATTEMPT AT ALLITERATION.
(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
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.
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.
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
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.")
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.
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.)
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.)
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
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.
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.
Slang. Again, since so many good slang dictionaries
exist, I won't discuss that subject here in depth.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
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.
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,
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
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.)
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."
example, someone who was proud of being illiterate and
determined to remain so would say this:
one shall teach me; I will remain unlettered."
the other hand, someone who wanted to learn to read, but
could find no one to enlighten him, would say this:
one will teach me; I shall remain unlettered."
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
"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."
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
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
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
and pallid as it was, his face was ingenuous and beautiful
as a child's.
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
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.
more examples, see the following list:
you're not sure about the date of the origin of a particular
word of phrase, check this site:
colloquial expressions that we know existed by 1860, see
the 1848 online edition of John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary
of Americanisms: http://www.merrycoz.org/BARTLETT.HTM
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.
Century American Children and what they read: http://www.merrycoz.
to speak 19th century" http://celticfringe.net/history/vocab.htm
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.
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.
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.
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,
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