Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Contractions: We Use Them, Do We Not?

14th century manuscript of Dante's Commedia
This post addresses one of my pet peeves in historical fiction. It is a sort of compositional caveat, or a stylistic stricture, or perhaps a grammatical grump (or grouse, or gripe, raising the question of whether there's something onomatopoetical in that "gr" sound).
It's about contractions. I see so many books set in the more-or-less distant past that eschew the use of contractions, as if no one had invented them yet, or as if our ancestors had not been clever enough to abbreviate their discourse in this way, or were too exalted and dignified to do so.
Take, for instance, this snippet of dialogue, as one might find it in a contraction-free historical novel:

-Why will you not answer the question I have asked you?
-I do not know. Methinks I am afeared that I will lose your good opinion and you will not esteem me more.
-Do not worry. It is surely wisest always to speak the truth.
-And yet I cannot but fear you will be angered.
-Cannot you see that I will not rest until I learn the answer?
-Still I fear you will become wroth. Perchance you will also become wroth if I do not give you the answer you are seeking.
-Think you so?

Now try this version:

-Why won't you answer the question I've asked you?
-I don't know. I believe it's because I'm afraid I'll lose your good opinion and you won't esteem me any more.
-Don't worry. It's surely always best to speak the truth.
-And yet I can't help fearing you'll be angry.
-Can't you see that I won't rest until I learn the answer?
-Still, I'm afraid you'll be angry. Maybe you'll also be angry if I don't give you the answer you're seeking.
-Do you think so?

Of course, one could go further:

-Why won't you answer?
-I dunno. I guess I'm afraid you won't like me any more.
-Not to worry. It's best to just say the truth.
-And yet I can't help thinking you'll be mad.
-Can't you see that I won't relax until you answer me?
-Still, I'm afraid you'll be really pissed off. Maybe you'll be pissed off anyway, if I don't answer you.
-Ya think?

To be fair, I do admit I've changed a little more than the presence vs. absence of contractions, and yet contractions are a major part of the effect. (By the way, I usually tend to prefer the second version, but once in a while I'm tempted by the third.)
We have only to look at a modern transcription of a medieval or early Renaissance song text, for example, to find it bristling with apostrophes. Elisions are more the norm than not - at least this is true in Italian, which is the language I work with most. Perhaps if you're writing in English about English history, it is possible for you to use the exact words your characters would have spoken. But I maintain that if you write in Chaucerian English, you are not going to make it to Amazon's Top 10 anytime soon, so maybe some translation is in order, to keep the sense and flavor if not the exact wording.
My characters are speaking 13th century Italian to one another. No matter what I do, I'm translating. So why would I assume that jugglers and leatherworkers and wool carders and maids would be speaking in florid and unabbreviated phrases without contractions?
We know that people elided their speech. Descriptions of spoken dialogue survive; plays and poems survive; legal records can be particularly illuminating (She said what about her landlord?!?). Let's look at a couple of examples in late 13th century poetry.
Here's a three-line excerpt from a poem ("Gli occhi di quella gentil foresella") by Guido Cavalcanti, whom Dante called his "first friend":
...sì che ciascuna vertù m'abbandona,
in guisa ch'i' non so là 'vi' mi sia:
sol par che Morte m'aggia 'n sua balìa.
(...thus every virtue abandons me, such that I do not know where I am, except that Death has me at his mercy.)
Guido Cavalcanti (the one sitting on the tomb) in an illustration from Boccaccio's Decameron
Seven elisions in this short sample. This poem in its entirety has 24 lines and 25 elisions, of which 9 would probably still be present if it were written in modern Italian.
And what about Dante himself, who was the architect of the Italian language as we know it today?
From "Poscia ch'Amor del tutto m'ha lasciato":
... ell'è verace insegna
la qual dimostra u' la vertù dimora;
per ch'io son certo, se ben la difendo
nel dir com'io la 'ntendo,
ch'Amor di sè mi farà grazia ancora.
(...it is the true sign that shows where virtue resides; for I am sure, if I defend it as well as I intend to, that Love will grant me grace [or pardon] again.)
Dante, by Sandro Botticelli
Only six in this longer excerpt, not counting the title (which is the incipit). Where Dante really pulls out the elisions is in his rather scurrilous exchange of poetic insults with Forese Donati, a set of verses so coarse that scholars in the past sometimes refused to believe in Dante's authorship. Perhaps that fascinating Tenzone will be the subject of a future post.
Translations are mine, though no doubt influenced by those of others.
A caveat here: I was about to quote a delightful poem by Cecco Angiolieri, the supremely irreverent and outrageous Sienese poet (a contemporary of Dante), a poem which is liberally sprinkled with elisions in the transcription I was reading, until I had a chance to look at a manuscript facsimile and saw that all of the supposedly elided words were in fact written out.
Oops. Did that skewer my theory? Were the elisions modern changes, to make the poems scan? Not necessarily.. In the first place, it was not an autograph manuscript, and if Cecco didn't write it himself, and if it was penned perhaps as much as a century after he wrote the original, he can hardly be held accountable for the results. Also, I then went back to facsimiles of manuscripts of Dante's work and Guido's (also not in their own hands), and sure enough, the elisions were there. Not in the form of apostrophes, which are a more modern device, but with the elided words written exactly as they would have been spoken, in this most oral of literary forms.
As you see, it is possible to find documentation for the use of elisions in meant-to-be-spoken medieval Italian. Yet I think my preference for what I consider a more natural dialogue style is not so much because of the poetry or the songs, but because my gut tells me that our medieval predecessors were capable of being just as lazy, crude, casual, imaginative, and in-a-hurry as we are today.
The illustrations in this post are all US-Public Domain by reason of expired copyright.


Julia H. West said...

While doing anthropological research on the Australian aborigines, I found a passage which stated that the aboriginals used contractions to an even greater extent than more "civilized" folk. (I'd quote the passage, but I can't find the book right now.) Since I read that nearly two decades ago, I've kept that well in mind as I write.

Harriet said...

Here's another interesting challenge -- "bad" words and insults. I work primarily with Icelandic/Old Norse material. Either the newly-Christianized Icelanders who first transcribed the old oral material cleaned up the scatological material or Old Norse insults are very different than the English. The worst out-and-out insult I found was Hallgerda's remark to to Bergthora: "You have hangnails on every finger" in Burnt Njal's Saga. It's not a remark that would alert modern audiences grasp the depth of the hatred between the two women!

Tinney Heath said...

Well, true, though it doesn't exactly sound friendly. I find a lot of good insults in legal records - quite a bit of "She said that, and then he said that, and then she said the other thing" while attempting to decide what, if anything, was actionable. (I don't have immediate access to my resources, so I may have to post examples later.)