Did English Really Used to be Like That?
I am a history buff, and I am listening to two books about early American history. We cannot hear how they talked, but we can do the next best thing: we can read what they wrote – and they wrote (and read) a lot. They were very literate people – quite a contrast to our time.
We are barbarians by comparison, and can do little more than grunt to each other. They actually talked to each other (at length) – instead of talking past each other.
George Washington was hardly an educated man (compared to someone like Jefferson) – a deficiency he felt keenly. But he absorbed the language of his upper-class society automatically – and corresponded with them copiously. And listening to his letters makes you uncomfortably aware of his flowery language.
James Madison wrote most of the Federalist Papers, and a scholar has translated them for us – and eliminated the flowery language I just referred to. For them, it was just normal speech when they said “Dear Sir,” an anachronistic usage that still persists when we write a formal letter.
It is important to remember that all this was written by hand using a quill and ink. And they were proud of their handwriting - they had to be – their writing was them. There were no typewriters – to say nothing of word-processors.
People back then were still proud to be people – something else we have lost.