Brit Language: The Power of Austen

Jane Austen said, “My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.” You are “well-informed people” and I’m sure you have a “great deal of conversation”.  Jane herself would probably call you “good company”, but conversation lacks the elegance it once had.

“Undoubtedly, any history enthusiast finds oneself wishing that our daily conversations were peppered with more elegant phrases than the everyday speech to which we have become accustomed. There is something quite romantic about the dialogue of the Regency eras in particular.” Eras of Elegance

Once a year, I reread Pride and Prejudice. I like to savor my Austen time and as the days pass, the glory of Regency language seeps into my speech. For a few days, I linger in the luxury of the dialogue and customs that make Regency life so appealing compared to our hurry-scurry life today. Our informal, utilitarian speech is abbreviated, tweeted, and tortured for the sake of convenience and perhaps we’ve lost something along the way. I love the way Mr. Darcy inquires after Elizabeth’s family’s health at every meeting. And, after being spurned in his marriage proposal to Elizabeth, he takes the time to say, “Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.” I doubt that would be the response today. More likely you’d be told to take a flying leap, or something more colorful, definitely shorter.

We traded the formalities of an overly structured conversation style for the ease of today’s communications, but happily we can revisit the speech, manners, and customs in a great Austen novel. Her writing is powerful, not just in her development of characters, and storylines, but in its ability to survive and thrive for two centuries converting new fans every day. Language which is very commonplace today was first used in a Jane Austen novel.

Talk Like Jane Austen

Words like “coddle” first appeared in Emma, 1815. “Drat” which is thinly disguised “God Rot”, first appeared in 1815. To “catch one’s eye” was attributed to Jane Austen in 1815 and “irrepressible” can be traced to Sense and Sensibility, 1811: “His was an involuntary confidence, an irrepressible effusion.” The Jane Austen Speaks page lists more vocabulary and offers suggestions to help you speak like Austen.

Sadly, not everyone is familiar with this great British treasure. I remember reading Sue Birtwistle’s story in the Making of Pride and Prejudice about one potential backer in New York (not A&E who became BBC’s coproducer) who called Sue about the project. The conversation went like this:

“We’re very interested in putting £1 million into Pride and Prejudice. Can you tell me who’s written it?”

 Assuming that, if they were prepared to invest so much money, they would have already read the book and just wanted to know who had adapted it, I said: “Andrew Davies,” and then added as an afterthought: “from the novel.”

“Novel? What novel?”

“Er . . . the novel. By Jane Austen.”

“How are you spelling that?”

“A.U.S.T.E.N.”

“Is she selling well?”

“Er . . . yes. Very well.”

“How many copies has she sold?”

“You mean altogether?”

“Yeah. Since publication.”

“Since. . . er . . . 1813?”

There was a long pause. “You mean she’s dead?” (Another pause.) “So she

wouldn’t be available for book signings?”

Sigh! What can you do but chuckle?

Next year is the anniversary of her great masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice, 1813. I plan to spend it having elegant conversation in good company, taking long walks, and visiting friends. What better way to celebrate and pay tribute to the master who turned everyday life and conversation into literary treasure.

 

Comments

  1. avatar says

    Wow, that conversation at the end was hilarious! And a little sad.

    Yes, I am one of those Janeites who adores the Regency language. Instead of trying to “trim the fat,” speakers tried to choose just the right words from an extensive vocabulary, and weren’t restricted to 140 characters. I wonder what it would have been like to live in an era before cliches…..

  2. avatar says

    Hmm … “roots in Northern England” and “She loves British drama, especially period drama, English social history, British literature, and genealogy. She enjoys traveling with her family, baking, and reading biographies.” Sounds just like ME! I, too, love to see the language seeping into my speech whenever I’m reading Austen. It’s sad to see the deterioration of the English language, and now they tell me cursive is being dropped from the curriculum of many schools. What next, I ask you!

  3. avatarMinerva says

    ‘Our informal, utilitarian speech is abbreviated, tweeted, and tortured for the sake of convenience and perhaps we’ve lost something along the way.’….

    ….I don’t wish to be rude, but it is an arrogance to assume that this comment speaks for all of us. Some of us continue to use an extensive vocabulary, read prodigiously, & still hold ‘supper parties’ & other such entertainments designed to converse, socialise & to mix groups of people that normally wouldn’t meet.
    This abbreviated & tortured speech of which you speak is not a part of my everyday life (& I do not ‘tweet’….I speak!).

    From the North Country you may come, but not of my country I’m sad to say.

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