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The characters in Pride and Prejudice seem to speak in a way that is very distinct from most contemporary anglophones. Among the major unique features are:

  • Richer vocabulary
  • Readiness to use obscure synonyms and euphemisms (although perhaps at the time they were not so obscure)
  • Very roundabout style of speaking, where every thought is explained in great detail, with flowery language and taking a long time to get to the point
  • Everyone, even the less clever characters, seem like they are very witty and insightful every time they say something

Notably, I felt like it would take a contemporary English-speaker great effort to speak as they do in the novel, and many would probably never be able to do it, meanwhile it seems like for the characters in the novel our present style of speech would be trivially easy to learn.

My question is, did people ever actually speak like they do in the novel (outside of formal occasions and practiced speeches)? Or is this the 19th century version of Sorkin-speak?

To be clear: I'm not asking whether people 200 years ago spoke like people do now. I'm asking whether people in 1813, of comparable class and education to the characters of the novel, spoke like the characters of the novel. In other words, does the novel's dialogue represent an accurate portrayal of the speech of its time, or is the dialogue "embellished" to make for better reading?

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    The highly educated 1% of that novel aren't representative of how most people spoke at that time. But I would agree that the 1% of that time spoke more eloquently than the 1% of modern times do. This is likely because the 1% of those times focused on more of a classical humanities education, therefore most of the 1% shared the same cultural education. This isn't common today at all; the 1% usually go into whatever will make the most money, such as following their parents' footsteps into business school, or law school. – user180089 Jul 17 '16 at 23:13
  • @V0ight Of course comparing people of upper class from the novel to people from lower classes today would not make much sense. However even in comparison to higher classes of our time (such as national leaders, celebrities and billionaires) the characters (who aren't that upper class - for instance they're not royalty) seem yet more eloquent. – Superbest Jul 17 '16 at 23:20
  • .@Superbest~ yes, the modern higher classes don't really see the importance of an education in the humanities or in language/different languages. – user180089 Jul 17 '16 at 23:24
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    But also be wary of the fact that authors tend to create clever characters who say interesting things. There is even a tendency in modern sitcoms (for example, Happy Endings) to write preternaturally clever dialogue that is way beyond spontaneous wit. A similar thing could be happening in Austen. Not sure, never read it. – GoldenGremlin Jul 17 '16 at 23:56
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    @V0ight We live in an age where we have access to more media than we could consume in a lifetime of doing nothing but consuming media. When poor people were farmers, untanned skin was valued. When poor people were factory workers, tanned skin came into fashion. When it was difficult for the poor to get access to a book, it was fashionable to be well-read. Now that the masses have access to not only consume but produce media in such quantities what is fashionable? Something that gets a million retweets or something that has clever word-play that most people won't make the effort to understand? – ColleenV parted ways Jul 18 '16 at 0:33
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The dialogue definitely is embellished for better reading.

Austen was innovative in using far more dialogue than contemporaries. Dialogue is pivotal for her stories and is tuned to the character speaking in a very exact way. Dialogue is narrated as people would love to have sounded, and loved to read about.

"Then," observed Elizabeth, "you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman."

"Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it."

"Oh! certainly," cried his [Darcy's] faithful assistant [Miss Bingley], "no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved."

"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

References:
https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/pride-prejudice-art-conversation
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Styles_and_themes_of_Jane_Austen

  • Incidentally, the exchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy are what prompted my question, although it applies to some extent to other characters as well. – Superbest Jul 18 '16 at 17:46
  • They both shine, and therefore the novel as well. – Bookeater Jul 18 '16 at 18:37
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It's certainly true that a lot of (well-educated) people wrote in that style: not just in novels but in letters to one another, which, even now, tend to be more formal, correct and "flowery" than spoken language. This is partly due to expectations of "how one is supposed to write a letter", but also due to the fact that letters aren't extemporary - one has more time to think about how to compose it.

Since we don't have any recordings of people speaking, books and letters are the main records that we have of how people spoke: there will be some transcripts of people speaking spontaneously, but these may be most commonly taken from legal proceedings, which may not represent a true cross-section of society either.

So, I think that there tends to be an assumption that because people wrote to each other in that style, they walked around having conversations in that style too. That may not be the case at all.

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