It is a truth universally acknowledged that before the present day no one used contractions. To give dialog the ring of days gone by, some writers expand everything we would contract. Have you not noticed?
Recently “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross interviewed the Coen Brothers about their film “True Grit.” They spoke of the difficulty of keeping the actors sounding like folks from 1873.
Ethan Coen: “It was a frequent occurrence on the set that an actor would use a contraction, and we would ask them not to.”
Joel Coen: “A special whistle that we blew. Not really. “
But contractions aren’t new. There has always been formal and informal language.
We’re under the impression that the farther back you look the more formal language was. But that’s only because voice recordings are relatively new, so most of what we know about language comes from writing.
And the farther back you look the more formal writing is. When paper or wax or clay tablets were rare commodities they weren’t wasted on grocery lists and notes passed between schoolchildren. Not many contractions in treaties, wills and inventories of the king’s treasury.
So before conversations were taped, most of what we know about informal speech comes from plays and novels. And there were contractions. Not always the same ones we use today, ‘tis true, but contractions nonetheless.
“He don’t know you,” says a character in Samuel Richardson’s · Pamela (1740) considered by many the first novel in English.
Even prim Aunt Polly in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) lets loose with a few contractions: “He’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him somehow.”