Contractions in Medieval Dialogue

When writing medieval dialogue, one of the most obvious issues to tackle is that of contractions in words such as can't, won't, and shouldn't. These styles of contractions didn't appear until the 1600s. Should they be used in medieval novels?

When I first began writing medieval novels, I had the mindset that, since these words didn't exist in the 1200s, they shouldn't be put into the mouths of people in the 1200s. I felt that this might have meant that people in the 1200s only spoke long, drawn out sentences with no contractions at all. Therefore having them speak in this non-contracted manner was historically accurate.

However, let's just go back to Shakespeare. He was writing in the 1500s to early 1600s. He definitely used contractions galore! Here's just one sentence uttered by Polonius, in Hamlet -

"That he is mad 't is true; 't is true 't is pity, and pity 't is 't is true."

He's contracting "it is" to just "tis".

Also from Hamlet, which I love, -

"Horatio thou art e'en as just a man as e'er my conversation cop'd withal."

So clearly contractions were commonly in use in Shakespeare's time. People just naturally shortened words to make them easier to say. That is how in modern times we say "TV" intead of saying "television". Look at the various words we get from Britain -

Worcester - pronounced "woostah"
Gloucester - pronounced "gloustah"
Forecastle - pronounced "foksul"
Edinborough - pronounced "Edinburg"

It's so bad that in modern times we say "won't" - what exactly is that a contraction of? Will Not? We're not even squishing together words we use any more. Won't is a contraction of "Woll Not" and we don't use that phrase at all now.

So taking another step backwards, yes, there were definitely contractions in Middle English which was the language of the middle ages. For example the full Middle English word "haven" (meaning have) would get shortened to just "han". The phrase "ne woot" - meaning knows not - would turn into "noot". The medieval folk were just as keen as we are in modern times to shorten up words to speak more easily. They weren't strict followers of speaking every single word in proper enunciation.

So with all of that being said, and with my general feelings on Writing Medieval Dialogue that the critical part of the dialogue is that it's understandable in a smooth, flowing, natural way by the modern reader, I now accept that in places contractions are the best way to convey the urgency and emotion of a scene. It's very likely that the medieval speaker in that same situation would have done the same thing! People in medieval times were not formal, robotically moving actors on a stage. They struggled with bandits, they played with kids, they laughed with friends, and they did it often in a casual, useful language that let them get the message across. Just as we do now in modern times.

This is my take on the topic - I would love to hear your feedback and ideas!

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About Medieval Language
Medieval Languages - the Basics
Writing Medieval Dialogue
Contractions in Medieval Dialogue
Glossary of Medieval Terms