19th-century English: wo'n't and ca'n't

Discussion in 'English Only' started by omarV, Sep 9, 2009.

  1. omarV Member

    Spanish - Uruguay
    I was reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (which is a great book BTW, don't underestimate it just because it is meant for children) and instead of spelling can't, the author spells it like this: "I ca'n't do that!". The same with wo'n't, sha'n't (which guess stands for shall not, doesn't it?) and a few more.

    Just out of curiosity, why does he spells it that way? whats the rule for that? anyway if it's old english and it's no longer used, i'd like to know what those inverted comas stand for.


  2. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    Old English is a language that disappeared around the year 1200. What you are describing is not "Old English", but is very thoroughly Modern English, although as spoken and written in the middle of the 19th Century.

    What the typesetter has done is to place an apostrophe for each place in which a letter has (or letters have) been dropped in making the contraction. If "cannot" were spelled out in full, there are two n's and an o. The typesetter is clearly considering the remaining n to be the n of not, rather than the n of can. Imagine it as ca[n]n[o]t, and then replace each dropped letter with an apostrophe. The same thing happns with the "ll' in won't and shan't. In today's spelling, it is uncommon to use more than one apostrophe in a word.
  3. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    They are apostrophes and they usually indicate that letters have been omitted (genitives form an exception). In this case "shall not" becomes sha'n't. In modern English the first apostrophe has been dropped in many of those situations , like these examples of yours, where there used to be multiples. Can not is analogous -> ca'n't before while can't today..
  4. omarV Member

    Spanish - Uruguay
    okay thanks!! didn't know that Old English was so "defined", like with dates and stuff.... in Spanish, we say old spanish and it refers to any kind of old spanish, maybe not 19th but even 18th century's is considered Old.

    thanks for the info

  5. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
  6. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    I think that informally we can say "old English" (with a small "o") to mean any English older than today's, while Old English is a precise linguistic term.
  7. omarV Member

    Spanish - Uruguay
    thanks very much, i loved that preface, BTW, great info

    bye bye

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