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

    The City of 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
  8. Cruciverbalist New Member

    Was your edition of Alice in Wonderland published in Britain or the USA? In Britain, we shorten "cannot" to "can't" but Americans shorten it "ca'n't". The word "cannot' is an abbreviation of "can" and "not". In Britain many years ago it was abbreviated as "ca'n't". The Pilgrim Fathers who left Britain in 1620 to found a colony in America took the old spelling with them. Does your edition also have spelling such as "color" instead of 'colour'? If so, it is American, not British.

    If you have enjoyed Alice in Wonderland, try reading "The Complete Annotated Alice" by Martin Gardner. It explains all the subtle hidden references. For example, why did Alice meet a Duck, a Dodo and a Lory when she entered the rabbit hole? Because Lewis Carol (Charles Dodgson) had a colleague surnamed Duckworth; Lewis Carroll stammered so when people asked his name he replied Do-Do-Dodgson; and Alice Liddell (rhymes with fiddle) had an older sister called Lorimer. It's a fascinating book but not easy for newcomers to English
  9. ain'ttranslationfun? Senior Member

    US English
    Welcome, Cruciverbalist! Whoever told you that Americans shorten "can not/cannot" to "ca'n't" was wrong - we don't.
  10. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    No they don't. They write "can't" just as the British do.
    Did you read previous posts?
    He chose to punctuate his contractions that way. It had nothing to do with American editions of the book, and nothing to do with 17th century orthography. My "Collected Works of Lewis Carroll" was published in Britain.

    While "ca'n't" has been unusual for a very long time, the contraction "sha'n't", also in the original question, has much more recent use. You'll find it in Jane Austen's writing, long after the Mayflower sailed:
    I have books written and published in Britain in the early 20th century where the writer used "sha'n't".
  11. Cruciverbalist New Member

    I stand corrected. My edition of The Complete Annotated Alice has "color" and "ca'n't"; Martin Gardner is American. So I jumped to the conclusion that "ca'n't" was American. The moral is "Always look before you leap."

    I shall don my sackcloth and ashes.
  12. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    Oh, we've all had to do that at some time round here. :)
  13. london calling Senior Member

    What I found interesting here was the preface in the link, where Carroll explains that wo'n't stands for wouldn't: I had assumed it stood for will not! I also note his preference for 'traveler', which to me is the AE spelling.;)

    My edition of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was published by MacMillan (London) in 1965: it uses Carroll's original spelling (sh'an't etc.) and the illustrations, by Sir John Tenniel, are those of the original edition.
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2015

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