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The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen: Volume I
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18th and 19th Century Grammar

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message 1: by Tom (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Hanrahan | 2 comments I'm having a conversation with a friend that was spurred by your use of abbreviations in the valedictions of letters between Jane and Althea in "The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen." One valediction in particular is a good example: "Yrs very affect:ly" (With the 'rs' and 'ly' printed as superscripts.) We were curious when and how the use of superscripts to denote abbreviations fell out of favor and was replaced by a simple period.

Also we noted that we have a vestige of this practice today in how we abbreviate ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th ...) (Again with the 'st', 'nd', 'rd', and 'th' as superscripts.) Are there other examples today of us using this older convention?

Finally, the colon in the above example seems to be used the way we use the apostrophe today to denote contractions. Was the colon commonly used to indicate abbreviations (or sparingly only in valedicitons) and was it ever used to connect contractions as well?

message 2: by Collins (new)

Collins Hemingway | 1 comments Mod
Tom, use of the colon for contractions was common in Shakespeare's time and seems to have fallen out of favor around Austen's time. The superscript such as ":ly" that follows the colon disappeared along with the colon.

Fanny Burney, who preceded Austen by a generation and then lived a generation beyond her, had a punctuation style similar to Austen. The Oxford edition of Austen's letters retains the original punctuation. Burney's letters were "updated" to modern punctuation in the editions I've seen, but the editorial notes indicate the use of the older style. (I have not seen but a few samples of her handwritten letters.)

Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, writing a generation after Austen, spell out typical valedictions as we would today, "Yours very affectionately."

Paper was relatively expensive in Austen's time, and recipients of letters paid the postage. Austen's letters are quite lengthy, often 2-3 pages in modern type. She and other letter writers often "crossed" lines by writing in the opposite direction between lines or even diagonally across the pages, all to maximize space. Abbreviations may have been another space-saving expedient, or just customary.

It says a lot about Austen and her circle that they were all willing to pay for long letters back and forth.

The language structure simplified over the 19th Century, and perhaps the contractions and superscripts were seen as part of the more complex, old-fashioned style. Dickens' and Bronte's letters that I sampled were much shorter than Austen's, so perhaps they had more energy for the full salutations!

Superscripts to indicate abbreviations go back to medieval manuscripts in several languages, also apparently to save space. The contraction of ordinal numbers is one of the few remaining in ordinary writing (and common in European languages). They're still used with numbers, such as dollars and cents ($8.00 with the "00" as superscript) and with scientific formulas.

Thanks for your question! I hope I answered it sufficiently.

message 3: by Tom (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Hanrahan | 2 comments Thanks, Collins. Your answer was more interesting than I'd even anticipated. I had no idea postage was essentially all COD back in Jane's day. I just looked up the history of the postage stamp and it seems the first one was issued in 1847 (in the US anyway) and stamps weren't made mandatory until 1855. Much later than I would have thought.

I appreciate you answering a fairly arcane question, but this bit of history is fascinating to me.

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