Q: Your True Grit posting reminded me of the old TV show “I Dream of Jeannie.” As a child, I wondered why Jeannie never used contractions. Were they considered a no-no in ancient Persia? I also wonder why some languages, like English, overflow with contractions while others, like French, have hardly any.
A: In the Sept. 18, 1965, pilot episode of the TV show, Jeannie (a genie trapped in a bottle for 2,000 years) supposedly spoke Persian when she was released.
We don’t know whether contractions were frowned on in Old Persian, an ancient language that evolved 2,500 years ago from the Indo-Iranian branch of Proto-Indo-European.
And we suspect that the scriptwriters who dreamed up “I Dream of Jeannie” knew even less than we do about the mechanics of the language revealed in the surviving Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions.
Our guess is that TV writers of the ’60s assumed that any archaic language must have been stiff and formal, hence lacking in contractions.
So Jeannie’s speech was made to sound like their idea of antiquated.
Although we can’t speak for Old Persian, we do know that Old English was full of contractions.
By the way, French actually has many contractions, which, unlike those in English, are required instead of optional.
Examples include contractions with articles (as in l’homme); pronouns (as in je t’aime, j’ai, il s’appelle); with the conjunctions puisque and lorsque (puisqu’on, lorsqu’il); with the prepositions à and de (du, d’, aux, etc.); with single-consonant words ending in vowels (qu’il, n’est pas, s’ils, c’est); and in miscellaneous constructions like aujourd’hui, quelqu’un, and jusqu’alors.
In German, prepositions and articles are contracted without apostrophes, as in ums for um das (“around the”). Then there’s the common German greeting Wie geht’s (“How goes it?”). This is a contracted way of saying “How goes it for you?”—Wie geht es dir? (informal) or Wie geht es Ihnen? (formal).
We aren’t scholars of languages, but we do know that some languages lend themselves to contracting more than others do. This sounds like a good idea for a master’s thesis in linguistics, no?
Check out our books about the English language