5 Tips to Speaking Historically

The most intimidating part of first person interpretation is speech. However, speaking in a historic manner does not need to be a overwhelming, uncomfortable task. There are a few small things that can be done to our regular speech patterns that will make us sound more historical to the public & will add an element of depth to our first person reenacting. Speaking historically isn't about adopting unnatural speech patterns or phrases, but about making those small alterations that are both convincing & easy! Remember that funny, false accents aren't needed to sound period correct. In fact, false accents are best left to stage actors who only have to say a few pre-planned lines, while we reenactors need to be able to speak freely while sounding historically correct.

1. Give everyone a title.

Adding Mr. or Mistress to the beginning of everyone's name, or calling them by the military rank, is the quickest, easiest way to sound more period correct. Social lines were more formal historically and the use of proper titles helped to enforce that social division. If you don't know someone's last name, try adding a title to their first name. If you don't know their name at all, or if they are a member of the public, substitute other formal titles like Sir, Ma'am or even Friend. This applies to children as well as other adults. While it seems odd to call a young child “Young Master” it is very period appropriate, and the public children love it! The one exception to this is for those portraying servants. It is period appropriate for servants to be addressed only by their first names, by those they are serving. However, when in doubt, use a proper title. It's always safer to be more formal rather than less.

2. Formalize your greetings.

Try saying “good morning”, or greeting someone with “good day” rather than your usual “hi”. Not only is this a more period way of greeting, but it helps you keep track of what time of day it is. Formal greetings are also a good way to introduce an ethnic persona, without confusing those around you with a foreign language which they may not understand. Try greeting others with “bonjour” if you are portraying a Frenchman, or “guten tag” if your persona is German. Now aren’t you glad you read the article on How to Fake Speaking a Foreign Language?

3. Eliminate modern slang.

No way, dude! Yes way! The first step to eliminating modern slang is to be aware of the words you use. Listen to yourself in daily life, record a phone conversation & listen for frequently used words. Once you've identified the modern words it's only a matter of hearing them in your head before you speak & changing them out for a period term. For example, I am terrible about saying “cool” when someone is showing me something. I have worked to replace that reflexive “cool” with “extraordinary”, a much more Regency word. For a while though “cool” would still come out, and I would correct myself out loud. I'm sure many thought I was a little nuts, always saying “cool...err...extraordinary”, but in the long run it has paid off. Now I hear the modern word in my head by my lips say the period one!

4. Eliminate contractions.

Speaking without contractions automatically makes you sound more formal even if it is a little uncomfortable at first. Like eliminating modern slang, eliminating contractions takes time & awareness of your own speech. It is just one small change that leads to a big difference in the effectiveness of your first person speech and is well worth the added effort.

5. Learn a few key period phrases.

There are many Regency era term & phrases that we still use in our modern speech. It's not difficult to add these terms to our conversations since they already feel natural, yet they are also historically correct. Following are just a few terms of my favorite period terms, still in use today, to get you started. Be sure to follow Slightly Obsessed for similar phrase lists, I might just have one for WW2 list in the works!

1. babble: confused, unintelligible talk
2. To put the cart before the horse: to mention the last part of the story first.
3. To snivel: to cry
4. elbow room: sufficient space to act in.
5. go teach your granny to suck eggs: said to anyone as would instruct in a manner he knows better than themselves.
6. hell-cat: a termagant, a vixen, a furious scolding woman
7. rumpus: a riot, quarrel or confusion
8. to leak: to make water; to piss
9. down in the dumps: low spirited, melancholy.
10. windfall: a legacy or any accidental accession of property

Works Cited:

Grosse, Francis. 1788. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. London: S. Hooper. Google Books Edition.
Rowlandson, Thomas. Veronica, a Breakfast Conversation, etching & engraving , 1786. (Lewis Walpole Library, New Haven, Connecticut). http://images.library.yale.edu/walpoleweb/oneitem.asp?imageId=lwlpr05999


  1. Excellent post, Chole. My personal war in "period" speech is "OK", a phrase so terribly out of place until, depending on where you look, the start of the 20th century at the earliest. Yet it slips in everywhere!

    I also agree that if you can't do an accent well, don't do one at all. That said, it can be taught. In our unit, people pick it up without even realizing they've learned it, though we do try to help them along.

  2. Interesting post, I wrote my M.A thesis on Live Interpretation, and I have always been interested in first person. Although in the process of the research for the thesis I found it makes a lot of the public feel a bit awkaward.

    I've tried it once or twice but myself it's never seemed natural. In fact I've only ever seen it done well once in the U.K.

    I might try these tips out and see how it goes! Do you always do 1st person or do you switch between first and third?

  3. Excellent post! Thank you for this advice, it's really helpful.


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