This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. This blog is not supported by advertising, it's supported by the generosity of my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

How people spoke in old-time Phoenix - 1905


As a time-traveler, I'm fascinated by the small details of life. Today I'd like to look at how people spoke in Phoenix, Arizona in 1905.

You can call this the "Territorial Era" of Arizona, which went from 1863 to 1912, which is a fairly long amount of time, and the language really didn't change all that much. Of course, if you're like me, growing up on Western movies, you may assume that people spoke in a very stiff and stilted way, the way that they do in a lot of old Westerns. You know, not using contractions, such as "Do not give that gun to the Sheriff or he will shoot it I fear", instead of "Don't give that gun to the Sheriff or he'll shoot it, I'm afraid". But really, ordinary people didn't talk in that stiff and formal way. Books were written like that, but people didn't talk like that. I just finished re-reading "Two Years Before the Mast", which was written in 1836, and while it was written by a young man of education, he faithfully recorded the life of the ordinary people to whom he spoke in his travels to such far-away places as California. You can also read novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose characters live in the time frame to which I refer, and don't speak as if they were afraid to use contractions, or slang.

Support Arizona history by becoming a patron on Patreon

Click here to become a Patron!
New rewards just added: "then and now" images, billboards, aerials, super high-resolution photos

One of the things you'll hear a lot in 1905 Phoenix is Spanish. There were plenty of Spanish-speaking people around in Arizona, which had originally been part of Mexico. You will also hear Chinese, and of course the languages of the Native Americans. But let's focus on English-speaking people, and how they spoke.

I'm particularly fascinated by the use of the word "pray". No, I don't mean that we're going to church, it's used when asking a question, and being polite. It goes like this: "Where might I buy some whiskey, pray?" So I'd expect to hear a lot of that, at least from the people who were speaking politely.

Of course, there would be a LOT of words that I would have to avoid, that are common in the 21st Century. You know, like Google, and Photoshop, that sort of thing. And if a lovely young lady said that I should call in the afternoon, she meant that she expected me to show up there in person. In spite of the fact that there were telephones at the time, "call" didn't mean the same as "telephone". She would have said, "phone me, pray, in the forenoon", or the afternoon, I suppose. And she wouldn't tell me to "dial her number" - there were no phone dials in 1905 in Phoenix, or anywhere else.

The more I learn about how people lived in Phoenix so many years ago, the more I realize that things really don't change the much. People are people, whether they're riding horses or cars. Or wheels.

1904 ad for Penney & Robinson, 40 N. Center (Central) Street, Phoenix, Arizona. Phone 147.