American Colonial English.

A reader writes: “I am writing a story which takes place in colonial America. Do you know of any resources for someone interested in the dialect and grammar of American Colonial English?” My answer: “I don’t, but it’s an interesting question, and I’ll post it.” So, anybody know?

Comments

  1. I don’t know either, but I was just chatting to someone about it. One thing that puzzles me is that the US ended up becoming so solidly rhotic, since almost the whole of the coastal part of the Thirteen Colonies seems to have a tradition of non-rhotic accents. But I guess the presence of rhoticism in upstate New York, Pennslyvania and the Appalachians put it in a better position to spread west.

  2. When North American and British accents split around 1700, all English was still rhotic. Non-rhoticity was an innovation of the mid-18C and not fully established in London, never mind elsewhere in England, until the turn of the 19C. So the question is, why did non-rhoticity get a foothold in North America at all?

    The answer is that the N.A. port cities were still exchanging enough with London and other ports in SE England that non-rhoticity spread to them on a wave model during the first half of the 19C, with the notable exceptions of Philadelphia and Halifax, which remained fully rhotic. The new pronunciation took over the upper class first, and spread downwards and outwards to varying degrees, eventually occupying its traditional areas in Eastern New England and the South, including AAVE (which at the time was almost entirely a Southern phenomenon).

    Of course immigration continued during the 19C, and much of it came from non-rhotic parts of the British Isles, reinforcing the native rhoticity. By the mid-19C, the prestige of non-rhoticity was pretty much gone throughout North America, and it has been on the retreat ever since.

  3. peter köhler says:

    Read Hawthorne, The Scarlett Letter and you can hear the people talking!

  4. By the mid-19C, the prestige of non-rhoticity was pretty much gone throughout North America, and it has been on the retreat ever since.

    With the exception of a number of U.S. Presidents and the majority of screen and stage actors until about the mid-20th?

  5. Read Hawthorne, The Scarlett Letter and you can hear the people talking!

    Only in a literary sense; what you’re actually hearing is a mid-19th-century writer’s idea of how colonials talked. What’s needed is a source for how colonials actually talked.

  6. D-AW: It’s not that there aren’t any high-prestige individuals with non-rhotic accents. Jimmy Carter, the last non-rhotic president, had high prestige because of his office, but not because of his accent. Nobody in N.A. sets out to learn a non-rhotic variety to boost his prestige (with the partial exception of AAVE, which has inverted prestige in some circles).

    As for the accents of actors, they were and are artificial, and learned as a matter of professional advantage or necessity. They are analogous to learning the register of a profession as part of training for that profession.

  7. Did New England non-rhotic speech spread by people shifting their dialect, or by new immigrants who settled the interior?
    In Kipling’s story A Walking Delegate, several horses are speaking in different dialects: Tedda, from Western New York; Deacon, from Vermont; Boney, from Kansas; Tweezy, from Kentucky; and Muldoon, from Iowa (if I got it all straight). Tweezy’s Southern accent is the only non-rhotic one.
    Kipling wrote the story while living in southern Vermont in the 1890s.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Halifax, which remained fully rhotic

    … and remains so to this day.

  9. Which part of Colonial America? And which century? Regardless, of some use might be The Oxford Book of English Talk.

  10. Excellent suggestion.

  11. Tweezy’s Southern accent is the only non-rhotic one.

    Vermont is not now and never has been a non-rhotic area. The Connecticut River was the historic western boundary, although the line receded substantially to the east in the last century: in particular, Connecticut and New Hampshire are now fully rhotic. Wikipedia on New England English (among whites, as always when speaking of dialect geography in the U.S.)

    [Halifax] remains [rhotic] to this day

    As does Philadelphia.

  12. Thanks, I don’t know the area at all. All I knew about that dialect was a Vermont Farmer Giving Directions joke that was once related to me in a non-rhotic dialect, by someone I’d thought knew the area well. Or maybe the farmer was from NH?

  13. @John Cowan: But are you sure we can say that non-rhoticity had lost its prestige as early as the mid-19th century? My impression is that quite a few people did learn Trans-Atlantic English to increase their prestige, even outside of Hollywood, at least until WW2. Wiki gives William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Diana Vreeland, Maria Callas and Cornelius Vanderbilt IV as examples, and I’m pretty sure FDR’s accent was artificial, rather than regional (unlike Jimmy Carter).

    @Y: I think Kentucky has always been rhotic, though, being in the Upper South.

    One other thing that I’ve wondered at is how little influence Irish immigrants had on the accent here in Massachusetts. So many of the distinctive features – non-rhoticism, rounded LOT, the TRAP-BATH split – are “English” things not shared by Ireland, but Irish-descended people (until recent decades) took to them with almost total uniformity, even after they had far outnumbered the English-descended people.

  14. Lazar: Thanks, I wouldn’t swear by Kipling’s precision in distinguishing different Southern accents. It was good enough for a dialect skit, anyway, as far as he was concerned.

  15. Lazar: Good points, though all on the list but Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (a newspaper publisher) were people who made at least part of their living by public performance, and so had reason to go to accent trainers. As for FDR, I’ve always assumed that his accent was old upper-class New York, like Theodore Roosevelt’s.

  16. though all on the list but Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (a newspaper publisher) were people who made at least part of their living by public performance, and so had reason to go to accent trainers.

    And Lazar’s point was precisely that they did that to increase their prestige. Why would they have gone to accent trainers to acquire non-rhoticity if “By the mid-19C, the prestige of non-rhoticity was pretty much gone throughout North America”?

  17. BWA: thanks for your suggestion. I’ll look at “The Oxford Book of English Talk.” As for the question of which part of Colonial america, my focus is on Virginia.

  18. Not to increase their prestige, but because it was expected of them as professional performers. Historically that had to do with elevated prestige, but by the 20C most prestigious people who weren’t professional performers weren’t using non-rhotic accents unless they grew up speaking them. What a few people learn from a coach does not count as elite dominance.

  19. If England is non-rhotic and America is rhotic, why do the English say arse and Americans ass, both of which descend from Middle English ars or ers?

  20. “If England is non-rhotic and America is rhotic, why do the English say arse and Americans ass, ”

    Good point, Nikhil – it is inaccurate to make such a simple dichotomy. There are plenty of British varieties that are rhotic and plenty of American ones that aren’t. “Ass” is probably a Southernism, like “hoss” and “cuss”; and “whæ” and “hæ” (hair, not here) and so on.

  21. plenty of British varieties that are rhotic

    Sure, but English ones not so much. It’s highly regionally restricted, and recessive even where present, just as non-rhotic dialects are in the U.S.

    “Ass” is probably a Southernism

    See my link above to “early loss of /r/ before /s/”. Hoss, cuss are Southernisms only in the sense that the U.S. South tends to be linguistically conservative, and many but not all of the words in /rs/ > /s/ have gone back to /rs/ elsewhere. Where the spelling has changed (as in bass, the fish), there has been no such regression.

  22. La Horde Listener says:

    1860’s Connecticut farmer patois can be found in “Patience and Sarah” by Isabel Miller. (“Here’s your firewood. Where you want it put?” “Wull, I druther,” thuh thuh thuh.) Some pretty outrageous derring do can also be found in that book. It’s about a red headed school marm who falls passionately in love with a cross dressing female farmer, among other things.

  23. La Horde Listener says:

    1860’s? No, 1816: the year it snowed all summer long in New England. I’d best stop soon, before my comments turn into the hilarious regional weather history scene from The Vicar of Dibley.

  24. Even 1816, I fear, is too far from colonial America (not to mention that a modern novel is not a useful source for the speech of the past).

  25. “Sure, but English ones not so much. ”

    They aren’t *now*. Remember that local varieties in the west and southwest of the island were either obliterated outright or influenced very heavily by Imperial English in the 219th century. The four major flows from Britain were out of the west and southwest, the northern Midlands, East Anglia, and the northern borderlands. East Anglia may have been non-rhotic in the 17th century, but not very probably, the north Midlands even less likely, and stretches of the west are still rhotic.

    “See my link above to “early loss of /r/ before /s/”. I’ll go look again.

  26. I thought you were talking about current British/English varieties; if you go back far enough, all varieties of English were rhotic. Here are the rhotic areas of rural England as of 1980. Since the SED (only 30 years before, but reflecting older males), rhoticity vanished in the north and the southern and southeastern areas, and shrank to a tiny pocket on the northeast coast: you can see a comparable SED-era map by removing “2” from the URL above. I suppose that in the last 30 years rhoticity has shrunk even further.

  27. The southeast, too. A while ago I played this recording of an old Sussex accent for an English person I know, and he said he would have placed it in the West Country. I think a lot of the traits that are now considered southwestern might really be survivals of a broader southern English way of speaking, now mostly erased by Londonish innovation.

  28. So Sussex can be druv when it comes to non-rhoticity.

  29. AJP Crown says:

    Most country people in England, especially farmers, are supposed to have rhotic accents. BBC Radio 4 carries a fifteen-minute daily soap called The Archers, “an everyday story of country folk” that’s been running since the late 1940s. Until the 1980s when the actors died of old age, two of the country-bumpkin characters were Tom Forrest (rhotic) and old Walter Gabriel (non-). They were supposed to come from Ambridge, a fictitious village near Birmingham. It was never explained why they had different accents. You can hear them both here.

  30. in particular, Connecticut and New Hampshire are now fully rhotic.

    New Hampshire is certainly not fully rhotic. Immigration from Massachusetts has probably even reversed a long term trend towards rhoticity in the southern part of the state.

  31. Are the immigrants keeping their Eastern Mass accents past the first generation, though?

  32. caffiend says:

    Pennsylvania Quaker “plain speech” resisted newfangled innovations like “you”; they surely resisted newly fashionable London non-rhoticity as well.

    Rhoticity is likely part of Scots identity as well. It’s survived there today and the Scottish and Scotch-Irish elements in the backcountry and in Nova Scotia may have helped preserve it.

  33. Pennsylvania Quaker “plain speech” resisted newfangled innovations like “you”; they surely resisted newly fashionable London non-rhoticity as well.

    I think that’s exactly right, but the latter persisted even when the former was discontinued. Even the Philadelphia upper class was fully rhotic at a time when the upper class of the other Northern Seaboard cities was not. From Tony Kroch’s paper based on 1977-78 research:

    Most important sociologically, there are two markers of east coast upper class speech which are absent in the Philadelphia upper class: the vocalization and deletion of post-vocalic r and the use of the New England or British broad a pattern. Like the city generally, the upper class exhibits no r vocalization, either when the r is preconsonantal or when it is word final. When asked whether anyone had ever remarked on their dialect, several of my upper class informants mentioned that upper class friends from other east coast cities had noticed their failure to delete post-vocalic r. As for the broad a pattern, the upper class follows the local dialect pronunciation almost entirely. The word aunt, for example, is homophonous with ant. Of the words that are traditionally said to vary between broad a and short a in eastern American speech, only tomato is occasionally pronounced with broad a. This form, however, is such a shibboleth that its sporadic use is unsurprising.

    The deadpan description of how to do sociolinguistics on the rich is priceless:

    Given the exclusivity of the group, I could not approach people out of the blue as Labov’s [other] fieldworkers initially did. Instead, I obtained an introduction to an upper class man through an acquaintance and obtained his agreement to an interview. I interviewed both him and his wife; and after these interviews, I asked my informants to suggest other possible interviewees. In each case, we chose one particularly appropriate person for me to interview next and I asked the informant to contact that person by phone on my behalf. I then set up the next interview in a follow-up telephone call to the prospective informant. I repeated this approach with each informant, as I found it extremely successful. No one I approached in this way refused an interview.

  34. Are the immigrants keeping their Eastern Mass accents past the first generation, though?

    When I first read this, I thought the reference was to Chaldean Catholic Aramaic liturgy . . .

  35. La Horde Listener says:

    While searching “Knurre Murre is dead”, I came upon The Quarterly Review volume 21. Contributing authors include William Gifford, Sir John Taylor Coleridge, John Gibson Lockhart and others. Page 125 – 167 is Fearon’s Sketches of America. That.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Rhoticity is likely part of Scots identity as well. It’s survived there today

    Exhibit A: Karen Gillan, whose accent (in Dr Who anyway) is otherwise almost impossible to recognize as Scottish.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    Rhoticity is also part of Alemannic identity. 🙂

  38. Might this discussion broaden to include other anglophone morphings?

    My people are from up-country Carolina. As they did, my siblings and I pronounce the aspirate “h” in words like ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘which.’

    None of our children does (of course, they aspirate ‘who’ and ‘whore,’ like I figure everybody else still does).

    Furthermore, in my codgerly fashion, I use three separate vowels for “Mary married merrily,” two for ‘auto’ and Otto,’ and two for ‘pen’ and ‘pin.’

    But, then, I never say ‘jealous’ when i mean ‘envious,’ confound ‘comprise’ and ‘compose,’ or ‘constrict’ and ‘constrain.’

    So, might we proceed to map the maturation of English, geographically and chronologically, on the basis of rhoticism’s siblings?

  39. Possibly less relevant to the rhoticity discussion, but I found John Russell Bartlett’s 1859 Dictionary of Americanisms a ripping read for this kind of thing.

    He notes lexical usages by class/location – though I’m unaware of the veracity of his claims – and in some definitions quotes extensively from speeches of the time (again, to be taken with a grain of salt, but for stylistic purposes perhaps could see you through).

    https://archive.org/details/dictionaryofamer00bartiala

  40. Exhibit A: Karen Gillan, whose accent (in Dr Who anyway) is otherwise almost impossible to recognize as Scottish.

    Her vowels are still identifiably Scots, especially in words like “round” and “so”. She just has a more “modern” media-friendly Scottish accent, sort of like the way a lot of educated Irish people are starting to sound increasingly like Canadians.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Her vowels are still identifiably Scots, especially in words like “round” and “so”.

    Yes, I noticed again soon after writing the above. :-] Her GOAT vowel is plain [o], and her TRAP/BATH vowel is often [a].

  42. Tevye the Dairyman:
    “So many of the distinctive features – non-rhoticism, rounded LOT, the TRAP-BATH split – are “English” things not shared by Ireland…”

    Based on what I’ve read, Ireland (outside of Ulster) does have the TRAP-BATH split to some extent. It’s just that the phonetics and lexical incidence of it are different from what they are in southeastern England/Received Pronunciation. It also appears that there is some regional and social variation with the BATH words in Ireland. See the following paper, written by an Irish linguist, for instance: https://www.academia.edu/4203773/Open_Front_Vowels_in_Southern_Irish_English

  43. David Marjanović says:

    her TRAP/BATH vowel is often [a].

    PALM, too.

    And Steven Moffat consistently uses [ʍ] for wh, similar but not identical to [xʷ], and clearly distinct from the [hʷ] some Americans use.

  44. xiaolongnu says:

    In case it’s useful, I know that the living-history reenactors at Plimoth Plantation have done significant dialect research, and perhaps they have some links or resources or something the original enquirer would find useful. I recall that when I was in college in New England, my choir performed an excerpt from the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book printed in British North America, and we asked the dialect expert from Plimoth Plantation to come up and help us with historically informed pronunciation. If I recall correctly (and this was 20 years ago), what we were asked to sing was supposed to be based on early 17th century East Anglian pronunciation. However, it’s been a few years since then, so who knows.

  45. Thanks, and (as always) it gives me great pleasure to see you here! When you gonna start blogging again?

  46. John Cowan:

    I thought you were talking about current British/English varieties; if you go back far enough, all varieties of English were rhotic. Here are the rhotic areas of rural England as of 1980.

    Here’s an old, rhotic Yorkshire dialect from the 1986 documentary The Story of English. Interestingly, Yorkshire isn’t colored red on either one of those maps. Here’s a (mostly?) rhotic Essex accent (I know he’s from Essex, because he said so in one of his lectures). Essex is also not red on either map. It amazes me how long it takes a change to spread to every corner of a small country like England. Even today, the white areas of both of those maps still aren’t completely non-rhotic!

  47. Here’s an old, rhotic Yorkshire dialect from the 1986 documentary The Story of English.

    Wow, that older guy speaks a really thick dialect. I found it hard to believe some of his vowels.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    Here’s a (mostly?) rhotic Essex accent

    That’s almost completely non-rhotic; linking R is standard. I can hear some amount of retroflexion in a few (half or fewer) cases of -er/ir/ur- and -or-, and in fire at the end, but that’s it.

    Another interesting feature, BTW, is the lack of the NORTH/FORCE (horse/hoarse) merger: north is [nɔːθ], Aragorn is almost [ˈæɹɐgoːn].

    I found it hard to believe some of his vowels.

    “Book”.

  49. And “little” is /latl/.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    …Evidently I really couldn’t believe that one, because I completely missed it the first time. 🙂

  51. I can hear some amount of retroflexion in a few (half or fewer) cases of -er/ir/ur- and -or-, and in fire at the end, but that’s it.

    Maybe, but for an English accent, that’s very rhotic. It’s also very rhotic considering that he’s from a place that’s been non-rhotic since the 1950’s according to those Wikipedia maps.
    Here’s another video of Dr. Lee. I hear many rhotic pronunciations in the first 2 minutes, but I’m not going to go through the whole video and count every single R.

    P.S. To the native speaker of English, Steven Moffat sounds very distinct from Americans. So does Karen Gillan.

  52. er/ir/ur

    That vowel is the last to remain rhotic during loss of rhoticity, and the first to become fully rhotic when rhoticity is on the upswing, as in NYC today.

  53. Yep. Here in the Eastern New England area it’s very rare to hear a non-rhotic realization of NURSE. A few older people use something like [ʏː], but I think that’s about as moribund as NYC [ɜɪ]. Bad movie versions of the Boston accent will often use a southern English [ɜː], which is grating.

    On this same point, I’ve noticed that Ricky Gervais, who’s from Berkshire, sometimes has rhoticity on his NURSE vowel.

  54. “I think that’s about as moribund as NYC [ɜɪ].” Is it true? Are “Toity poiple boids” etc. and the Archie Bunker accent disappearing everywhere? Sad, if so.

  55. Afraid so. I lived in NYC for twenty-three years and hardly ever heard it, and only from old folks.

  56. I would say New England [ʏː] is a bit less moribund than NYC [ɜɪ]. I’ve actually heard the former from people outside of movies and TV shows. But now we’re getting really off topic. Sorry, languagehat. I feel partially responsible.

  57. No need to apologize! Here at the Hattery, a topic is just a pretext for enjoyable converse.

  58. A bit more than a pretext, less than an index. When I find a new tidbit, I look to see which LH post is closest in subject matter, and post it as a new comment there.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    Maybe, but for an English accent, that’s very rhotic.

    Of course; I’m not disputing that.

    Here’s another video of Dr. Lee. I hear many rhotic pronunciations in the first 2 minutes, but I’m not going to go through the whole video and count every single R.

    In the first 10 seconds, though, Stuart, learning and Oxford are fully non-rhotic.

    To the native speaker of English, Steven Moffat sounds very distinct from Americans. So does Karen Gillan.

    Of course. They don’t sound American to me either.

  60. In the first 10 seconds, though, Stuart, learning and Oxford are fully non-rhotic.

    In the first 10 seconds, Stuart, learning and university are rhotic. Oxford is very lightly rhotic (his pronunciation is distinct from the RP pronunciation though). A bit later, services is rhotic. Literature is lightly rhotic (final syllable). Researcher is rhotic in the 2nd syllable, but non-rhotic in the 3rd (the next token of that word is also rhotic in the 2nd syllable, but then has a linking R in the 3rd). Started @ 31 seconds is rhotic (which is not an -er/ir/ur-, -or-, or -ire word). Bore (0:58) is lightly rhotic; word (1:05) is rhotic; appeared (1:06) is very clearly non-rhotic. First word and card are rhotic. So, in the first 1 minute and 16 seconds of that video, I only hear 2 instances of R-dropping (and only 1 really clear instance).

  61. David Marjanović says:

    Point taken on Oxford, where I failed to hear it earlier; I still can’t hear it in learning, which seems to just have [ʚː]. I can’t tell if Stuart has a trace of [ɹ].

  62. I hear definite r-coloring in learning. In fact, the r-coloring in that word is more clear than in many of the other words. The 2nd syllable of Stuart is very short, so it’s difficult to hear the r-coloring. I hear it.

  63. David Marjanović says:

    I’m watching the declaration of the election results in Tooting. The announcement is almost fully rhotic (“I hereby declare”…). The speech by, I suppose, the winning candidate has another interesting feature: aspirated /t/ has given – it is [t͡ʃ], so that Tooting is something like [ˈt͡ʃɨʊ̯t͡ʃɪn].

  64. David Marjanović says:

    …OK, that link probably won’t work, but here is the speech by the winning candidate of Choochin, Sadiq Khan.

  65. SFReader says:

    I am very disappointed that the UKIP candidate Przemek Skwirczynski lost this vote.

    He deserved to win for his name alone.

  66. @David Marjanović: Affrication of /t/ is common in the south of England, although I think it typically yields [t͡s].

  67. @David Marjanović: Are you a native speaker of English? That’s definitely not [t͡ʃ] Mr. Khan is using at the beginning of “Tooting” in that video. It’s sometimes an affricate, but that affricate is more like [t͡s]. Now, in some English and Australian accents, there can be [t͡ʃ] or something similar in words which historically had [t] + [j]. I’m talking about words like “tune”, “tuesday”, “tube”, etc. That is called yod-coalescence.

  68. David Marjanović says:

    Are you a native speaker of English?

    No, of German. Therefore I’m confident saying that the sound may be closer to [t͡ɕ] than to [t͡ʃ], but it’s not [t͡s] by a long shot…

  69. No, of German.

    OK, thank you: that explains a lot. To the native speaker of English, it’s clear that Mr. Khan doesn’t ever use /tʃ/ at the beginning of Tooting in that video.

  70. David Marjanović says:

    @David Marjanović: Affrication of /t/ is common in the south of England, although I think it typically yields [t͡s].

    Oh, I managed to overlook this. Yes, many people in England have begun to replicate the High German consonant shift; I’ve heard such accents, and they use unambiguous [t͡s], quite unlike Mr. Khan.

  71. marie-lucie says:

    English affrication

    Is this conditioned by the following vowel? as in Québec French t > ts before the vowels /i/ and /y/ (written u)?

  72. David Marjanović says:

    Is this conditioned by the following vowel?

    Not for [t͡s]; I can’t tell for [t͡ʃ], because I haven’t noticed /t/ occurring before a back vowel in that video (which I just watched again)…

    To the native speaker of English, it’s clear that Mr. Khan doesn’t ever use /tʃ/ at the beginning of Tooting in that video.

    Wait till he says teachers.

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