Monthly Archives: March 2016

Did early Appalachian settlers talk like I do?

I’ve lived in East Tennessee (yes, we capitalize “East”) for more or less my entire life, and I’ve got the accent to prove it.  I tend to be most conscious of it when pronouncing the words “iron,” “get,” and “our.”

Fellow grad students tell me it’s quite noticeable, although I’ve had many people tell me otherwise.  One of the things I enjoyed most about working in a museum was getting to meet people from all over the country.  Some visitors noticed my accent right away and seemed to get a bigger kick out of hearing me ask them not to take flash photos of the artifacts than they did out of seeing the artifacts themselves.  Others would ask me where I was from and were shocked to find out that I was a native of the region: “But you don’t have an accent!”

I don’t get many comments on my accent when I travel, except in Montana, of all places.  In fact, I’ve probably had more people remark on my speech on trips to Montana than in all the other places I’ve visited combined.  But I don’t hold it against them; no one was ever rude about it, and even if they were, the state that gave the world the first T. rex specimen gets a free pass from me for just about everything.  A couple of my relatives, on the other hand, have encountered offensive reactions to their speech while traveling; my aunt had a particularly unpleasant experience with a food server in eastern Virginia.  (Personally, most of the crap I’ve had to deal with in terms of negative attitudes toward Appalachians has come from people who have moved to the region from elsewhere, not people I’ve met while traveling.)

Anyway, since we’ve been on the subject of early American dialects, I thought I might discuss a question I’ve often pondered while studying frontier involvement in the American Revolution.  What did the settlers who lived in Appalachia in the late eighteenth century sound like?  If I could hop in a time machine and visit East Tennessee or southwestern Virginia in 1780 to record a little oral history for my dissertation, would my subjects’ speech sound anything like my own?  Or would it be another case of the past as a foreign country?

Many scholars trace the roots of Appalachian dialect—and southern highland culture in general—to migrants from northern Britain, and especially to the Scotch-Irish who came to the American backcountry from Ulster in the years preceding the American Revolution.  In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer claims that there’s quite a bit of continuity between the speech patterns of early Scotch-Irish migrants and the English that their descendants still speak today (p. 652):

This American speech way is at least two centuries old.  It was recognized in the colonies even before the War of Independence, and identified at first in ethnic rather than regional terms, as “Scotch-Irish speech.”  In the backcountry, it rapidly became so dominant that other ethnic stocks in this region adopted it as their own.  As early as 1772, a newspaper advertisement reported a runaway African slave named Jack who was said to “speak the Scotch-Irish dialect.”

The earliest recorded examples of this “Scotch-Irish” speech were strikingly similar to the language that is spoken today in the southern highlands, and has become familiar throughout the western world as the English of country western singers, trans-continental truck drivers, cinematic cowboys, and backcountry politicians.

Despite Fischer’s argument for continuity, some of the examples of regional dialect he provides sound as alien to me as I presume they would to someone from any other place.  In fact, I’d only heard a couple of the terms from his list of Appalachian “Scotch-Irishisms,” and even those few aren’t terms I’ve heard often (and seldom from younger Appalachians).  I’d imagine that the purely “Scotch-Irish” aspects of the region’s dialect were much more pronounced in the early years of settlement than they are now.

One other thing to keep in mind is that many of these eighteenth-century backcountry settlers were first-generation immigrants.  Thus the dialects I might hear on my hypothetical trip back in time would include the very same accents a visitor to eighteenth-century Ireland or Scotland would hear.  In fact, visitors to the eighteenth-century frontier sometimes noted the distinct speech patterns of the Irish and Scottish immigrants they met.

Furthermore, while the Scotch-Irish contribution to the backcountry population was significant, it didn’t account for everybody.  To take an example from the King’s Mountain expedition, Lt. Col. Frederick Hambright, who settled in the Carolina upcountry, was born in Bavaria.  If later accounts are any indication, he retained a pronounced German accent well into his later years.  And Isaac Shelby, a King’s Mountain commander who lived in present-day East Tennessee before settling in Kentucky, was the son of Welsh immigrants.  Perhaps growing up in a household with Welsh parents left an impression on his own speech.

John Sevier’s linguistic heritage was especially complicated.  He was born in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to a father who’d migrated from England just a few years earlier, and the father’s father was French.  Growing up in a home where the father was an Englishman raised by a Frenchman, and coming of age among Scotch-Irish and German neighbors…what in the world would Sevier’s speech have sounded like?

Perhaps it would’ve been rather Scotch-Irish in spite of his family’s history.  Fischer argues that Scotch-Irish speech patterns became prevalent in the backcountry pretty early, diluting some of the other dialects that early migrants brought from elsewhere.  Maybe someday a historian and a linguist can get together and reconstruct the speech of these settlers of the eighteenth-century southern frontier, similar to what David Crystal has done for Shakespearean English.  Until then, I suppose I’ll have to wonder how much of a linguistic foreign country the early Appalachian frontier really was.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Hearing seventeenth-century colonists in ‘The Witch’

Writer-director Robert Eggers has really played up his painstaking approach to historical accuracy in making The Witch.  One of the more interesting ways the film evokes a sense of the past is its characters’ use of Early Modern English.  The syntax and the use of archaic second-person pronouns seem to come right out of the King James Bible—or perhaps I should say the Geneva Bible, which was the preferred version of the New England Puritans.  In fact, Eggers lifted whole swaths of his dialogue from period accounts.

Even more striking to me than the syntax and vocabulary is the way the characters pronounce the words themselves.  The first time I saw the trailer, what hit me more than the overall creepiness was the distinctive ring of those opening lines spoken by actor Ralph Ineson.  What went we out into this wilderness to find?  Leaving our country?  Kindred?  Our fathers’ houses?

There’s something singular about the cadence, about the way those vowels come rolling out.  Given Eggers’s obsession with accuracy, I wondered if the pronunciation reflected an attempt to reconstruct some sort of archaic English dialect.  Since many of the Puritans who joined the Great Migration to the New World hailed from East Anglia, I thought perhaps the filmmakers had reverse-engineered a seventeenth-century speech pattern from that part of England.

Turns out the characters’ dialect is a little more complicated than that:

According to Eggers, the family originally hailed from Essex before migrating to the New World, factually consistent with the Great Migration. “But I cast Ralph [Ineson as the father], and Ralph’s Yorkshire accent, Yorkshire attitude was so amazing that we decided to make the family from Yorkshire.” This didn’t mean fudging a detail. With Eggers, it’s about recalibrating. Hunting for evidence, the director discovered in Dedham, Massachusetts, the Fairbanks House, the oldest surviving timber-frame residence in North America. Its original owner, Fairbanks, was from Yorkshire and moved to Massachusetts with Essex people. When he couldn’t get along with the church, he moved his family outside. “So I was like, ‘Well, this is perfect.’ Way back when the family was from Essex, we talked about doing a 1770s Essex dialect. But it sounds insane. It sounds like a pirate. So we worked on creating a Yorkshire accent that was sort of free of some of the modern urbanisms, but that could suit this language.”

In other words, it was Ralph Ineson’s own natural Yorkshire accent that shaped the film’s dialect, not the other way around.  Here’s Ineson speaking out of character:

So what did the seventeenth-century colonists who settled in English America sound like?  As is the case with all other dialects, it depended on where they came from.  Just as there are different regional dialects in the British Isles today, there were a variety of different speech patterns in England in the 1600s.  If you’re familiar with David Hackett Fischer’s analysis of cultural transmission from Britain to America, you probably know that regional distinctions in the mother country gave rise to variations in colonial speech patterns.

We can get a sense of at least one of those varieties thanks to the work of David Crystal, who helped the Globe Theatre reconstruct four-hundred-year-old English to mount a production of Shakespeare as his original audiences would have heard it.  Think of it as the linguistic equivalent of Jurassic Park, using scholarship to bring an extinct dialect back from the dead.  Here’s a video of David and his son Ben demonstrating the difference between 1600s London pronunciation and modern “received pronunciation.”

And here’s another video featuring Ben Crystal performing some Shakespeare in the original pronunciation:

Crystal’s point about the “piratical” sound of Shakespearean English brings to mind Eggers’s comment that the 1770s Essex dialect the filmmakers tried out “sounds like a pirate.”  Oddly enough, most people associate pirate speech with West Country dialect, and both Essex and London are on the opposite side of England from the West Country.*  The reason archaic English dialects sound piratical is probably because of the prominent pronunciation of the letter R.  These forms of English were still rhotic in the 1600s, which made Talk Like a Pirate Day a perpetual celebration in many parts of England and colonial America.

But there’s a twist.  It seems the place where non-rhotic English first appeared was…East Anglia, the very region from which many of the Puritans originated.  That’s odd, though, since Eggers claims that a 1770s Essex dialect sounded “like a pirate.”  By the late eighteenth century, the transition to non-rhotic English was already old hat in East Anglia.  Go figure.

Still, Crystal’s effort at linguistic resurrection can give us a hint of how some of the earliest English colonists sounded, since both the area around London and the southwestern part of England did supply settlers to America in the seventeenth century.  And since London was a place where people from different parts of Britain mixed and mingled, it seems likely that the English spoken in the city during Shakespeare’s time contained traces of several dialects that ended up in the American colonies.

In fact, you can still find remnants of these original speech patterns here in the U.S. if you know where to look for them.  One of those places is Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, where some residents speak a distinctively archaic dialect harkening back to the seventeenth-century Virginia settlers who came from southwestern Britain.

If the speech of Tangier Island or Crystal’s reconstructed Shakespearean sound strange and unfamiliar, take it as one more reminder that the past was a foreign country.

*I’ve heard two explanations for the association of West Country speech with pirates.  First, the West Country has a long maritime tradition.  Second, West Country native Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island was so memorable that it pretty much cemented the popular image of pirates for decades thereafter.

1 Comment

Filed under Colonial America

Still alive

Sorry about the lull, guys.  Been busy with grad school stuff, and had a nasty case of pneumonia there for a while.  Here, have a video of a cat dressed like a Confederate officer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War