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.

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One response to “Hearing seventeenth-century colonists in ‘The Witch’

  1. Pingback: Psalm 23 as the Pilgrims heard it | Past in the Present

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