Tag Archives: New England

Psalm 23 as the Pilgrims heard it

Here’s a post-Thanksgiving addendum to that discussion of colonial dialects we had back in March.  The Smithsonian and Plimouth Plantation gave some visitors the chance to eavesdrop on seventeenth-century New England.

“Waking the Ancestors: Recovering the Lost Sacred Sounds of Colonial America,” was no ordinary living history program. Performed by educators from Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the program was developed as part of the Smithsonian’s Religion in America initiative.

Just as calls to prayer and church bells are part of city life around the world, the religious lives of America’s indigenous people and colonists had their own distinctive sounds. “Waking the Ancestors” explored just what those sounds might have been like. With the help of meticulous historical research, the team behind the program reconstructed how worship traditions sounded after the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts.

That soundscape is anything but familiar to 21st-century listeners. The region was new to English colonists, but not to the Wampanoag, who once numbered over 100,000 in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Pilgrims would have heard the traditional songs and dances of Wampanoag people when they arrived—and in turn, the Wampanoag would have heard Pilgrims worshiping in Anglican, Puritan and Separatist styles.

To demonstrate, the program featured worship music in all three styles, ranging from the choral harmonies of Anglicans to the unadorned chanting of Puritans and Separatists, which focused more on the text than music. “For [Separatists], music was just the handmaiden of worship,” Richard Pickering, Plimoth Plantation’s deputy director and the “Waking the Ancestors” program leader, tells Smithsonian.com. Attendees heard multiple versions of psalms sung in different styles and period accents—an attempt to illustrate the spiritual rifts and changes that occurred within what many think of as a homogenous group of colonists.

Here’s the Twenty-Third Psalm as it sounded in New England four hundred years ago.

It’s quite reminiscent of the Shakespearean pronunciation reconstructed by David Crystal, especially in the long “i”s and “a”s.  But what about the dialect of the Pilgrims’ Wampanoag neighbors?

In 1992, Jessie Little Doe Baird, who belongs to the Wampanoag Nation’s Mashpee tribe, began having dreams in which her ancestors appeared to her speaking a language she could not understand. Compelled to bring back Wôpanâak, which had been little used since the 1830s, Baird and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a rare book by missionary John Eliot to reconstruct the language. Eliot, who was given the nickname “the Apostle of the American Indian” due to his efforts to convert the area’s indigenous people, translated his so-called “Indian Bible,” a translation of the King James Bible, into the language of the local indigenous people in order to convert them, but his book has helped the Wampanoag connect even more deeply to their past traditions.

Though Wôpanâak is being taught to children and indigenous people today with the help of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, it is fiercely guarded by the Wampanoag people and is rarely spoken in public. Toodie Coombs, Darius’ wife, spoke in the language in a moment that was not recorded out of respect for the language itself. “That was incredibly powerful,” says Pickering. Coombs agrees. “A lot of people think that language is just an object. You can’t [treat it] like that—it took us a century to get our language back.”

I can see why it’s a sensitive issue.  Still, I can’t help but wish somebody had recorded at least a snippet, so that those of us who weren’t in attendance could get a fuller sense of the colonial New England soundscape.

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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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April 19

Resilient folks, those Bay Staters.

By Aldaron — Aldaron, a.k.a. Aldaron (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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“The memory of unutterable things”

A few months ago I decided to sample some H.P. Lovecraft and ended up tearing through two volumes of his short stories.  A sense of place figures prominently in his work, much of which is set in old towns along New England’s fictional Miskatonic River—places like Innsmouth, Arkham, and Dunwich.  Horror aficionados call this semi-imaginary region “Lovecraft Country.”

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What particularly struck me in reading his fiction was not the just the sense of place, but specifically the sense of historical landscape.  Time and again, Lovecraft used the remnants of New England’s past to evoke a palpable sense of menace and dread.  The narrator of “The Picture in the House” explains this connection between horror and historic landscape in the story’s opening paragraphs:

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock. Two hundred years and more they have leaned or squatted there, while the vines have crawled and the trees have swelled and spread. They are almost hidden now in lawless luxuriances of green and guardian shrouds of shadow; but the small-paned windows still stare shockingly, as if blinking through a lethal stupor which wards off madness by dulling the memory of unutterable things.

Interestingly, the protagonist of “The Picture in the House” is engaged in historical research when he stumbles across something horrific.  He recounts traveling near the Miskatonic “in quest of certain genealogical data,” and the awful discovery he makes in an aging house involves an illustration in an old book.  This is another historical thread running through Lovecraft’s fiction.  Those who go rummaging around in the past often stumble across long-dormant terrors.  His protagonists are heritage tourists and history buffs; crumbling books, manuscripts, and artifacts are the keys to unlock terrible secrets.  The titular character of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” discovers a sinister legacy of necromancy while investigating his family history and restoring old heirlooms.  Similarly, the narrator of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” remembers “celebrating my coming of age by a tour of New England – sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical” when he arrived at a decaying seaside town occupied by inhuman beings.  Lovecraft even deployed the language of the past to creepy effect, using archaic words like “shewed” in place of “showed.”  For Lovecraft, history was a haunted house.

This notion of a “creepy past” is, of course, very common in fiction and film.  We associate decay with death, so old buildings and artifacts are natural settings for horror stories.  This is harder to accomplish when it comes to places without a visible past.  They lack an atmosphere of dread because they lack an atmosphere, period.  As Gertrude Stein put it, there’s no “there” there.  If you’re going to use setting to evoke a mood, that setting needs to have some character, and places with a backstory tend to have more character than others.

To take a personal example, I recently watched part of Paranormal Activity, a movie about a malevolent force terrorizing a couple in a modern, suburban tract home.  It didn’t frighten me in the least.  It didn’t even engage me.  A modern tract home simply isn’t a scary environment, at least not for me.  A place needs to have some sort of patina before it can be really frightening.  Even horror films set in the future will often “age” the setting in which they take place to evoke that vibe of menacing antiquity.  Imagine watching a version of Alien where the Nostromo is a brand-new ship with a fresh coat of paint.

We use the past to meet all sorts of collective psychological needs, and one of those needs is the occasional desire to scare ourselves half to death.

Old Burial Ground in Manchester, MA. By John Phelan (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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