Tag Archives: James Russell Lowell

If Ancestors Could Talk: The Words of Nineteenth-Century New England

Eastern Massachusetts has its own way of saying things. Whether you’re drinking a tonic, or slurping a frappe, or quenching your thirst with water from a bubbler, you know you’re near Boston when the letter “r” starts migrating within sentences (think ‘supah idear’).  To linguists, New England breaks into two dialect regions:  Eastern New England and Western New England.  To speak with linguists in their jargon and to make ‘supah idears’ a topic worthy of the lecture hall, Eastern New England English, including the infamous Boston accent, is academically described as having “non-rhoticity” and as having a “broad A”.  Non-rhoticity basically means that the letter “r” is only sometimes pronounced (in words like ‘ring’ and ‘caravan’, but not in words like ‘Harvard’ or ‘yard’).  The broad “A” explains why your niece from South Boston calls you “Auntie” with the broad A of ‘saunter’ instead of pronouncing the word similar to ‘ants’.
But, if you sit down with the task of re-creating New England speech from the past, the task grows more difficult.  For one thing, as you regress back through the Victorian era, things like frappes, bubblers, and jimmies (yes, the New Englandism for “ice cream sprinkles”) begin to disappear.  And, writing phonetically – think Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn – takes some time and can try the patience of your readers.  So, how do you re-create the speech of Eastern Massachusetts in, say, 1840?
Just as regional accents or dialects exist today, is there a ‘historical accent’ that we would encounter if we were to talk to a New Englander of the mid-nineteenth century?  YouTube abounds with voice recordings of past presidents:
There’s the unforgettable accent of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who grew up in Massachusetts:
There’s the lesser-known accent of Calvin Coolidge, the nation’s 30th president, from Vermont:
James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell, Image via Wikipedia

 

But, say you’re trying to get a sense of speech from even earlier, before recordings.  Say you’re trying to recreate the speech of the “common man”, or “woman”.  As you regress further and further back into the 19th century, their recorded words grow scarcer.   Unless you come across The Biglow Papers by James Russell Lowell.  In The Biglow Papers, James Russell Lowell sought to capture the speech of mid-nineteenth century New Englanders.  Published in 1848, its fame went on to inspire similar approaches to the representation of regionally influenced dialogue by Mark Twain.

So, if you could meet some of those New England-based multi-great-grandparents in your family trees, you might start to get a sense of the words they would choose and how they would pronounce them by reading The Biglow Papers.
As you read through The Biglow Papers, you’ll see familiar pronunciations of words that we still hear today:
  • ‘Actually’ becomes ‘act’lly';
  • ‘Ask’ becomes ‘ax';
  • ‘Dirt’ becomes ‘dut’.
It’s debatable whether these pronunciations are unique to New England or just the result of having less time for formal education and for worrying about things like annunciating every syllable.  It is interesting to note that pronouncing ‘ask’ as ‘ax’ isn’t unique to our living generations, as our grade school teachers may have insinuated when they were chiding us years ago.

"Kiss me quick", a humorous 1840's Currier and Ives print that would have been considered slightly naughty at the time. Image via Wikipedia

Further examination of the pronunciations and speech captured within the Biglow Papers picks up expressions like “to deacon off”, which means “to give the cue to do something”.  Years before Lowell wrote The Biglow Papers, a custom existed within New England churches that, as deacons read out hymns at Congregational services, the congregation was to sing them back, thus giving rise to the expression.

If someone within the congregation rubbed you the wrong way in their singing, or their mannerisms, he or she would have been known as a “crooked stick” in Lowell’s time.  And if you were to tell them, you might just “wake snakes” (get into trouble) for giving them “sarse” and they would grow “ferfle ugly” (very angry).  This is where the speech of early- to mid-19th century New Englanders really comes alive, and allows us a glimpse into just what our New England ancestors in our family trees might sound like if they could speak from the still images of those tintypes and paintings.

This post marks the first in a series on New England speech of the past.  Traveling across the United States exposes us to the country’s different accents.  Traveling across time, if it were possible, would probably expose us to the different accents of each historical era.  Listening to old recordings, the words, cadence, syntax of language all seem just perceptibly different.  What would our ancestors sound like, and which words and expressions would they use, if we were able to talk with them today?