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?

8 thoughts on “If Ancestors Could Talk: The Words of Nineteenth-Century New England

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by dialect and accents, especially of how people of the past would have spoken.

    I remember being in middle school and listening to a lecture by Dr. Engel (can’t remember his first name, but he’s an expert on the English language), and according to him, the British accent we know today dates from about the middle of the 18th century and was a conscious attempt by Britons to make the English language prettier. It didn’t exist in the 17th century when the Pilgrims and Puritans came over, which is why Americans don’t have a variation of it as Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans do.

    I’d guess that the accents of New Englanders today are probably close to the accents of pre-1750’s England.

    I loved the expressions you cite too. My parents were from Boston, so I remember Coke being called “tonic” and having things described as things as “wicked” and “pissa”, ha.

    Can you imagine what people will think of OUR colloquial terms and expressions? I remember that for about six months after I saw Waterboy, my favorite expression was “open up a can of whup-ass.” And I warn my students to “tighten up” when they get to talkative or hyper.

  2. My mother’s family is from a region that is known as the “Ottawa Valley”, Ontario, Canada. The region was noted for the Irish sounding dialect that was maintained to my great-grandparents generation. It had its own nuances, so it didn’t quite sound like a Newfoundland or Maritime accent. When my mother attended high school, the school had a teaching sister whose job it was to teach elocution lessons to the girls to “rid them of that terrible Ottawa Valley accent”, my mother and her friends were astonished….they didn’t know they had an accent. It must have worked, as she doesn’t have an accent to my ears….mind you I had a french teacher tell my parents that they would have to teach me English first when we moved from Nova Scotia to Quebec 😉

    1. My grandfather from France lived in Westmeath and had children who learned English as children. They had the “Westmeath accent” you speak of.

  3. Great blog, and a favorite topic of mine – or at least a topic I’ve often wondered about. I do have to take exception to the idea that JFK ‘grew up’ in Massachusetts. The family moved to New York after he finished the fourth grade. They spent summers on the Cape, but school in New York and in a private school in Connecticut would not have left much room for a Boston accent. And the fact that Bobby and Ted shared the ‘Kennedy accent,’ while not living in Massachusetts should say a lot.

    People who grew up in metropolitan Boston thought the Kennedys had an ‘accent.’ Well there you go – it never occurred to me that my parents or teachers in Boston had an accent. When ever I hear someone in the media do a ‘Boston accent’ by trying to ape the Kennedys, it may as well be from Idaho to me – I don’t recognize it as anything I ever heard growing up in Boston.

    pet peeve – can’t help it. 😉

    1. Thanks – I’m a frequent visitor to your blog – and appreciate the link earlier this week.

      With that said, how could I write my first post on New England accents without mentioning the Kennedys? 🙂 I grew up north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border and agree that we don’t speak with the “Kennedy accent” either. But, there are similarities between the “Kennedy accent” and the “Boston accent”.

      I would argue that the “Kennedy accent” was heavily influenced by the time he spent in Massachusetts – his first 10 years in Brookline (and those most relevant to his language development), as well as the summers he spent afterwards in Hyannisport. And, then there’s his family – Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy both had Boston upbringings – as did his grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald. Bobby and Ted Kennedy may have spent their formative years in New York, but their language definitely would have been influenced by their older siblings and relatives. There are vestiges of Portuguese pronunciations and syntax in my own family, even after 100 years in the US. (There’s an idea for a future post.)

      But – moving onto more dangerous ground 😉 – there are some who would argue that the accent of southern New England, Massachusetts included, is influenced by its proximity to New York. I think there are solid arguments to emphasize the distinctions between the accents of NY and Boston, but a spectrum does exist as you move southward into Rhode Island and find “caw-fees”.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment. This is a fun topic – and I’m hoping to post the next post in the series soon.

  4. hi, I’m working on a novel based in Boston, 1845 (months before the Great Hunger) and have a character who is a displaced planter from Lexington, Kentucky. my question pertains to the pronunciation of the library name in Charlestown the Athenaeum. its root is Greek, through Latin, and though its modern pronunciation includes variants such as “Athe NAY um” (British) while “Athen KNEE um” is American, my Latin dictionary suggests the ‘ae’ dipthong should be pronounced ‘aye’ as in ‘Athen Aye um’… would you happen to know what was common in Boston in 1845?

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