Over the last few days, I've finally gotten around to reading a book I have meant to read: Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer. Non-fiction is always more fascinating to me than most fiction, and this book is right up my alley: it's a cultural history of America, starting with the four different strains of British colonists who came to this country in the colonial days.
The book is a ponderous one, at 900+ pages -- not usually a plus in my view, but it is proving interesting so far. Fischer starts the book with the Puritan settlers, who came mostly from East Anglia, and describes their cultural and religious roots in England, and the direction their way of life took in New England when they colonized that region.
The next group Fischer deals with is the Virginia colonists, who were a varied group of people from different strata of English society, hailing mostly from Southern England. Their particular 'folkway' contributed to the Southern American culture that we know today. This group of colonists were my father's progenitors.
The third group Fischer writes about were the Quaker settlers, and then the borderland English, Scottish, and Scots-Irish settlers of the Southern highlands, who also contributed considerably to the Southern American culture.
This is all keenly interesting to me not only because I love American history, but because I have always wondered, based on my own experience of both Southern culture and Northern culture, how they became so different. This book helps explain the differences and the contrasts. It seems apparent that regional differences today are in large part attributable to the different origins of the colonists, and the different environments they encountered in America. Now I am not one of those who believe, according to the currently popular belief, that environment is all; I am a strong believer that genetics contributes much to what we are, although our surroundings play a part.
And as a lover of the English language, and a lifelong observer of the different dialects and varieties of English, I am interested in what Fischer has to say about 'speech ways' in different regions of the country.
As a child, being exposed to both Northern and Southern relatives, I noticed all the differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and idioms; all my life I've been something of a collector of little bits of language lore. And I've noticed with dismay that the English language as spoken in America has undergone noticeable changes in my lifetime. Some of this is inevitable; when I studied linguistics in college the popular school of thought was that we should not be 'prescriptive' and establish rules and norms and standards of right and wrong, but we should merely record and describe the real speech of real people, without being 'judgmental' or trying to put a brake on change. Needless to say, as a traditionally-minded person, (which I was, even in my 'liberal' days, paradoxically), I don't agree. I think we should try to control change in language by establishing and maintaining standards. I just don't agree that today's dumbed-down 'text-message' English or today's hip-hop slang are just as good as the language of our best writers. And I am saddened by the loss of many of the older regional varieties of English along with the homogenization of American English. I've noticed that many of the younger generation in the South are losing their Southern drawl, and speaking some kind of generic youthspeak, which has a decided Yankee flavor. I have noticed that girls seem particularly vulnerable to this tendency; maybe they are more status-conscious. I know that some young women tell me that the Southern accent is thought of as less educated or refined, so they try to lose it. But even young men often develop a kind of bland American accent which has no trace of the South in it.
And I wonder whether the coming generations will speak English as we know it, or will they speak some kind of Spanglish, as is heard in parts of Texas? Or will they speak Spanish as their first language?
Our language is a part of the vanishing America I lament.
Fischer in Albion's Seed notes that the Virginia dialect hads its own vocabulary, dating back to as early as the 17th century. He gives examples of words like bide for stay, howdy for hello, shuck for husk, porely [poorly] for unwell, craw for throat, afeared for afraid, tote for carry, passel [parcel] for pack, call for cause ("no call to do it") grit for courage, lick for beat, favor, meaning to resemble (example: I've been told I 'favor' my grandmother) unbeknownst for unknown, pekid [peaked] for unwell, mess of greens for a serving of vegetables, laid off for out of work, skillet for frying pan, right good for very good, get shut of for get rid of (I've also heard 'get shot of' or 'get shed of'). Other examples: proud for happy or glad, yonder meaning over there, innards for insides (inwards), angry for infected or inflamed, book-learning for schooling.
Fischer says that these terms are listed in the Oxford English dictionary as archaic or provincial, but they are still in common use in parts of the Southern states, especially among the older generations.
Some words which Fischer does not mention, but which I've noticed are common to Southern Americans as well as British people are 'reckon' (Northern Americans never use that word), 'prise' for 'pry', and 'glove box' for glove compartment. The term 'dinner' for the midday meal is not as common in the South now, but it used to be the heaviest meal of the day, with supper being the evening meal. I think those terms are still in use in parts of the British Isles, although 'tea' was the traditional English evening meal.
The word 'shoat' for a young pig is apparently an Essex word, although I don't know if it is in common use now. There is an old-time fiddle tune called 'Yelling In the Shoats.'
A few other different usages I noticed as a child were the word scabbard for holster and the word catapult for slingshot. Or maybe these were just peculiarities of my family; my cousins used these words.
Fischer notes a few pronunciations which differ from standard American English, such as the word 'seven' pronounced by Southerners as 'sebem' (or, more accurately, pronounced 'seb'm'), with 'eleven' pronounced along the same lines, as ''eleb'm''. I noticed years ago that there is a similar pronunciation among educated English people of the older generation. Fischer also notes that 'follow' was pronounced 'foller' and yellow, 'yaller', and across is 'acrost.' Actually, this last is not unheard of in other parts of the country as well as the South. I've also noticed that words like 'greasy' are pronounced the same in the South and in Britain; in the South, greasy is pronounced 'greazy', not with a soft 's' sound, as in the Northern states.
But Fischer notes that "Virtually all the peculiarities of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation which have been noted as typical of Virginia were recorded in the English counties of Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, and Worcester."
In a later chapter, Fischer deals with the backcountry speech ways of the Southern highlands. Among the distinctive terms he lists the word 'fornenst' which he defines as 'next to'. I know that this word is used or was used in Northern Ireland.
One of the tragedies of the loss of the old dialects and accents is they further distance us from our roots in the British Isles. To be aware of the origins of our culture and our dialects is to strengthen our sense of who we are. Most of us Americans have been proud enough to call ourselves simply Americans (and Southerners) but in this day and time, when our heritage is at risk of being extinguished by a demographic assault, we might strengthen ourselves by rediscovering and reacknowledging our roots in Britain. We should at least reacquaint ourselves with our centuries of heritage before it slips away from us, and before we become a footnote in history.
Some of the reason why we have been, so many of us, indifferent to our British heritage is because our forefathers fought to gain independence from Britain, and many Americans burned all emotional bridges to that country of our forefathers. Some Americans that I've encountered are fiercely anti-British, as though they think being pro-American means hating our British heritage and our ancestry. That is a wrong-headed approach. We burned our bridges politically with England or Britain, but we are part of that proud history and kinship whether we acknowledge it or not. I am all for building bridges with our British kin, rather than burning them. Much of what we are is based on our British heritage, and our kin across the pond are under siege just as we are; they are suffering under the yoke of a bad government, even worse than our own, and if we are to have any friends in this world, our beleaguered kin in the British Isles should be among them.
I hope to have more to say about Albion's Seed as I progress through the book.