Our history can be traced in our language and our dialects. The American English language as a whole is just a development of the English language which our English forebears brought with them. The average American who thinks little about such things seems unaware that our particular form of English has its antecedents in England; many such people seem to assume that our forebears invented American English from whole cloth when they came here in the 1600s.
I've also found, oddly, that many British people seem to consider our kind of English to be some kind of weird corruption of the King's English, not realizing that the English spoken by our colonial ancestors derives from an English that has changed since the colonists left England. Our ways of pronouncing words (such as with a short 'a' in words like grass, glass, chance, etc.) were at one time standard British English, and only changed, according to Dr. Johnson, in his lifetime, (1709-1784) when so many of the upper classes traveled to Italy and affected 'Italianate' speech, including the use of broad 'a' sounds as in the Italian language. So now the English spoken in Britain has changed, and we are considered deviant speakers of English for holding to the once-standard forms. As usual, we Americans are the country cousins who are considered yokels.
The latter-day multicultural myth of America (recite it along with me, class: "Immigrants Made America!") implies the idea that these hallowed immigrants, who came here to build our country for us and to give us 'diversity', also created or shaped the American English language. The official story is 'our language is full of words brought here by the many, varied immigrants from all corners of the world.') The fact is, although English, especially American English, has a number of borrowings from other languages, the core vocabulary of our language has not changed that much since our forefathers landed at Plymouth Rock or Virginia.
Sure, there are borrowings from American Indian languages, mainly words describing flora or fauna that were unfamiliar to our European-born forebears, and there were some Dutch words (mostly unrecognized, because we are not taught of them) and French words, and yes, a few Spanish words, or words that were corruptions of Spanish words, like 'calaboose' from the Spanish 'calabozo'. But most of the words we use every day can be found in the writings of the colonists or in the King James Bible.
Immigrants did not make our American English language or dialect. Our English ancestors simply brought a full-grown language that was modified over the years, while our cousins back in Britain adopted some new linguistic fashions and developments which separated our two strains of English even further.
The mantra of my liberal teachers in college was that 'language is evolving; it's an organic thing, not fixed or set in stone. It's whatever people make it.' Certainly there is some simple observation of reality in that statement, but that's why there have always been rules and standards in any formal language: to slow down and control change, so that the language does not 'evolve' so quickly as to be chaotic. There are reasons why we don't want willy-nilly change in language. For one thing, we'd very quickly be unable to decipher the writings of past generations; our literary heritage would be lost to us, if we did not put brakes on linguistic change. Now, we seem to have this fatalistic 'what will be, will be' attitude, just as with the loss of our country and our identity. We see change as something that is inevitable and irresistible. How did that happen?
Anybody with sound conservative instincts should recognize the importance of putting brakes on the process of change, and to control it rather than being controlled by it, preserving what is worth preserving and what connects us to our roots.
There's a need for preserving what is good, what is valuable, and what is meaningful to us. Certainly our language as we've known it and grown up with it is all those things. Our distinct ways of speaking and communicating and expressing ourselves are a part of our memories and our bonds with past generations.
Language is more than just a system of sounds to communicate a message. The language itself has distinct character and it is a product of our inherent traits and values. The Carl Sandburg poem I posted the other day has a sense of that: the proverbs of a people and the ways in which they frame those sayings speak volumes about who a people may be.
And there's just the sound itself of each dialect which has a sense of familiarity and warmth to those who've grown up with it.
Thus there is sadness at the thought of losing these distinctive ways of speaking and expressing ourselves.
A dialect not only tells us something about the character and the attitude of those who speak it; it tells us about the culture in which it developed.
It tells us something about the history of the people: obviously we can read the influences of the British roots of our forebears, English, Scots, Northern Irish, and some Welsh, as most of the colonists were. The fact that they left their home country in Elizabethan times can be read in the survival of some of the archaic expressions of that time and place.
For example, Americans outside the South don't use expressions like 'yonder' or 'reckon' or 'britches' (breeches), all of these being obsolete in the rest of America. The fact that these words survive in the South shows the essentially more conservative character of the South, and it also shows that the South remained intact as a mostly British-descended area while New England absorbed many more immigrants of non-British origin by the mid-19th century.
The quintessential Southern term "y'all", which is the term used to address more than one person, is a contraction or a slurring of the older Elizabethan ''ye all", as used in the King James Bible. Say "ye all" quickly and it comes out 'y'all'.
The term comes in handy because we have no second-person plural form of address in modern standard English. And contrary to the belief of the people who write bad movie scripts with characters speaking with cartoon 'southern' accents, the term is never applied to one person.
When these same scriptwriters have an ignorant Southern person (is there any other kind in movies) saying the word 'ate', as in the past tense of 'eat', they write it as 'et.' I suppose they are not aware that this is standard British pronunciation of the word 'ate.' Maybe this is changing, but it is not just an ignorant Southron corruption of the word 'ate.'
Southerners also tend to use the word 'amongst', which other Americans tend never to use, preferring 'among.'
The older generations in the South use expressions like 'shamefaced' meaning 'shy' or bashful; that apparently comes from an older term, 'shamefast', meaning 'held fast by shame.'
Terms like 'high sheriff' come from the old English culture, and I've never heard that expression used in the North, although apparently in some states the office still exists.
The modern office of sheriff in the United States descends from a one-thousand-year-old English tradition: a "shire-reeve" (shire-keeper) is the oldest appointment of the English crown.
The food called in the South 'chitlins' are often believed to be African in origin because they are now associated with so-called soul food, when in fact the term comes from England (from English "chitterlings"; the term is cited here on a BBC web page as a Somerset dialect word:
chittlins - small intestines of hog eaten both fried and stewed
Speaking of food, there is the term "a mess" of something - 'a mess of' is a large portion of food - as we find in the Biblical story of Esau and his 'mess of pottage'. Again, it's in the King James Bible.
One of the most common misconceptions is that everything distinctively Southron is African in origin. I've read absurd claims such as that the Southern dialect and accent were copied from slaves, and of course that all the music of the South is really African in origin. I suppose those African slaves must first have taught step-dancing and fiddle music to the diversity-deprived people in the British Isles too, because the latter have suspiciously similar traditions to those found in the American South. Who taught whom?
There are many survivals of earlier English folkways and speechways. The Southern culture gets little respect, being considered, like the Southron people, an ignorant country cousin, a red-headed stepchild.
I hope to continue this in a future entry with a few examples of Southron dialect expressions and words. I enjoy the English language in all its many shades and variations, and I hope to hear some examples of my readers' local or regional expressions. This is all part of our heritage and part of who we are and where we come from.