TribLIVE

| AandE

 
Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

The Word Guy: Written works trace history of speech patterns

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Rob Kyff
Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
 

Those who remember President John F. Kennedy, or who have heard recordings of his voice, know that he spoke with a Boston accent. He not only dropped the “r” sound in many words (“Let the wahhd go fawth ... that the tawch has been passed”) but also added the “r” sound to other words (“idear,” “Cubar”).

“Speaking American,” a recent book by the late linguist Richard Bailey, demonstrates that the regional speech patterns Kennedy used began in New England as early as the 1600s.

How did Bailey know? Examining old New England town records, he discovered misspellings that reveal how certain words were pronounced. (Linguists call such nonstandard spellings “eye dialect” because the reader's eye sees what the ear hears, e.g., “enuff” for “enough,” “offen” for “often.”)

In some 17th-century New England eye dialect, the “r” was omitted: “fouth” for “fourth,” “bud” (bird), “pasneg” (parsonage), “Geoge” (George) and “Mos” (Morse). Today most Boston natives, including the “achtahs” Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, still drop the “r” in many words.

In other colonial New England misspellings, an “r” was inserted: “hawsers” was spelled “horsers” and “Boston” was spelled “Borston,” as in Kennedy's “idear” and “Cubar.”

Bailey also discovered that many other regional speech patterns are much older than you might think.

Several terms still heard in Western Pennsylvania, for instance, were imported by Scots-Irish immigrants during the 1700s: “poke” (a bag or sack), “redd” (tidy, as in “Please redd up your room”), “youns” (a second-person plural pronoun equivalent to the southern “ya'll”), “till” (to, as in “quarter till three”) and “all” (as in “What all did she want?).

Likewise, slaves who arrived in South Carolina during the 1600s and 1700s brought with them many West African terms still used today: “yam” (sweet potato), “okra” (plant), “gumbo” (soup) and “goober” (peanut). “Moco,” which meant “magic, witchcraft” in the West African language Fula, eventually morphed into our word “mojo” (magical power).

And, by examining eye dialect in Abraham Cahan's 1896 novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto,” Bailey discovered that today's New “Yoik” accent was thriving well before 1900. Cahan rendered “girl” as “goil” (girl), “furniture” as “foiniture,” “though” as “dough” and “think” as “t'ink.”

So, to paraphrase JFK, the “wahhds” (or “woids”) have indeed gone forth — from earlier centuries to our own.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send email to Wordguy@aol.com or send regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.

 

 


Show commenting policy

Most-Read Stories

  1. Ejections, heated moments mark Pirates’ win over Reds
  2. Zimbabwe alleges Murrysville doctor illegally killed lion
  3. New Steeler Boykin clarifies remarks about former coach
  4. Pirates notebook: Burnett says ‘surgery is not an option’
  5. After early criticism, Haley has Steelers offense poised to be even better
  6. Rossi: Looking at the next great Steeler
  7. County council candidates chosen for District 11 ballot
  8. Making environmentalism divisive
  9. Penguins not alone in top-heavy approach to salary cap
  10. Ability to clog the trenches crucial to Steelers defense
  11. Former Lincoln Park star Rowan chooses N.C. State