The Word Guy: Written works trace history of speech patterns
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pirates say goodbye to veteran leaders Burnett, Ramirez
- Steelers notebook: Starting DEs not leaving the field
- NFL notebook: Cardinals to stay in W.Va. ahead of Steelers game
- State woos Kennametal with $1M in incentives to stay in Pa.
- Opposing TEs Miller, Gates took differing paths to greatness
- Cole working to become Penguins’ next Martin on defense
- Pitt, WR Boyd look to break out against Virginia
- Gorman: WPIAL must answer with power move
- Feds aim to bring Chinese military leaders to Pittsburgh for trial
- After another slow start, Greensburg Central Catholic defeats Leechburg
- Rock Steelers Style, other fashion events team up for a good cause