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The Word Guy: Written works trace history of speech patterns

| 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.

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