A National Language – From Webster to Whitman:
The English Language has always been the most significant battlegrounds of Anglo-American rivalry, a fascinating window on the tensions of the “special relationship”. Divided by a common language, each generation has made the enjoyable discovery that the ‘standard’ English of Britain is different from from the English of America, arguing or joking about it according to the mood and politics of the time. Antagonize and placate were both American neologisms which were hated by the Victorian British. By then, as members of a ‘multiracial’ society, the first Americans had also adopted words like wigwam, pretzel, spook, depot and canyon in borrowings from the Amerindians, Germans, Dutch, French, and Spanish. It was these additions that Samuel Johnson referred to in his famous complaint about the American dialect, a tract of corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed. Like Johnson’s dictionary, Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language represents a landmark in the development of the dominant language spoken in the new ‘anglosphere’. It was Webster’s intention, as he put it, to introduce uniformity and accuracy of pronunciation into common schools. Webster’s dictionary was larger than Johnson’s by about a third, and contained much American usage. But a lifetime of effort, including a year spent in England, had mellowed him, and in the preface to his monument, he noted that the body of the language is the same as in England, and it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness. Despite its now honoured place in the history of American English, the 1828 dictionary sold only 2,500 copies and he was forced to mortgage his home to bring out a second edition. Despite this, he continued to be dogged by death until his death in his native Connecticut in 1843, his effort largely unrecognised and unapplauded.
Apart from the changes in spelling, it was the emphasis he gave to the pronunciation of each syllable in the distinctive pattern of American speech that was perhaps the most significant contribution attributed to Webster’s Dictionary. His insistence on a good articulation … giving every letter in a syllable its due proportion and sound … and in making such a distinction, between syllables, … that the ear shall without difficulty acknowledge their number, meant that Americans pronounced secretary as ‘sec-ret-ary’ rather than ‘secret’ry’ in British English. The precise extent of Webster’s influence on American speech rhythms remains controversial but no one disputes the remarkable uniformity of much American speech, particularly beyond the eastern seabord. Even in the East, there was nothing like the patchwork of local dialects and accents which continued to exist in Britain. Many nineteenth-century travellers to the United States also commented on the nasal quality and drawl of the American voice. The Victorian novelist, Captain Marryat, author of The Children of the New Forest, Mr Midshipman Easy and other children’s classics, travelled widely in the States, and noticed that:
The Americans dwell upon their words when they speak – a custom arising, I presume, from their cautious, calculating habits; and they have always more or less of a nasal twang.
Marryat also noted with obvious fascination another aspect of American speech, the ‘um’ and ‘hu’ as generally used as a sort of reply, which he found to be useful expressions and admits to having acquired a taste for them himself. But the hostility of most British visitors to American English undoubtedly bred a certain defensive arrogance among those who were not ashamed of “the American twang”. One traveller reported that he had found, …
… not an American, let him be Yankee or Southerner, from the banks of the Hudson or the Mississippi, but flatters himself that he speaks more correct English than we illiterate sons of the mother isle. …
Apart from the phrase unconditional surrender, first used by General Grant in 1862, the American Civil War itself had little immediate or lasting impact on the language of either Southerners or Yankees. What it did do, however, was to bring the economy and pioneering Mid-West into play for the first time in the history of the now divided country. Both Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain were mid-Westerners. The direct simplicity of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ (19 November 1863), just two minutes of prose scribbled on the back of an envelope and barely audible to those in his audience, except those standing next to him, shows the new maturity and confidence of Webster’s American English:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
Then, on 16 December 1865, a story entitled John Smiley and his Jumping Frog was published by the New York Saturday Press. It was written by a young reporter from the West writing under the pen name of “Mark Twain”. This was the first of his stories which later formed the book Huckleberry Finn, which Ernest Hemingway later wrote was the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since. Twain was able to render the American English vernacular in a way that was neither a parody nor a caricature but literature, based on the oral achievements epitomised by Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg. Both Lincoln and Twain were brought up at the frontier; both were from the lively middle of the American continent and both shared its ethos and beliefs – democratic, individualistic, egalitarian. Lincoln believed in the American people; Twain wrote about them, using their common speech. T. S. Eliot placed him as one of those rare writers who have brought their language up to date. In Life on the Mississippi (1883) Twain himself described his career after the Civil War brought his initial occupation as a rive boat pilot to an abrupt end:
I had to seek another livelihood. So I became a silver-miner in Nevada; next, a newspaper reporter; next, a gold-miner in California; next, a reporter in San Francisco; next, a special correspondent in the Sandwich Islands; next a roving correspondent in Europe and the East; next, an instructional torch-bearer on the lecture platform; and, finally I became a scribbler of books, and an immovable fixture among the other rocks of New England.
That was written when Twain was forty-eight, looking back on an early life which epitomised the westward movements experienced by many Americans. Describing his experiences in the silver mines of Nevada, he remarked that …
… slang was the language of Nevada. It was hard to preach a sermon without it, and be understood. Such phrases as ‘You bet!’ ‘Oh, no, I reckon not!’ ‘No Irish need apply!’ and a hundred others, became so common as to fall from the lips of a speaker unconsciously …
In his work as a journalist he would have met pioneers from every part of the American frontier. As one reviewer of his first book, Innocents Abroad, noted, his work was characterised by the breadth and ruggedness and audacity of the West. Twain himself described the publication of the celebrated travelogue, an instant bestseller, as the Turning Point of My Life. And it was the last link in the chain of events that placed him among the many writers in English who, having struck gold and found a public, took to the lecture-circuit to talk about the travels abroad he had written about. He was perhaps the first writer in a distinctively American English to do so though, as a ‘humorist’, the English Language was essentially a playground, and his style was eclectic. Unlike his sober literary predecessors, ‘New Englanders’ like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and many others now forgotten, Twain had an enormously wide experience of American life as it was being lived by his contemporaries of all classes and occupations. His work therefore had an authenticity and originality which marked it out from that of his predecessors. The two novels for which he is best known and with which American literature came of age were The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The latter caused a scandal at its first appearance among the respectable reading public, celebrating as it did the rich variety of American society and its diverse speech. What is especially interesting about the book is the ‘Explanatory Note’ that precedes the first chapter in which he set out a complete prospectus for his use of dialect:
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri Negro dialect, the extremist form of backwards Southwestern dialect, the ordinary “Pike County” dialect, and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion or by guesswork, but painstakingly and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
Mark Twain wrote about the West, but lived mainly in the East during his career as a writer, an increasingly urban and industrial world far removed from the open skies of the Mississippi. He was, in this sense, the writer who brought the newly-forged American language back from the frontier to the teeming cities of the East Coast. By a quirk of history, the only writer to touch Twain when it came to expressing the naturalness and vitality of American speech was already making a name for himself back East, and his name was Walt Whitman. He was an Easterner by birth on Long Island, raised in Brooklyn and rising through the ranks of the Brooklyn Eagle to become editor 1846. But two years later he went south to New Orleans, where he wrote Leaves of Grass in 1855, sending a copy to the great Ralph Waldo Emerson at his home in Concord, who at once recognised Whitman’s genius, describing it as the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. His poetry continued to express the new voice of America, spanning thirty years from 1850 to 1880. He showed American writers and readers that it was not necessary to imitate English or European models. He encouraged those who came after to look and write about their own society in their own way. He celebrated the United States; he was intoxicated by it. He gave it a myth. “I hear America singing”, he wrote, and travelled extensively to hear its songs:
When Twain came east, Whitman went out west. When he died, in New Jersey, in 1892, he was recognised throughout America as a pioneer in language who had given his country its first uniquely American lyrical voice. He wrote, as a radical, that ‘the grand American expression’ was:
… the powerful language of resistance … it is the dialect of common sense. It is the speech of the proud and melancholy races and of all who aspire. It is the cosen tongue to express growth faith self-esteem freedom justice equality friendliness amplitude prudence decision and courage. It is the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible.
Meanwhile, in the Mid-West of the twenty years 1867-1887, with the opening of new railroads in Kansas, the cowboy was ‘king’, leaving behind a rich legacy of words and phrases to add to the one about McCoy. These formed a pidgin English for talking to the Plains Indians and to the many Mexican cowboys:
… rodeo, stampede, bronco, chaps, lassoo, mustang, lariat, pinto, poncho, ranch, cowhand, cowpuncher, cowpoke, bronco-buster, wrangler, range-rider, ranger, rustler; hot under the collar, bite the dust, ‘the real McCoy’.
These were just the latest in a long lexicon of new words and phrases which were added to English by the forging of a uniquely American language from the diverse dialects and accents of immigrants from the British Isles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and from the more recent European immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have previously written about the motivations for emigration and ‘concrete’ contributions of these immigrants to American society, so here I want to deal with the more abstract aspects of their linguistic and cultural identities within that society.
The Flight of the Irish – Newfoundland & American English:
The Irish first began leaving their homeland, voluntarily and involuntarily, in the sixteenth century. Their influence has been felt around the English-speaking world, from North America to Australia. The migrations and settlements of the Irish brought some Irish Gaelic words into worlwide currency. Newfoundland, distinctively Irish in character to the present day, was the first English-speaking colony in the New World.
Unlike the Welsh language in Pennsylvania, Irish was so completely and immediately assimilated into English language culture outside of Gaelic Ireland itself, that the specific Irish linguistic contribution to the narrative of that culture is difficult to detect. The one exception to this general ‘rule’ can, however, be found on the island of Newfoundland, whose inhabitants preserve a kind of Irish English that, until the end of the twentieth century at least, was almost indistinguishable from the real thing two-and-a-half thousand miles away across the North Atlantic. Newfoundland lies off the coast of Labrador at the mouth of the St Lawrence, commanding the sea lanes into Canada. In winter, it is shrouded in mist and menaced by ice. When the mist lifts, the landscape resembles the west coast of Ireland; similarly, the traditional industry is fishing and the more recent one is oil. A former colony and then dominion of the United Kingdom, Newfoundland gave up its independence in 1933, following significant economic distress caused by the Great Depression and the aftermath of Newfoundland’s participation in World War I. It became the tenth province to enter Confederation on 31 March 1949, as “Newfoundland”. On 6 December 2001, an amendment was made to the Constitution of Canada to change the province’s name to Newfoundland and Labrador.
The province is now Canada’s most linguistically homogeneous, with 97.0% of residents reporting English (Newfoundland English) as their mother tongue in the 2016 census. Historically, Newfoundland was also home to unique varieties of French and Irish, as well as the extinct Beothuk language. In Labrador, the indigenous languages Innu-aimun and Inuktitut are also spoken. Newfoundland was actually the first English-speaking colony in the ‘New World’, founded by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1588 for seasonal sea-fishing. Throughout the seventeenth century, a gradual migration of English shipowners gradually developed the community on the island. In a pattern repeated throughout North America and the Caribbean, most of their indentured servants were Irish, far outnumbering their masters. Quite quickly, therefore, the Hiberno-English of rural Ireland became the the socially dominant language of the capital, St John’s, which could today be mistaken for Waterford. This was, in part, because the Anglo-Irish and English landlords tended to be absentee, while the Irish stayed put. As well as the Irish descendents, who are based on the South Avalon Peninsula, there are a number of settlements descended from West Country fishermen with strong Dorset and Devonshire dialects, to the north of the island. The fur trade was dominated by Highland Scots, who have left traces of their speech behind. Among the Irish, however, there was very little mixing or ‘levelling’ with other nationalities or ethnic groups.
Unlike those who went to New England and rapidly integrated with the town life there, the Irish of Newfoundland returned to their village ways, living in communities of two to three hundred, as in much of Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Earning their living from the sea, there was no incentive for them to travel further than the nearest salt-fish factory, especially during harsh winters when they could be cut off for weeks at a time by blizzards. As a result, the English of Newfoundland and that of contemporary Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny and Cork were remarkably similar at the end of the last century, particularly in patterns of pronunciation, stress, sense and traditional forms which are repeated continuously. The definitive Dictionary of Newfoundland English contains many Irish words, like ‘froster’ (a nail or cleat on a horse’s hoof to prevent slipping on the ice), ‘maneen’ (a boy who acts the part of a man) and ‘sulick’ (the liquid obtained from cooking meat or fish). One mildly self-mocking greeting used in Avalon Hiberno-Irish was, “welcome, my sweet fellow, would you be after having some tea?” Other translations from the Gaelic in Newfoundland, North American and international English include ‘shenanigens’, ‘smithereens’, ‘bother’ and ‘galore’.
Newfoundland English today is expressed in several accents and dialects found in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Most of these differ substantially from the English commonly spoken elsewhere in neighbouring Canada and North America. Many Newfoundland dialects are similar to the dialects of the West Country in England, while others resemble dialects of Ireland’s southeast. Still others blend elements of both, and there is also a Scottish influence on the dialects. While the Scots came in smaller numbers than the English and Irish, they had a large influence on Newfoundland society. Newfoundland was also the only place outside Europe to have its own distinct name in Irish: Talamh an Éisc, which means ‘land of the fish’. The Irish language is now extinct in Newfoundland. Scots Gaelic was also once spoken in the southwest of Newfoundland, following the settlement there, from the middle of the nineteenth century, of small numbers of Gaelic-speaking Scots from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. A century and a half later, the language has not entirely disappeared, although it has no fluent speakers. Predominantly, however, Newfoundland remains simply the best-preserved of all the Irish communities scattered around the world, one which goes back to the migrations of the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, when not all the White migrants were voluntary travellers.
Like Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World, the Irish had been looking hopefully towards America for centuries, and were among the first to emigrate to the ‘Thirteen Colonies’. The indentured Irish servant became such a familiar figure in the American South that by the end of the seventeenth century, three states – Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina – had passed laws restricting the immigration of Irish indentured servants. Statistically, the Irish accounted for a very significant part of the population, perhaps as many as four hundred thousand by 1790, second only to English nationals. By this time, the Irish in the New World had become a remarkably mixed society. During the nineteenth century, a staggering total of 4.7 million Irish people arrived in the United States fleeing the catastrophes at home. The idea of America permeated Irish society, so that villages on the west coast could still, in the late twentieth century, remember “the America Wake”, the lamentations attending the departures to the New World.
The main reason for the difficulty in identifying the effect of the English-speaking Irish arrivals on American English is that the two varieties had many characteristics in common, since both acquired their distinctive vocabularies and accents from the seventeenth-century English of the British Isles. Though the American variety had evolved further than the Irish, there were still important points of contact. Some details of American speech are almost certainly derived from Irish English, if not from Gaelic, mainly in grammar, syntax and pronunciation. Irish immigration led to the adoption of I seen for I saw, and the use of the modal verb shall rather than will. In Irish Gaelic, the Irish tended to use the definite article and say “She is in the school” rather than “She is in school”. Perhaps the most well-known Irish fragment in American speech is the Gaelic-inspired plural “yous”, still used by Irish American policemen in the NYPD.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, seventy-five per cent were able to read and write English, which supports the evidence for the decline of Irish Gaelic in Ireland itself. All the same, a number of ‘Irishisms’ made it across the Atlantic. Shenanigan, meaning “trickery” or “mischief” was first recorded in America in 1855, and comes from the Gaelic, sionnachaighim meaning “I play the fox, I play tricks” and smithereens comes from the County Mayo anglicisation of the Gaelic smidirin meaning ‘a small fragment’. The phrase “the whole shebang”, recorded in American English in 1879, is said to come from the Gaelic for ‘an illegal drinking establishment’ and ‘a temporary shelter or hovel’ and the word shanty from the Irish sean-tigh meaning ‘old house’. Etymology aside, the dictionary tells us that the word shantytown was first used in 1882 to refer to the shacks that were built alongside American railroads by Irish navvies working on the transcontinental railroad. In Boston, shanty Irish was a derogatory term for Irish families like the Kennedys, the first of whom, Patrick, arrived penniless in Boston in 1848 and earned his living as a cooper. Another perjorative, Paddy, dates back to at least 1748, and the paddy waggon meaning the police van, was coined in the 1920s also in Boston and other cities where there were many Irish policemen. The Irish had long had a reputation for being unruly and aggressive. To get one’s Irish up is an Americanism for ‘to get angry’. Traditionally, the Irish in America worked as labourers or servants or soldiers, and another colloquialism, biddy, meaning ‘a servant girl’ is thought to have come from the diminutive form of the Irish name, Bridget. One linguist has commented that…
from a sociological point of view it’s very interesting to speculate why Irishmen are so keen to derive ordinary English words from Irish.
The socio-political realities of the ‘Irish Question’ suggest that we are never likely to fathom Irish influence on American English. But we know that the high rates of literacy among the Irish meant that the better-educated Irish immigrants became clerks, priests or school-teachers. As in Britain, an important part of the American literary tradition is Irish. The writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eugene O’Neill were both of Irish descent, as were many diplomats and politicians, like Joseph Kennedy, father to Jack and Bobby. Much of the leadership of the labour unions and, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, was provided by the Irish. Charles Dickens, visiting New York in 1867, wrote that…
… the general corruption in respect of local funds appears to be stupendous… The Irish element is acquiring such enormous influence in New York City, that when I think of it, and see the the large Roman Catholic cathedral rising there, it seems unfair to stigmatise as ‘American’ other monstrous things that one also sees.
The slow integration of a distinct Irish English into American speech was matched by the great social crises which annhialated the Gaelic-speeching communities of the west of Ireland, the Gaeltacht. One million died in the terrible famine; millions more fled abroad. But almost more important in its effect on the native language was the fear of another catastrophe. Ever after, Irish parents encouraged their children to learn English and to leave in ever larger numbers for England, Australia and, above all, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States. The land was seen as cursed, and there was a tragic rejection of all things Irish. During the darkest moments of the Victorian age, the reality of everyday life in Ireland was so intolerable the Irish felt that only an escape into the Anglo-American way of life would solve their problems. In what has been called ‘the mass flight from the Irish language’ meant that by 1861, when the census was taken, less than two per cent of the Irish children between two and ten were monoglot Irish speakers. There were by then more Irish abroad than there were at home. The future for was an English-speaking one, and for many it was to lie overseas, at least for the next sixty years: in America, Britain and the wider Empire.
The Scottish Highlanders – Nova Scotia:
The Highland clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth century stripped the ‘Highlands and Islands’ of their Gaelic-speaking population, leaving deserted farms and crofts to remind visitors like James Boswell and Samuel Johnson of what had been lost, during their tour of the Hebrides in the autumn of 1773. By the turn of the century, a rising population and the economic crisis had turned the Highlands into a society on the edge of catastrophe. For many, there was no choice but to leave, and even in Johnson’s day there was a steady flow of emigrants:
He that cannot live as he desires at home, listens to the tale of fortunate islands, and happy regions, where every man may have land of his own, and eat the product of his labour without a superior.
It is impossible to calculate how many Highlanders crossed the Atlantic after the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 in search of a better future, but there is no doubt that emigration to North America became a torrent. The Highland clearances left their mark on the character of the English spoken in parts of Canada and the United States. The story of Nova Scotia is typical. Heavy migration by crofters who had been forced off the land in Scotland changed the ethnic character of Nova Scotia quite suddenly. A 1767 census shows a total population of about thirteen thousand, a mixture of Acadians (French), Germans, Dutch, New Englanders, Irish and free Blacks. There were only 173 Scots before, in 1773, the ship Hector sailed from Greenock with two hundred Highland farmers. As the clearances in the Highlands quickened, thousands of Highland Scots followed. Their legendary hardiness was sorely tested by the dense forests, bitter winters and conflict with Indian tribes. But they prospered, and by 1851 some thirty-five thousand had made the difficult transatlantic journey and become a dominant force in the life of a colony that had earned its name, ‘New Scotland’, or Nova Scotia. The province still cherishes its Scottish roots and Highland traditions and Nova Scotian English still has the ‘lilt’ of the Highlands.
Driven from their lands, the Highlanders were forced to learn the language of their old ‘adversaries’ and, by a final irony, carried it to the four corners of the earth, from Sydney to Saskatchewan. The Highlanders came from the Gaelic-speaking Scotland of legend with its misty glens, skirling bagpipes and hunting tartans, but it is the other Scotland, the Scots-speaking Lowlands, who first became colonists in Ulster, who really had what Samuel Johnson called “the epidemick desire of wandering” and therefore made the greater impact on the common tongue of North America.
Ulster Scots & Appalachian English:
In the first decades of the seventeenth century, Presbyterian Lowland Scots set sail for Ulster, seeking the religious freedom they were denied at home. In total, some two hundred thousand Scots settled in Northern Ireland and, in turn, some two million of their descendants migrated to America during the next three centuries. Their initial migration occured at a point when the two ‘original’ Saxon languages of Britain, Scots and English, were diverging, so that the Scots took to Ulster a language that was very different from the English that was being imported from southern and midland England. In Ulster, the Scots outnumbered the English settlers by six to one, so their influence on language was dominant. About a hundred years after the first Ulster settlements, however, the conditions became more hostile. Rising rents, bad harvests and religious discrimination (from the Anglican Church and state) combined to send the Scots on the move again, this time to the new colonies of North America. By 1776, it has been calculated that almost half the population of Ulster had crossed the Atlantic, and that one in seven of the colonists was Ulster-Scots, or Scotch-Irish as they became known in North America.
The five emigrant ports – Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Larne and Portrush – were busy with the Atlantic trade. Many of the poorest share croppers were willing to be transferred across the ocean as indentured servants, being offered for hire in the New World, as a class just above the African slaves. At first the Scotch-Irish headed for New England, especially to Boston, where they were not well received. They were encouraged to head south to Pennsylvania, with its economic opportunities and religious toleration. The state capital, Philadelphia, and its river, the Delaware, became the main entry point for most of the Ulster Scots. In 1760, Benjamin Franklin estimated that one-third of the City was British, one-third German and one-third Scots (including the Ulstermen). It was this last third who were to become, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt,
… the kernel of the distinctively and intensely American stock who were the pioneers of our people in their march westward.
At first, Philadelphia welcomed them for their frontier toughness, especially because Pennsylvanian politicians believed they would help to push back against the Indian tribes. James Logan, the state secretary, himself an Ulsterman, enthusiastically granted a chunk of land to establish the new American frontier town of Donegal. Logan soon regretted his original judgement, seeing his own ‘countrymen’ nothing but trouble:
A settlement of five families from the North of Ireland gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people.
In particular, he was infuriated by their “audacious and disorderly” tendency to claim squatters’ rights over “any spot of vacant land they fancied”. At odds with the largely ‘British’ élite in Philadelphia, they moved inland through ‘German territory’ and also came in contact with the Pennsylvanian Dutch, trading words with both groups. They settled there for a generation, and as their children grew up and went to school as young Americans, the distinctive dialects and accents of all three ethnic group became merged into one form of American speech. They shared folk songs, dance tunes and musical instruments and built German-style log cabins. Of course, this was a westward migration and a fusion of vocabulary which took place over the course of a century or more.
The Ulster Scots brought with them a rich oral culture: aphorisms, proverbs, superstitions, and an ability to turn a striking phrase – mad as a meat axe, dead as a hammer, so drunk he couldn’t hit the wall with a handful of beans, having an axe to grind, to sit on the fence, the whole hog. Their rhymes and songs came from the folklore of Scotland and Ireland. The tunes and the Scottish Lowland ballads of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been an important influence in the making of American country music. What became known as ‘Appalachian English’ therefore evolved from the ‘Scotch-Irish’ who became the western pioneers of the Thirteen States, pushing south and west through the Cumberland Gap (see the map below) and down the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, in search of of better land and prospects. Like the legendary Davy Crockett, ‘born on a mountain top in Tennessee’, with their long rifles and coon-skin hats, they acquired a ferocious reputation as frontiersmen.
Their descendants live in the hills of Appalachia, the home of ‘blue grass’ music, and further west in the Ozark Mountains. Always moving westwards, the Scotch-Irish accent was one of the first to cross the Mississippi and into Oklahoma and beyond. Today, the ‘country accents’ of Appalachia are found in the ‘sunbelt’, the south and the west as far as California. The talk of these hills is a mixture of Ulster Scots, English and German. Since their earliest settlements, this mixed speech has been described as ‘broad’, as distinct from the southern Irish ‘Brogue’. English words borrowed into Pennsylvanian German often reveal archaic forms which seem to have come from Ulster Scots: chaw (‘chew’) ingine (‘engine’) and picter (picture). The Reverend Jonathan Boucher, writing in the 1800s, claimed that it was one of the four distinctive ‘dialects’ remaining in the States:
… the Scotch-Irish, as it used to be called, in some of the back settlers of the Middle States.
Many examples of Ulster Scots usage have continued to the present day: flannel-cake, sook, sookie or sook cow, yous, who-all?, what-all?, cabin (the last dating from 1770 referring to the log cabins of Virginia, the design of which the Scotch-Irish borrowed from the German settlers). In Appalachian English, the word ‘there’ is pronounced tharr, ‘bear’ is barr and ‘hair’ is herr. Colloquialism include the omission of the /g/ on the end of ‘ing’ participles, while continuing the use of the Middle English /a-/ before it, providing a-huntin’ and a-fishin’.
In due course, many of these usages became part of mainstream American English. Today, about twenty million people, some ten per cent of the American population claim Ulster Scots ancestry.
When the Loyalists of Ontario fled north from New York and Pennsylvania in the 1780s, following the American War of Independence, they became responsible for the decisive shaping of Canadian English. Settled longer, the maritime provinces had a greater variety of Englishes and, of course, provinces which were French-speaking, like Quebec (see the map below). What is called General Canadian, a definition based on urban middle-class speech, not rural variants, has become the dominant form of English, a regional variant of North American English, one spanning the whole continent instead of occupying just one region. As observers have noted, …
… the most surprising thing about the English currently spoken in Canada is its homogeneity … It is certain that no Ontario Canadian, meeting another Canadian, can tell whether he comes from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, or British Columbia, or even Ontario, unless he asks.
Canadian English is usually defined by the ways in which it differs from what American or British observers consider their norm. American visitors at first think how British the Canadian vocabulary sounds (tap, braces, porridge instead of ‘faucet’, ‘suspenders’ and ‘oatmeal’), while the British think how ‘Americanized’ the Canadians have become (they hear gas, truck, and wrench for ‘petrol’, ‘lorry’ and ‘spanner’). The British have been making these rather prejudiced and politically-generated observations for a long time. One traveller in Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1832 complained:
It is really melancholy to traverse the Province, and go into many of the common schools; you find a herd of children instructed by some anti-British adventurer, instilling into their young and tender minds sentiments hostile to the parent state … and American spelling-books, dictionaries and grammar, teaching them an anti-British dialect, and idiom, although living in the Province, and being subjects of the British Crown.
In fact, the linguistic differences are mainly in vocabulary and pronunciation. There is no distinctive Canadian grammar, and Canadian English uses elements of both British and American grammar, retaining more of the formality of Standard British English. Canadian spelling preserves some British forms, such as ‘colour’ and ‘theatre’. The inter-war Canadian ‘humorist’ Stephen Leacock once wrote:
In Canada we have enough to do keeping up with the two spoken languages without trying to invent slang, so we just go right ahead and use English for literature, Scotch for sermons and American for conversation.
It is primarily in pronunciation that Canadian English asserts its distinctiveness, and has done from the earliest settlements. It also reflects the continuing ‘schizophrenia’ of a people struggling for national identity against two strong influences. A Survey in the 1980s found that about three-quarters of Canadians said they use the American pronunciation of schedule, tomato and missile, while fifty-eight per cent use British pronunciation for progress and new. In the first half of the twentieth century, Canadians would have been content to have it thought that they sounded British or American, depending on where they lived. In 1936, Stephen Leacock wrote:
We used to be ashamed of our Canadian language, before the war, and try to correct it, and take on (British) English phrases and say… “Ah you thah?” instead of “Hello, Central”, “Oh! rather!” instead of “O-Hell-Yes”. But now since the Great War… made Canada a real nation, we just accept our language and are not ashamed of it. We say “yep!” when we mean “yep!” and we don’t try to make out it’s “yes”, which is a word we don’t use; and if we mean “four” we say so and don’t call it “faw”.
The snobbish affectation of British received pronunciation (or ‘King’s English’) sounds barely outlived Leacock. But the most obvious and distinctive feature of Canadian speech is probably its vowel sound, the dipthong /ou/ (so that ‘out’ rhymes with ‘boat’, so that a phrase like “out and about in a boat” becomes “oat and aboat in a boat”) There is a deeply held belief that this is the result of Scottish settlement, but the Scottish vowel /oo/ is completely different from the dipthong /ou/. Jack Chambers believed that it was an independent development in Canadian English:
The /ou/ in “house” and “about” begins with the vowel sound ‘hut’ and ‘but’, whereas the /ou/ in “houses” and “bough” begins with the vowel sound in ‘hot’ and ‘bought’. The difference in the two /ou/ sounds is systematic, and known to linguists in Canada as ‘Canadian Raising’. Because of it, Canadians have a different /ou/ sound in ‘house’ and ‘houses’, and in ‘lout’ and ‘loud’.
According to Chambers, there is a characteristic of pronunciation that can be traced to Pennsylvania: the merger of the two vowels in words like ‘cot’ and ‘caught’, ‘don’ and ‘dawn’, ‘offal’ and ‘awful’. When Canadians pronounce these word-pairs, with vowels not dipthongs, they sound identical. Chambers also demonstrated that, especially in the cities, the younger generation of Canadians was adopting American pronunciations, threatening a distinctive Canadian speech identity. The pattern of a people being pulled in two cultural directions is not just the result of recent influences. The differences between Canadian and American speech were also well known to be a source of humour in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, the Nova Scotian writer Thomas Chandler Haliburton created a character Sam Slick, an itinerant Yankee clock pedlar, says, “they all know me here to be an American citizen by my talk”. Like other colonial varieties of English, Canadian English is the product of a language melting pot that resolved into a standard accent. The process was vividly described in the mid-nineteenth century by a settler in South Ontario:
Listening to the children at any school, composed of the children of Englishmen, Scotsmen, Americans and even Germans, it is impossible to detect any marked difference in their accent, or way of expressing themselves.
Canadian English owes its character to the people who settled there after the American Revolution, who called “Loyalists” by the British but “Tories” by the Americans. Like the wider culture, it is torn between the push-and-pull of the British and American models. In the nineteenth century, American English reflected the adventurousness, energy and experiences of the westward migrations, left Canadian English far behind.
‘Jive Talk’ – Black English, From South to North:
The half-century between the Civil War and the First World War saw the American Blacks catapulted from slavery to legal equality, then snapped back into a state almost as degrading as slavery. At the end of the Civil War, four million slaves were freed and an old English legal phrase, “civil rights” entered the American English lexicon. The avenging zeal of the Republican administrations of those years meant that by 1867 there were more Southern Blacks registered to vote than Whites, while Congress had twenty-four Black congressmen. All these gains were lost as White Southerners wore down the North. Once the last Federal troops were were withdrawn, the South hit back, passing ‘Jim Crow’ laws to abridge the rights of Blacks. The word segregation became part of the vocabulary of discrimination, as did uppity, a White Southern word for Blacks who did not know their place. In this way, language signified social and political reactionary change. The final blows to the freed Blacks came in the 1880s and 1890s when the Supreme Court attacked the Civil Rights Act as ‘unconstitutional’ and sanctioned segregated (“seperate but equal”) education.
Their new subjugation helped drive a great Black migration to the North. But most blacks did not migrate to the North until the 1920s. Of course, this was not ’emigration’, though many Blacks described it as such, because it involved a movement out of one type of ‘White State’ to another. It was, however, for many, a long-distance migration northwards (see the map above). Meanwhile, in the mid-1870s the various elements of Southern Black language and culture – double meanings, covert sexuality, African rhythms, liberation – came together in what was then the most vital centre of Black American culture, New Orleans. The name they gave to the new music was ‘jazz’, originally a word used by Blacks to mean ‘to speed up’. The specific etymology of the word has never been pinpointed, but most scholars believe that it is of West African origin. In that music, Blacks developed ‘ragtime’, ‘boogie woogie’, and ‘the blues’ as well as the ‘spiritual’; in dance, the ‘cakewalk’, the ‘jitterbug’ and the ‘jive’; in slang, the street ‘jive-talk’ of ‘cool’, ‘heavy’ and ‘doing your own thing’, the essential vocabulary of ‘letting your hair down’ and ‘having a good time’. By 1913, the words and the music had moved into the mainstream of American culture, with both Blacks and Whites using it to mean a particular type of ‘ragtime’ music with a syncopated rhythm. By the end of 1917, the year the “doughboys” sailed for Europe to fight the Kaiser, jazz music and jazz bands were the ‘talk of the town’ in New York, London and Paris.
After the war, as they moved to the northern cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, Black language and culture began to have a major impact on White American speech and life, which began a massive appropriation of black words and styles. The speech of many American Blacks in the big cities has been described as “basically Down Home Talk”. Harlem in the 1920s underwent a cultural renaissance, symbolised by the work of the poet Langston Hughes and the flourishing there of a sophisticated Black middle class. The jazzmen brought with them their own Black English vocabulary. ‘Uptight’ is a famous, though controversial, example. It was originally associated with readiness, as in “I got my boots laced up tight, and am ready to go places.” Too much preparation, however, could kill the spontaneity needed for the greatest jazz performance, so a player who doesn’t improvise easily becomes ‘uptight’. Early Jazz was ‘hot’ (frenetic), but when this word was appropriated by the Whites, it was replaced by ‘cool’.
One of the greatest of the early jazzmen was the legendary Jelly Roll Morton. His real name was Ferdinand Le Menthe, but as leader of the Red Hot Peppers he became simply Morton, a milestone figure in the history of jazz. Upstaged in one performance by a Black comedian who introduced himself as “Sweet Papa Cream Puff. right out of the bakery shop”. Morton went one better and announced himself as “Sweet Papa Jelly Roll, with stove pipes in my hips and all the women in town dyin’ to turn my damper down”. Food words like ‘cookie’, ‘cake’, ‘pie’ and ‘angel-food cake’, all hidden expressions for sex, permeate Black English, but Morton’s was the ultimate sexual ‘braggadocio’. Few words in the Black English lexicon have more sexual evocation than ‘jelly roll’. In the African language Mandingo, jeli is a minstrel who gains popularity with women through skill with words and music. In the English creole of the Caribbean, ‘jelly’ refers to the meat of the coconut when it is still at a white, viscious stage, and in a form closely resembling semen. In English, ‘jelly’ and ‘jelly roll’ are both items of food. In Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, a novel published in 1929, the newsboy Eugene Gant, trying to collect his debts, has this conversation with a Black Customer who cannot pay:
” I’ll have somethin’ fo’ yuh, sho. I’se waitin’ fo’ a White gent’man now. He’s gonna gib me a dollar.” … “What’s – what’s he going to give you a dollar for?” “Jelly Roll”.
On the street, “jelly roll” had many associated meanings, from the respectable “lover” or “spouse” to the Harlem slang term for the vagina. In the twenties and thirties, Harlem was the pinnacle of Black city life and it was to Harlem that the jazzmen ultimately gravitated. Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong all ended up there, playing in clubs like the Cotton Club and Leroy’s. In those inter-war decades, the Whites travelled ‘uptown’, as they put it, to see the shows. Or, as the Blacks put it, “came down from Sugar Hill” – the heights overlooking the west side of Harlem where all the ‘sugar’ (money) was. Albert Murray, whose syncopated autobiography, South To A Very Old Place, which celebrates both his youth and the roots of Black culture, has defined thirty-two meanings of the word ‘soul’. He also recalled his vivid memories of Harlem’s hey-day:
Leroy’s was at the corner of the 135th Street and Fifth Avenue. That was a very exclusive club and was mainly for uptown people. Only very special people who knew somebody very important in Harlem got a chance to go there. On the other hand, Edmond’s which was on Seventh Avenue near where Small’s is now, was a sort of mixed club. It was patronized by a number of downtown clientele.
The downtowners who came uptown would have been called ‘jazz babies’ or ‘flappers’ if they were women, and a ‘jazzbo’ or ‘sheik’ (after Rudolph Valentino’s starring role in the 1921 film, The Sheik) if they were men. The fascination of White “flappers” and “shieks” with Black music and lyrics carried much of the private code of the jazz players into the mainstream of American English and what we might call ‘Atlantic English’. The language of jazz players was known as ‘jive talk’ as defined here by Albert Murray, who was born in the South and ’emigrated’ to the North, where the money and the future were:
Jive talk was really the talk of the world of entertainment, and people who frequented the world of entertainment, and people who imitated entertainers. It was called “hip talk” or “hip”, the language of hipsters … it reflected the jargon of music, of the stage, of the night clubs and of sports mainly.
The significance of ‘jive talk’ is probably best explained through the figure of Cab Calloway, one of the most popular jazzband leaders in Harlem during the heyday of the uptown nightclubs. He wasn’t a musician like Count Basie or Duke Ellington, but a front-man, an entertainer who sang “Jive talk is the lingo the jitterbugs use today” and used a kind of comic patter. Some of Cab Calloway’s phrases have passed into standard American English, like “All you hip to the jive … hip, hip, hip”, “I’m beat to my socks”, “it’s far out”, “it’s groovy”, and “a solid sender” which was a phrase meaning ‘an outstanding person’. When we list the words and phrases that have passed into the language, the importance of jive talk is inescapable. As jive talk caught on generally, the downtown clientele, the flappers and sheiks, who went to the Cotton Club would slip the neologisms into their conversation to show how smart and up to date they were. The journalists who reported the jazz scene would drop the same words and phrases into their columns for the same reason. Language moves fast when fashion drives it. Then, once the same entertainers and musicians began to get exposure on radio, their vocabulary reached an even larger audience.
With his instantly recognizable rich, gravelly voice, Louis Armstrong was also an influential singer and skillful improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song. He was also skilled at scat singing. His career spanned five decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s, and different eras in the history of jazz. His influence on jive talk, and the breadth of his audience, makes him one of the key figures in this part of the story of Black language and culture. Albert Murray remembered his use of phrases like “hip cats” and “daddy-o”, and commented on his contribution to the formation of an ‘American language’:
He was the veritable Prometheus of Jazz … the invention of it as a sort of national language was due to Louis. He was not the father of jive talk but he was the most important single individual in the development of jive talk from the world of entertainment into the mainstream of American speech.
New World, Old World – Divided by a ‘Common Tongue’?
At the turn of the century, Henry James, who was fascinated by the new European immigrants, for whom English was a second or third language, visited the Lower East Side. Reflecting on the impact of the new Americans on the language of which he was such a master, James observed that whatever we shall know it for … we shall not know it for English. For better or worse, though, this was the America – brash, prosperous, polyglot but united – that came to the aid of the ‘old World’ in the late spring of 1917. Woodrow Wilson was the most recent of a long line of presidents of ‘Scotch-Irish’ stock going back to Andrew ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Having campaigned in 1916 for a second presidential term on the slogan He Kept us Out of War!, he finally made common cause with the British Empire and declared war on 6 April 1917. That same day, the songwriter George M. Cohan, having read the headlines in the newspaper, sat down and composed the number which accompanied the two million US troops, doughboys, to Europe:
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word, over there,
That the yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere …
For Britons and Americans alike, the war created a host of new words and phrases, many of which are still in everyday use: bombproof, barrage, camouflage, civvy, convoy, dud, red tape, sabotage, shell shock, tank, no-man’s-land, going over the top, high jump, in the pink, Tommy, trench foot, wastage, windy. There were also many shared colloquialisms and neologisms which remain specific to trench warfare, like ‘Archie’ for anti-aircraft fire, ‘Big Bertha’ for the large-calibre German cannon, ‘Boche’ and ‘Huns’ for the Germans, ‘bully beef’ for tinned corned beef, ‘Fritz’, ‘Jerry’ (GB, a nickname for the Pickelhaube, the German spiked-helmet, which the British troops compared to a chamber-pot) or ‘Heinie’ (US) for a German soldier, ‘hop the bags’ for ‘going over the top’, ‘pip-squeak’ for a type of German shell, poilu for a French soldier, ‘potato mashers’, for German hand grenades, ‘stuttering aunt’ for a German machine-gun. Also, more generally than ever before, speakers of British and American English could compare the differences in their vocabularies: ‘checkers’ versus ‘draughts’, ‘garbage’ v. ‘rubbish’, ‘kerosene’ v. ‘paraffin’, ‘lumber’ v. ‘timber’, ‘mail’ v. ‘post’, ‘pants’ v. ‘trousers’, ‘sidewalk’ v. ‘pavement’, ‘vacation’ v. ‘holiday’, ‘wrench’ v. ‘spanner’, ‘zero’ v. ‘nought’ or ‘ó’.
The entry of the United States into ‘World War One’ tipped the balance. It was over within eighteen months, before a single US plane was delivered to the front, and the ‘Spanish’ influenza epidemic in 1918 killed more US troops than those who died in combat. The war cost $208 Billion in total, and Britain had to borrow heavily from the USA. It was suggested, perhaps somewhat sarcastically, that this was one of the reasons America joined the war – to ensure its debt was paid. Announcing that “the world must be made safe for democracy”, Wilson then set sail for the Peace Conference in Paris, the first American President to visit Europe while still in office. The point was made. America was a world power; American English a world language.
In 1919, the American journalist H. A. Mencken published his book, The American Language. Mencken has been compared to G. B. Shaw in terms of his influence on that language. In the book, he set out what he claimed were the results of his inquiries into “the common tongue”. He stated that British English and American English were two separate languages on divergent paths. He was, like the first American revolutionaries, anxious to beat the drum for the language of which he was a master:
The American of today is much more honestly English, in any sense that Shakespeare would have understood, than the so-called Standard English of England. It still shows all the characteristics that marked the common tongue in the days of Elizabeth I, and it continues to resist stoutly the policing that ironed out Standard English in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
His was an assertion not just of national pride but of an unjustified American superiority complex that paid no attention to other national varieties of English, or even to other forms of North American English which had emerged over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But within another generation, at the end of ‘World War Two’, these other English voices were demanding to be heard, together with a whole diversity of newer ones. For the time being, however, the dominant and unifying form of English was what we might call the trans-Atlantic language and culture of Harlem and Hollywood personified by Charlie Chaplin, albeit a silent star at this time, who in 1921 returned to both the West and the East End, ‘putting on the Ritz’ and eating stewed jellied eels:
Chaplin demonstrated how film comedy could provide a universal language, in the same way that jazz had done. Both came together in the thirties in ‘talkies’ and film musicals to sporn a whole, new cross-cultural experience. As Mencken himself commented in his 1919 book:
A living language is like a man suffering incessantly from small haemorrhages, and what it needs above all else is constant transactions of new blood from other tongues. The day the gates go up, that day it begins to die.
Robert McCrum, et. al. (1987), The Story of English. New York: Viking Penguin.