Three hundred and fifty years ago, using the wrong pronouns in Massachusetts could land you in hot water.
If you were a Quaker living in a Massachusetts Bay settlement circa 1660, your transgressive language would have made you a target for the governing Puritans. Quakers rejected the hierarchical pronoun system that required ye, you, and your to be used as a sign of deference to superiors. Instead, they used the more familiar thee, thou, and thy with everyone, regardless of social position. And for the Puritanical powers-that-be, that was enough to cause a person to be banished, or even put to death. (Mary Dyer and three other Quakers became known as the “Boston Martyrs” when they were hanged for expressing their religious beliefs.)
This is just one of many fascinating linguistic vignettes revealed in the new book “Speaking American: A History of English in the United States,” by the late University of Michigan scholar Richard W. Bailey. A preeminent figure in the study of American English, Bailey died last April after a four-year health struggle following a near-fatal car accident. Determined to see his final book through to completion, he submitted the manuscript to Oxford University Press just a few months before his death. Among other things, the book he left behind demonstrates that the distinctive speech styles of New England--from words like selectman to the dropping of r’s--run centuries deep.
Bailey struck upon an ingenious organizing principle for his book. Each chapter covers a 50-year period of America’s language history, from 1600 to 2000. For each half-century, Bailey focused on one geographical center, moving from the Chesapeake Bay area and Boston in the 17th century, on to Charleston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, and finally to Chicago and Los Angeles in the 20th century. Grounding this historical journey in specific cities allows Bailey to infuse his narrative of American English with local color, no more so than in his chapter on Boston.
Bailey’s depiction of Bostonian ways of speaking in the latter half of the 17th century suggests that, then as now, it was a city where a narrow sense of propriety imported from England met an array of global influences. The Puritans’ view of language was, to be sure, a fastidious one, matching our preconceptions of strait-laced Colonial life in the age of the Salem witch trials. Drawing on the work of Brandeis University historian Jane Kamensky, author of “Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England,” Bailey paints a scene in which the penalties for “wrong speaking”--insubordinate talk from child to parent, servant to master, or woman to man--were severe indeed. (Think of Anne Hutchinson, who ran afoul of patriarchal authority and was expelled from Massachusetts for daring to address male ministers as her equals.)
But there were more complex and intriguing strains emerging within Massachusetts language as well. After the Restoration of 1660, Bailey argues, the Puritan orthodoxy dating back to the Mayflower gave way to a more variegated language picture, with new waves of immigrants coming on the scene. The Colonists were also interacting more closely with Native Americans during this period, as members of both groups crossed the language divide by becoming bilingual or speaking an intermediary “pidgin” tongue. Words from local Algonquian languages infused the settlers’ speech: wigwam (“hut”), kinkajou (“wolverine’’), squaw (“wife”), and papoose (“child”) are just a few of the 17th-century borrowings. Netop (“friend”) was a popular pidgin greeting at the time. Though the bloody King Philip’s War of the 1670s threw up fresh barriers to communication, Native American contact would have a lasting impact on the American-ness of the language. This is most evident in local place names, which mix callbacks to old England (Boston, Essex, Plymouth) with native labels (Mashpee, Saugus, and of course Massachusetts itself).
Despite the strict power structure enforced by the Puritans, the teaching of literacy was “diffused through the social hierarchy,” Bailey explains. The high literacy rate in 17th-century New England--arguably the highest in the English-speaking world--means that plenty of documents were produced, preserving language use across the social spectrum. That included the words of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, such as Tituba, accused of witchcraft at Salem (and famously fictionalized by Arthur Miller in “The Crucible”). The transcript of her examination in 1692 is full of expressions like “I noe hurt them att all,” displaying a Caribbean-style creolized English that added to the era’s diverse linguistic mix.
Bailey pored over old New England records for unconventional spellings of words to find clues about how they were pronounced, like strenth for strength, dafter for daughter, and nex for next. Most significantly, the spelling in these musty documents indicates that Boston led the way in the trend for “r-dropping”: r’s often disappeared in spellings like fouth for fourth, bud for bird, and Geoge for George. Bostonians were pioneering this speaking style well before it became a marker of prestige in British English. “In the evolution of r-less pronunciations,” Bailey argues, “Boston led the English-speaking world.”
But it wasn’t the dropped r’s that made the language of the Boston region special, in Bailey’s view. “What was distinctive,” he writes, “was the emergence of a speech community in which educated and uneducated, African-descended and Native American, interacted with the literate and the famous.” This made Colonial Boston “unlike any other community in the world,” putting a peculiar stamp on the language that was, for the first time, truly American.Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.