Sunday, January 29, 2012

Eastern American Dialects – an example of migration and ethno-linguistic frontier formation

In Chapter 6 “The Archaeology of Language” of his book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, David W. Anthony uses the colonization of North America by English speaking people as an example of ethno-linguistic frontiers [1] formed by migration. In many cases the first people to settle a region put their language and cultural stamp on the area which is copied by later migrants. In the Eastern USA example, the language and cultural boundaries coincide almost exactly.

Between about 1620 and 1750 what is now the eastern United States was colonized by four different migration streams from different areas of Britain. These formed distinct ethno-linguistic patterns which are still very much visible today. They are:
  • New England (Yankee) – East Anglia
  • Mid-Atlantic ( Pennsylvania Quaker) – English Midlands
  • Virginia Coast (Royalist Anglican) – Somerset and Wessex
  • Appalachians (“Hillbillies”) – Scotch Irish

New England, centered on Boston, was first settled by the Pilgrims from East Anglia. The Yankee dialect is a variant of the East Anglia dialect and the New England folk culture (church, house, barn and fence types; town organization type; food and dress preference; and religion) is a simplified version of East Anglian folk culture.

The Virginia coast was settled by Anglican royalists escaping anti-royalist sentiments of the English Civil War. These settlers gave Virginia a distinct linguistic and folk culture based on the tobacco plantation.

Similarly Quakers from the North-Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire emigrated to avoid persecution following the Restoration. Most settled in Pennsylvania. Their distinct dialect and folk culture was later added to by German-speaking settlers from Switzerland and southern Germany (Pennsylvania “Dutch”) [2].

The Appalachian dialect was touched on in an earlier post

Migration of other people from Britain, Europe and other countries, and movements of people within the country, all added to or modified the regional dialects of America.  Despite the complexity from these other sources, these original four ethno-linguistic cultures can still be observed. Besides the regional accents and architectural styles of old buildings, Anthony claims that even modern presidential voting patterns can be discerned and traced back to these original folk cultures.

[1] Frontier in this discussion refers to a boundary between two discernable cultures or languages.

[2] There were Dutch settlers in America, centered around New York from which some place names like Harlem, Bronx and Brooklyn originate as well as a few other words like waffle and poppycock (from Dutch pappekak meaning “soft dung”). The Pennsylvania Dutch however were German-speaking people from Switzerland and southern Germany – the Amish, and Mennonites. Here Dutch is an Anglicized form of Deutsch (the German word for German).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Grimm’s Law

In linguistic circles Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) is better known for his discovery of phonetic changes in the development of Proto-Germanic than for his German folk tales.

Jacob was trained as a lawyer but was more interested in history and language – early German literature in particular. He authored many scholarly books including Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache (History of the German Language), Deutsche Grammatik (German Grammar), and the monumental Deutsches Wörterbuch (German Dictionary). In 1812 and 1814 he and his younger brother Wilhelm published their collection of old German folk tales as Grimms Märchen (Grimms’ Fairy Tales) Volumes 1 and 2.

Grimm’s Law was first published in the second edition of his German Grammar in 1822. It is considered significant in linguistic science for introducing “…a rigorous methodology to historic linguistic research.” [].

Sometime during the progression from Proto-Indo-European (about 2000 BC) to Proto-Germanic (about 500 BC), certain sound shifts in consonants occurred which were nearly universal (occurring to all words). These changes did not occur in any other PIE daughter languages such as the Proto-Romance language, so are observable with comparisons between English words taken directly from Latin, French or other Romance languages and those from its Germanic roots.

Greatly simplified, the changes are (with examples):

Labials (sounds made with the lips)
p changes to f: ped / foot; pater / father
f changes to b: fund / bottom
b changes to p: labial / lip

Velars (sounds made mid-palate)
k changes to h: canine / hound
h changes to g: host / guest
g changes to k: genuflect / knee

Dentals (sounds made with the tongue and teeth)
t changes to th: triple / three
th changes to d: thyroid / door
d changes to t: duo / two

Note that in all three groups, the changes go full circle, sort of like musical chairs.

Verner’s Law, developed by Danish linguist Karl Verner, explains further changes that occurred later to certain consonants in certain conditions (depending on the accent of the preceding syllable).

These sound changes are evident in all of the modern Germanic languages: German, Frisian, Dutch (and Africaans), Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, Luxembourgish, and of course English.

Sound changes like this are common in language history and take several generations, often a few centuries, to complete. A more recent example in English is known as the Great Vowel Shift which occurred between 1400 and 1600 (between Chaucer and Shakespeare). That’s a subject for a future post.