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).

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Wish I knew more about the cultures in the parts of the British Isles you mentioned, other than the Scots-Irish which I am familiar with.