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Image Massachusetts Speech Ways: Yankee Twang and Norfolk Whine

In remote corners of East Anglia today, country folk still speak in a harsh, high-pitched, nasal accent unkindly called the “Norfolk whine.” This dialect is the survivor of a family of accents that were heard throughout the east of England in the seventeenth century, from the fens of east Lincolnshire to the coast of Kent.1

In the Puritan great migration, these English speech ways were carried to Massachusetts, where they mixed with one another and merged with other elements. During the seventeenth century, they spread rapidly throughout New England, and became the basis of a new regional accent called the Yankee twang.2

This developing New England dialect was distinctive in its vocabulary, idiom and grammar.3 But mainly it was known for the way that it sounded its words. The people of Massachusetts, like the fictional Yankee whom James Fenimore Cooper named

Remarkable Pettibone, became “provarbal for pronounsation” throughout the English-speaking world.4

This Yankee accent also tended to be exceptionally harsh and high-pitched. The early American orthographer John Pickering described it as “a sort of nasal twang.” The English traveler John Lambert agreed that it was “a nasal twang.” It had, as James Russell Lowell observed, a “partiality for nasals.”

New Englanders omitted h after w, so that whale became wale, and added an extra e before ou, so that now became a nasal neow. Soft vowels became hard and metallic, as insine for ensign. The rhyme-schemes of New England poets in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tell us that glare was pronounced glar; hair was har; air was ar; and war rhymed with star. Other common pronunciations were hev for have, yistidy for yesterday, ginral for general, dafter or darter for daughter, drownd for drown, gowndfor gown, Americur for America and kiver for cover. Peace officers were addressed as cunstibles. The town of Charlestown was Charlton. Governor Winthrop’s name was sometimes spelled as it was sounded—Wyntropp. The minister John Eliot was known asEli’t.5

Yankee speech owed much of its distinctive character to its pronunciation of the letter r. Postvocalic r’s tended to disappear altogether, so that Harvard became Haa-v’d (with the a pronounced as in happen). This speech-habit came from East Anglia and may still be heard in the English counties of Suffolk, Norfolk and Kent. At the same time, other r’s were added. Follow was pronounced foller, and asked became arst—a spelling which often appeared in town meeting records during the seventeenth century. Precisely the same sounds still exist today in remote parts of East Anglia.6

The Yankee twang did not develop in a perfectly uniform way throughout New England. In Boston it was spoken at a speed which made it incomprehensible even to others of the same region. Yale President Timothy Dwight complained of Bostonians that “the rapidity of their pronunciation contracts frequently two short syllables into one, and thus renders the language, in itself too rough, still rougher by a violent junction of consonants. …

Thus Sweden, Britain, garden and vessel are extensively pronounced Swed’n, Brit’n, gard’n, vess’l. By this contraction, also, the harshness of the language is increased.”7

Many country towns in New England also developed individual speech ways. Even neighboring communities differed in their pronunciation—a fact which tells us much about the intensity of life within them. A case in point were two little villages founded by New Englanders on eastern Long Island. In 1798 a local gentleman noted that the speech of an Easthampton man might be distinguished from that of a Southampton man, “as well as a native of Kent might be distinguished from a Yorkshireman.”8 But these local customs were variations on a regional pattern which existed throughout New England.

The character of this pattern derived in large measure from the influence of an East Anglian elite who became ministers and magistrates in the Puritan colonies. One bizarre indicator of their influence was a layer of Latinate complexity that came to be grafted upon the language of New England. An early example (1647) appeared in the prose of Puritan minister Nathaniel Ward: “If the whole conclave of Hell,” he wrote, “can so compromise, exadverse, and diametricall contradictions, as to compolitize such a multimonstrous maufrey of heteroclytes and quicquidlibets quietly; I trust I may say with all humble reverence, they can do more than the Senate of Heaven.”9

The people of Massachusetts were constantly bombarded with this pedantry. Every Sunday they sat with bowed heads while showers of polysyllables rained down upon them from the pulpit. Inspired by this show of Cambridge learning, the country people of New England studded their speech with quasi-classical folk-coinages of their own invention such as rambunctious, absquatulate, splendiferous, and many other words ending in ize, ous, ulate, ical, iction, acious, iferous, and ticate. Language of this sort became a distinguishing mark of New England speech, especially in the neighborhood of Boston. Late in the eighteenth century, Timothy Dwight wrote that “The Boston style is a phrase proverbially used throughout a considerable part of this country to denote a florid, pompous manner of writing, and has been thought by persons at a distance to be the predominant style of this region.”10

Today, these regional speech ways are growing fainter on both sides of the Atlantic. The Norfolk whine has retreated to the remote northern coast of East Anglia. The old Yankee twang survives mainly in the hill towns of interior New England. But throughout these larger regions, a trained ear can still detect the old accents in more muted forms. The postvocalic r still tends to disappear in rural East Anglia, and traces of Yankee speech may yet be heard in every part of America where the children of the Puritan great migration pitched their homes.

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