Common section

Image Delaware Speech Ways: English Origins of the American Midland Dialect

Students of American English recognize a linguistic region in the United States today which they call the zone of “midland speech.” Its boundaries coincide exactly with the broad area of settlement that expanded outward from the Quaker colonies in the Delaware Valley. This American dialect developed largely from the language of England’s North Midlands—not from that source alone, but from a complex process of mixing and merging, in which the primary source was an English regional dialect.1

The dialect of England’s North Midlands was itself a linguistic hybrid which had evolved through many centuries from a mixture of British and Scandinavian tongues. This was a muscular speech—bluff, literal, direct, vivid, forceful and plain-spoken. It had strong and simple ways of saying things, and little use for the learned niceties of Latin and French. It also had its own distinctive patterns of pronunciation, vocabulary and syntax.

Consider syntax, for example. In the early and middle years of the twentieth century, British linguists found strong regional patterns in syntactical structures throughout rural England. East Anglians tended to say you are; but the people of Wessex preferred you be, and northerners used thee is or thou art. An East Anglian even of high station said I ain’t, but a northerner even of humble rank said I’m not, and Wessexmen of every class said I be’ent. Many verb forms were constructed differently in these regions: the past tense of the verb to grow, for example, became he did grow in East Anglia, he growed in Wessex, and he grew in the north.2

Similar regional differences also appeared in vocabulary and pronunciation. The southern married became wed in the north of England. An East Anglian would stay the night; a Wessexman would bide a while; a northerner would stop over. In the east, people were scared; in the south they were afeared; in the North Midlands they were frightened.3

In the seventeenth century, these English regional speech ways were transplanted to various parts of British America. Linguist Hans Kurath has turned up an amusing example in the onomatopoetic folk-words that are used to describe the sounds that horses make. East Anglian and New England horses neighed, a word related to the Dutch neijen. In southwestern England and the Chesapeake Bay, a cavalier’s mount was thought to whicker. Along the British borders of Cumberland and Durham, and also in the Appalachians, horses nickered. In the midlands of England and America, they were said to whinny. These regional variations have persisted into the twentieth century. Kurath observes that they might be thought of as “marker-words” or “tracers” which help us to follow the pattern of folk migration.4

The Friends’ migration brought the speech of England’s North Midlands to the Delaware Valley, where it became the basis of an American regional dialect (though not precisely the dialect itself). The epicenter of this American speech-region was Burlington in New Jersey, and Bucks County and especially Chester County in Pennsylvania, where “as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, the people of Chester still spoke in a broad Yorkshire dialect.”5

This accent did not remain static in the New World. As time passed, the rough edges of North Midland speech were rubbed off by constant friction with dialects from other parts of England. The broad northern come (pronounced coom) did not survive in Pennsylvania after the mid-eighteenth century. But less obtrusive North Midland vowels became standard in the Delaware Valley and still survive there to this day. The most familiar example is the a in dance. Here, the English north midlands and American midland speech are much the same, and different from many other pronunciations, such as the English elite dahnce, or the harsh, nasal Yankee-East Anglian daance, or the slow southern day-ence. Similar regional patterns also appear in the vowels of caught, fast, calf, aunt, fertile, got, cover, crop, God, stock, frog, earth, firm, turn, cut and enough—all much the same in North Midlands of England and the midland speech area of British America.

Other continuities also appeared in the stresses of these dialects—in de’tail for de-tail’ and particularly in sharply articulated consonants such as the post-vocalic r and t. But other consonants were often lost at the ends of words—as in learnin for learning, which is common to the midlands of both England and America.

Not only the pronunciation but also the vocabulary of the England’s North Midlands became part of American midland speech. In the word lists of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire we find the following terms, all of which took root in the Delaware Valley: abide as in “can’t abide it,” all out for entirely, apple-pie order to mean “very good order,” bamboozle for deceive, black and white for writing, blather for empty talk, boggle for take fright, brat for child, budge for move, burying for funeral,by golly as an expletive, by gum for another expletive, cattails for the plants called bullrushes in the south of England, catawumpus for a come down, chuck for toss, chock-full for completely full, clean for entirely (as “clean gone”), clump for clod, cotton for attach, as in “to cotton on,” cuddle for caress, crib for a child’s bed called a cot in southern England, dad for father, daddy long legs for an insect that is called a crane fly in the south of England, dither for upset, dresser for chest of drawers, drat as an imprecation (“drat that person”), dumb-founded for astonished, egg on for urge on, elbow grease for industry, expect for suppose, as “I expect that’s so,” find to provide for, flabbergasted for extremely surprised, flare-up for quarrel, fuzzball for puffball, gab for talk, gallivant for go about in search of pleasure, gawk for stare, get shut on for attached to, ginger snap for a type of cookie, good grief for an expression of surprise, grub for food, gumption for determination, guts for belly, guzzle for drink greedily, heap for a large number, home-coming for a return, howsomdever for however, kindling for light wood, knuckle under for give way, lick for try, as “give it a lick,” mad for angry, nailed for caught, nap for a short sleep, nice as in “nice and short,” poke for bag, pummel for beat, quality folks for gentry, rag for tease, road for way, rumpus for tumult, scalawag for a good-natured rascal, scruff for the back of the neck, shaggareen for untidy person, sick for ill, skimpy for slight, slam for put down with violence, slugger for a person who beats, sneezlepooak for a hesitating person, spuds for potatoes, sucker for a sugar candy, swatch for a fabric sample, thingamajig for an article of unknown name, tiff for quarrel, upsa daisy as an ejaculation for a child in play, us for me (as in “wake us up …”), and wallop for beat. None of these words was invented in America, though many have been mistakenly identified as Americanisms. All were carried from the North Midlands of England to the Delaware Valley, and became the basis of an American regional vocabulary which is still in use today.6

The speech of England’s north midlands became the primary source of the midland American dialect. But it was not the only source. Another important ingredient was the special language of the Society of Friends, which added a religious imperative to regional speech ways. The use of thee and thou as the standard second-person pronoun had long been customary in the North Midlands of England. It was taken up by Quakers and given a special egalitarian meaning. Among Quakers in the Delaware Valley, this usage was observed to be different from that of English friends in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Americans said “thee is” where London Quakers said “thou art.” The American preference for “thee” rather than “thou” preserved a North Midland pattern. Historian Hugh Barbour found English Quakers in the North Midlands who wrote, “If thee will, thee may send it when thee finds freedom,” much as their American posterity would continue to do. Barbour concludes that this was both a religious and a regional usage, which established itself in the Delaware Valley.7

“The witness of Friends on points of speech,” writes historian William Braithwaite, “ … touched some of the greatest issues of their life.” They made a fetish of plain speech, and also of silence. “Let your words be few,” was the counsel of one Friend to others. Quakers also cultivated what Richard Bauman has called the “rhetoric of impoliteness,” deliberately purging their language of routine courtesies and ornaments which seemed “needless” in their special meaning of that word.8 This linguistic austerity persisted among the speech ways of American Quakers for more than two centuries. Something of its spirit entered into the regional dialect of midland America.

In addition to Quaker speech ways, many other sources flowed into American midland speech. An exceptionally large number of words were taken from the Indians. The Quakers were more open to these borrowings than were other English-speaking settlers. William Penn himself took the trouble to learn Algonkian and tried to speak with the Indians in their own tongue. More Indian place names were preserved in Pennsylvania than in other colonies.9

Other expressions were also taken from the language of Dutch, Swedish, German, and Welsh settlers. From German, for example, English-speaking Pennsylvanians borrowed not only individual words such as hex, fresh (for impudent), bum, bub, spielandphooey, but also entire syntactical structures. A Pennsylvania German might say in English, “Throw your father down the stairs his hat.” Some of these German constructions entered English usage in the Delaware Valley—for example, those involvingalready, get, need, and still.10

Other new words were spontaneously invented in response to novel conditions in the New World. In all of these various ways, the northern speech ways of English settlers gradually evolved into a major American dialect. But in the process they retained many fundamental characteristics of England’s North Midland speech. The result was an American speech way in the Delaware Valley which by the mid-eighteenth century was distinct from the New England twang and southern drawl. It has preserved its character for three centuries.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!