Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Y'all, Afeared, and Woebegone

After spending several years writing about 19th-century Virginia, imagine my surprise when I switched my setting to the 17th century and the language change wasn't as great as I had expected. While the writing style is definitely very different, the Southern accent was familiar. How could that be? It's actually quite simple: the English dialects that arrived with the colonists flourished in Virginia.

Over the span of the 17th century, colonists continued to arrive and what became the distinctive accents in Virginia trace their origins to the south and west of England. Compared to northern states, the South was agricultural with isolated populations. Regional accents prospered. Although speech patterns softened over time, slowed, and became a melodic drawl, they closely resembled Shakespeare's English.

Royalists fleeing from the English Civil War brought their indentured servants to Virginia--and their dialect. Words such as "ain't" were common, as were accenting words on the first syllable, rather than the second. The "d" after another consonant was lost altogether [an(d)].

By the 18th century, words such as afeared (afraid), woebegone (distress or sorrow), botch (to bungle), and skillet (frying pan) had fallen into disuse in polite society in England. Out was pronounced "oat," and house was "hoose." The "r" tended to only be pronounced when following a vowel, and at the end of most words they're dropped altogether. Many single syllable words were stretched to two.

Linguists disagree about the origin of "de (the)," "dis (this)," and "dat (that)," which are commonly regarded as slave or poor white dialect. Some argue that it came from Africans that couldn't pronounce the "th" sound. Dr. David Hacket Fischer, author of Albion's Seed, traces a similar speech pattern to a Sussex dialect that became almost extinct by the 19th century.

When it comes to "y'all," there are a couple of theories as to its origin. Michael Montgomery, a former linguistics professor at University of South Carolina at Columbia, argues that y'all came from the Scots-Irish phrase "ye aw," and uses a letter from 1737 as evidence. However, Dr. Fischer states that "you all," which became "y'awl" goes back to Virginia servant ballads during the 17th century. Though I have yet to uncover "you all" in any of my 17th-century readings, I find Dr. Fischer's discovery more plausible. And for those who are unsure, the proper spelling is y'all, not ya'll. It's one of those frequently misspelled words, and both linguists agree, it originally came from a contraction for "you all."

Kim Murphy


Alison Stuart said...

What a fascinating post, Kim! I had read somewhere that "American English" is in fact truer to the archaic English than modern English. There is a fascinating book called "The Story of English" by Melvyn Blagg. Well worth a read (or a view as he did a TV series on it).

Kim Murphy said...

Just this week, I found "gotten" and "I be," instead of "I am." Unfortunately, with the globalization, the dialects are dying out. Thanks for the suggestion!

Sandra Gulland said...

Yes, very interesting, Kim.

I'm told that Quebec French is closer to the original French for the same reasons.


Kim Murphy said...

That's fascinating, Sandra. I don't know much about French, but after what I've discovered here, I don't find it surprising.

Anonymous said...

Actually "woebegone" is an adjective meaning "distressed". I (British) don't consider it an obsolete word.

Kim Murphy said...

It is an obsolete word in Virginia, the area that the article is written about.