In Other Words


The cost of modern speech is paid in verbs as America trades eloquence for speed. Historian Cathy Hellier explains the change.

Learn more: 18th-century speech


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

The early colonists spoke 18th-century English, and it may be said that today's Virginians speak 21st-century American. Historian Cathy Hellier is here with me now to talk more about how the centuries have changed the way we talk.

How have they changed the way we talk? How do we talk?

Cathy Hellier: Well, first of all, there are a lot of words that we have now, of course that they didn't have then – things that we've invented like the telephone and various modern inventions. If we're going to speak in the 18th century, we have to make sure that we cut those out of our vocabulary. That's pretty obvious.

What isn't so obvious is that there are probably more words in the 18th century typically used in conversation than we use today. Their word stock was much richer than our word stock is today in conversation.

Lloyd: That's surprising.

Cathy: Well, it's not if we think about how we've dumbed down our language in terms of print and media. It's really a pretty limited vocabulary used. For instance, words that we would normally reserve for formal writing, particularly descriptive and colorful verbs like "reproach." When was the last time you used reproach in conversation?

Lloyd: Why, just yesterday.

Cathy: Not very often. But that was a very common word. There were many other words that we would reserve for formal writing that were just part of their vocabulary. In the 18th century, people would call each other "friend" or "neighbor." Things like that: cousin, husband, wife. Their relationship to each other was often expressed as a form of address, which we seldom do.

We use things without thinking that come down to us. "In for a penny, in for a pound," A lot of these expressions that are just part of our idiom, they were actually used then. There are a lot of euphemisms that we don't use today. For instance, if you are a lady who is going to go outside and use the necessary, you would say, "I'm going out to see the gardener, I'm going out to pluck a rose."

Lloyd: I have noticed that reading 18th-century writing can be a bit of a challenge, since spelling was sort of the way you wanted it to be. No standardized spellings. Were there standardized pronunciations?

Cathy: Well, no. Not really. Pronunciation would have been traditional. If you think about accent as really just differences in pronunciation, if you look at the British Isles, there are multitudes of dialects, multitudes of ways of pronouncing, particularly, vowels. The big difference in how we pronounce things is the vowel sounds, for the most part.

American English kind of grows out of the fact that a lot of people from a lot of different areas come together here. But American English and English English – British English – begin to differ substantially at the end of the 18th century when British people actually begin to make a conscious effort to change their pronunciation. It's at that time – to get back to your question about standard pronunciation – that they begin to have the beginnings of what's now called received pronunciation.

But, you have people who came off the boat from any particular region in Great Britain, yesterday. There were many Scottish people here. You have a large population of African American people who came, perhaps recently, from Africa or the West Indies, or they too may have been here for four generations or more. So when you were walking down the streets of Williamsburg, you would not have heard one dialect, you would have heard a multiplicity of voices and the way people sounded would not have necessarily been the same from one to the other.

At this time, people were becoming much more interested in speech as a way of delineating your status, making a difference between us and them. Before that, people could delineate where they fell in society based on their material goods. But at this time, there was what we now call a consumer revolution. More people could afford more stuff.

So, you had people lower able to imitate people who were higher than they were in material goods. So there were other ways that people were developing to differentiate themselves from, ahem, the great unwashed, or those lower than them in status. One way was manners, one way was speech.

Lloyd: I am still struggling with the fact that we use fewer words than did the 18th century people. I would have bet almost anything that we had developed more words as we went on – simply if nothing else, for technological reasons.

Cathy: Well, I think we have invented additional words. I'm not meaning to say that we don't use as many words. But we use very simple verbs in particular – very simple verbs, very few of them. Our vocabulary that we use in conversation and in print media and in various other media actually, for instance television, is actually quite limited.

Lloyd: In the Colonial Williamsburg journal, the journal of Williamsburg, there was an article which said that they are now doing additional research on African American speech, because they have learned things they didn't know, and that African Americans tended to sound more like the white colonists who were here than they did what we had always thought was the African American dialect.

Cathy: Part of the reason that that field is changing so much is that the sources are changing. The linguists came out of the English department. So their, originally, their primary source group was literature. And there, of course, wasn't a lot of African American voice in this period in literature. There was some, but a lot of it – slave narratives and so forth – very heavily edited for publication. There was some purported dialect published in plays and in novels and so forth, but that's pretty much what they were going by.

But as they have expanded their sources to include things that historians have used all along – things like court records, things like depositions in court where it's recorded what a person says. Other types of things, even some things that were actually written by African Americans in the 18th century, because it wasn't against the law to teach African Americans to write, then. So there are out there things that they've actually written, but those were not apparent to early linguists studying that because they were primarily concerned with literature and dialectology.

Lloyd:  Who set the standard for the day?

Cathy: Well that's a very interesting question, because there weren't a lot of standards.
But as far as standard-setting, what was correct – really, up until probably the second quarter of the 18th century, people didn't care very much about standards.

Whereas, we have rules about how this phrase will modify the noun that comes before it, you know, so we can kind of decode what people are saying when we read a sentence. If you read 17th-century records, that's all out the window. You have no idea where this sentence is going, and you have no idea what this phrase actually refers back to.

Lloyd: Actually, when you, when I read it and I get to the end of the sentence, I have no idea what I just read. It can be very confusing.

Cathy: Yes, it's difficult. It is very confusing. So it's interesting, because during the 17th century, that was quite a time for really the flowering of early science. People making observations of phenomena: beginnings of the scientific method.

It wasn't really though until the second quarter of the 18th century where you begin to see grammars being written for people that actually say, "OK, this is what English grammar is." They were kind of making that up based on what they knew, and they were trying to impose logic on it from, say, Latin, some from mathematics. They're trying to impose logic on something that was pretty loose.

Lloyd: I've never found any logic at all in the English language.

Cathy: Well, you know, Latin is highly logical, they tell me. They really wanted to impose that kind of thing on English. So you would, you begin to get certain rules and things, but these didn't really proliferate until the third quarter of the 18th century. So people began to think about how they spoke.

And again, they're starting to think, "Well, how can I differentiate myself from this person who can now dress a lot like me?" These grammar books were meeting that need. They were allowing people to say, "Well what is correct speech?" That was a question people began to really ask: what is correct, what is clear, what is concise?

Lloyd: I find it sort of curious that the ideas of the American Revolution were mostly formed in Williamsburg from people whose names we all know. And the idea of English as we know it was mostly formed in Williamsburg by people we've never heard of. It's two completely different revolutions.

Cathy: It all came together at about the same time, so the idea of being able to really be clear, understood, and be able to sway people by your speech all came together and really served early America very well.

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