The Survival of Old English Speech Ways in the American South

The accents, dialect, and vocabulary used in the Southern states of the US (as well as the African American Vernacular English of American blacks descended from slaves of the old South) are very different from the ‘American English’ you will find in many other parts of the US. The reason for this, as noted by David Hackett Fischer in his significant work Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, is that this ‘new speech way was manufactured out of old materials’. These old materials were the speech of settlers who came from a very specific area of Britain: the South and West. Fischer writes:

These Virginia speech ways were not invented in America. They derived from a family of regional dialects that had been spoken throughout the south and west of England during the seventeenth century. Virtually all peculiarities of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation which have been noted as typical of Virginia were recorded in the English counties of Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, Oxford, Gloucester, Warwick or Worcester.

As we shall see, Devon (which borders Somerset and Dorset) should also be added to that list, as Fischer does elsewhere in the book.

Fischer notes that very early on, the difference between southern and northern speech was significant:

In 1773, a young Princetonian named Philip Fithian came south to teach at Nomini Hall, the great Carter plantation near Richmond… Fithian discovered that Virginia speech ways differed from those of his native New Jersey in many ways at once. Where a northerner said, “I am,” “You are,” “She isn’t,” “It doesn’t,” and “I haven’t,” a Virginian even of high rank preferred to say “I be,” “You be,” “She ain’t,” “It don’t,” and “I hain’t.”

The use of ‘I be’ for ‘I am’ originated in the South West of England, not in the American South, and still survives today in rural areas, although it is dying out. A 1971 study of a Somerset dialect by JA Garton found that ‘it is remarkable how little the old speech has changed in those districts whose remoteness has saved them from modern influences’, and noted that ‘the verb To Be is used in the old form, I be’. Commenting on a 2014 BBC article on Devon dialect, a reader wrote of the dialect used by her mother-in-law, who had lived her whole life in the small Devon hamlet of Horndon, and gave the example: ‘Ow be you? I be going dreckly’ (‘How are you? I am going directly [soon]’). ‘I be’ also appears in this 2017 list for tourists of ‘common words and phrases’ used on West Country farms.

While the use of ‘I be’ and so on have largely slipped out of use in the speech of Southerners in the US, as recently as the mid-twentieth century this could be found in African American blues music: for example, ‘I Be Bound To Write To You’ and ‘I Be’s Troubled’ by Muddy Waters. ‘I be’ is often still considered an expression of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or ‘ebonics’, rather than a continuation of an old English way of speaking. As to why such speech patterns largely fell out of use in England (and amongst most white Southerners), while surviving in black American dialect, the African American academic Walter E. Williams argues that it is education (and the more ‘correct’ and standardised language that emerges from this) that caused them to die out. Williams also argues that at least part of the reason some African Americans continue to speak ‘like pure bred Englishmen of yesteryear from the south and west countries of Britain’ is that ‘blacks have had multicultural intellectuals to convince them that “I be” talk is a part of their heritage and roots’. While it may indeed be part of their heritage, its roots lie in England.

Further pronunciations used by Virginia gentleman included ‘ha-alf’ for half, ‘fuust’ for first, ‘Aah’m’ for I’m, ‘mo’’ for more, ‘flo’’ for floor, ‘do’’ for door, ‘fo’’ for four, ‘dis’ for this, ‘dat’ for that, ‘dare’ for there, ‘ax’ for ask, ‘go-in’’ for going, ‘mistis’ for mistress, and ‘wid’ for with.

These pronunciations also originated not in the South, but in England. As late as the nineteenth century, a Sussex dialectical rendering of the biblical Song of Songs sounded as follows:

De Song of songs, dat is Solomon’s,
Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth;
for yer love is better dan wine…

My beloved spoke, an said to me: Git up, my love, my fair un, an come away…

Jest a liddle while ahter I passed by em, I foun him dat my soul loves…

This style of pronunciation was reportedly ‘almost extinct’ in England by 1860, but ‘de’ (or ‘da’), ‘dat’, ‘dis’, ‘flo’, ‘do’ and so on live on in AAVE (see ‘Hit Da Floe’ by the Alabama rap duo ‘Dirty’, for example). While pronunciations such as these are now largely associated with AAVE and to a lesser extent with the speech of poor Southern whites, they were originally brought to the South by English settlers, and survived among upper-class white Southerners into the nineteenth century. In 1891, the Maryland-born novelist Francis Hopkinson Smith wrote a successful dialect novel entitled Colonel Carter of Cartersville, which centres on a Virginia gentleman. The speech of a white upper-class Virginian at this time was said to sound as follows:

“Salt yo’ food, suh, with humor… season it with wit, and sprinkle it all over with the charm of good-fellowship, but never poison it with the cares of yo’ life. It is an insult to yo’ digestion, besides bein’, suh, a mark of bad breedin’.

While carrying out fieldwork in the late 1970s on health problems among African American males in eastern North Carolina, the academic Sherman James interviewed a black sharecropper named John Henry Martin. Martin spoke in the following way:

I said, “I don’t know, suh, Mr. Tucker, I was thinkin’ ’bout buyin’ me a farm.”

Such speech ways persist among blacks in the area and also in wider African American culture. The black Virginia hiphop artist Ambassador Rick, for example, released a track titled ‘Yessuh’ as recently as 2017. The use of ‘yo” in place of ‘you’ or ‘yo self’ in place of ‘yourself’ is well-known today as ‘black speech’ (see XXXTentacion’s ‘I’m Sippin’ Tea in Yo Hood’ and Ice Cube’s ‘Check Yo Self’, for example).

The Virginia dialect had its own vocabulary, including words such as ‘moonshine’ for distilled liquor, ‘mess of greens’ for a serving of vegetables, and ‘skillet’ for frying pan. This vocabulary was not uniquely ‘Southern’, as these words were in fact derived from regional speech patterns brought over from England. Some survived in England longer than others. Daniel Fenning’s The Royal English Dictionary (1761), for example, defines ‘mess’ as ‘a dish; a quantity of food sent to table at once’; ‘green’ as being ‘used in the plural for those plants which are of this colour, and eaten boiled’; and ‘saucepan’ as ‘a small skillet’. William Holloway’s A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1838) lists ‘moonshine’ as a word used in Sussex, Kent, and Hampshire to mean ‘illicit spirits, which are generally smuggled of a night’.

In an article on ‘potlikker’ at The Atlantic website, Ari Weinzweig writes:

If I’m going to get into vegetable eating this time of year, a mess of greens is a good way to go. I’m not really sure why they always say “a mess,” but that’s what most people down South call ’em. In fact, Angie Mosier, who’s a food writer and the incoming chair of the Southern Foodways Alliance–and one of my good guides through the once totally foreign world of Southern food–told me that you always refer to greens as “a mess of greens.”

If you do so, it’s thanks to settlers who came to the South from the south and west of England. And moonshine may indeed be ‘America’s infamous liquor’, but the original ‘moonshiners’ lived in England.

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