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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 380-382

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Widening the Lens of Observation

The Formation of American English

Michael B. Montgomery, University of South Carolina


The American colonial period remains the crucial frontier in the study of American English. Despite recent interest in text-based sociohistorical linguistics and despite the fact that the period represents an important testing ground for many issues in language contact, little more is understood today about the character or formation of eighteenth-century American English than 40 years ago. Virtually no work has appeared in this or any other professional journal on the subject in recent decades.

This situation has come about, more than anything else, because preoccupation with recorded speech has led to neglect of written texts and to inexperience in interpreting them. As long ago as the 1920s, Hans Kurath, director of the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada, posited that interviews with older, less-traveled speakers in the Atlantic states would serve as the best basis for approximating American English of the formative period. More recent quantitative research has exploited the tape recorder to sample older speakers in conservative communities, especially to examine morphological features. Using such methodologies, however, internal reconstruction can proceed only so far, certainly no farther back than the mid-nineteenth century. For earlier periods, researchers of [End Page 380] any variety of American English must utilize written material such as commentary from travelers, grammarians, and lexicographers; representations of speech in plays and fiction; and especially manuscripts of various kinds, such as private letters (see Montgomery forthcoming for details).

Among the most important research needs is to document varieties brought by English, Scottish, and Irish emigrants to American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The extent to which these input varieties contributed to social and regional American English is not well understood. The only serious proposals have been made by Kurath (1928, 1949), who posited that settlement and migration patterns can in part account for the form and distribution of modern-day regional American English, and J. L. Dillard (1992), who believed that input varieties were almost entirely leveled in the eighteenth century to a koine and that no significant influence took place. Both formulations are in need of much testing and exploration. To detect and track later developments, the language of the emigration period first must be established from written materials. Few documents lack the standardization of language to merit the scrutiny of linguists, but among those that exhibit vernacular language are the following.

Emigrant letters, written to family or friends in the old country, are especially useful for establishing a baseline to which linguistic atlas data and other data gathered in the twentieth century can be compared. Such personal letters tend to be archived in the British Isles and are not easy to find for the eighteenth century, but their usefulness for linguistic analysis has been amply demonstrated (Montgomery 1995; Giner and Montgomery 1997). Semiliterate business letters from commoners very often turn out to be from emigrants as well. Among Indian traders who corresponded frequently with government officials were the Dubliner George Croghan, who worked on the Pennsylvania frontier from the 1740s through the 1770s, and the Ulsterman George Galphin, who pursued the trade on the South Carolina-Georgia frontier during the same period (Montgomery 1997).

Other documents of interest include (1) journals and accounts produced by scouts, military officers, and other travelers (the most famous and one of the earliest items of this kind is William Byrd's History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, 1728-29); (2) municipal and court records, which date for New England from the 1630s and for Virginia from the 1670s (such records were usually produced by a clerk having facility and practice with the written word and perhaps also models to direct him, but in the early period one finds lapses indicating that a clerk is spelling by ear); and (3) church minutes, especially from Baptist churches. For Tennessee [End Page 381] these date from as early as 1789. Although minutes also took a standard rhetorical form in reporting...


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pp. 380-382
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